12 Questions for Sarah Barringer Gordon, part two

June 4, 2004 | 2 comments
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Here’s the second half of our dialogue with the esteemed Professor Gordon. [Click here for part one.] I’m sure everyone joins me in thanking her for such intelligent and provocative responses to our questions. If you haven’t already, be sure to check out her landmark book, The Mormon Question. Again, our questions are in bold and her responses follow in plain text. Enjoy!

7. There has been some discussion here at Times and Seasons about the apparent analogies and disanalogies between the nineteenth-century antipolygamy movement and the current battles over same sex marriage. To what extent do you think that cultural and legal strategies employed by antipolygamists are (or are not) available to those who now seek to define marriage as between a man and a woman?

I was waiting for this one!

I don’t know how your discussions have gone, and I would be very interested in catching up with your debates. Like many of you, no doubt, I have strong positions on this set of questions, and won’t beat around the bush. I think that in many ways the argument that same-sex marriage is a prelude to polygamy (add in incest and bestiality in many claims along these lines) is a red herring. It misunderstands and misuses a complex and deeply contested history. There are many ways that this is so, and I will only have time and space to go into a couple of them here.

First, Mormon plural marriage was the capstone of a distinct approach to law and family, and in that sense a rejection of the ideal of “monogamic marriage in the States” (as Mormon leaders called it). Second, Mormons argued repeatedly that government had no power to control the domestic relations of a majority. In other words, they argued that individual jurisdictions (in their case, territories) should be allowed to structure marriage and family law in any way they wanted, or even not at all.

These were powerful arguments, the first appealing primarily to those within the fold to reject the corruption of life outside the faith, and to practice self-sacrifice in the interest of blessings in the celestial kingdoms. The second argument stymied antipolygamists, especially before the Civil War, because it paralleled claims made by slave States about states’ rights. According to Southerners and many northern Democrats, Congress had no business interfering in the “peculiar” domestic institution of the South.

At the end of the Civil War as Congress debated the fourteenth amendment, the question whether the abolition of slavery meant that wives were similarly emancipated from the rules of coverture prompted Republicans to assure those across the aisle that they meant no interference in marriage. But, of course, polygamy was considered more closely akin to slavery than to marriage, and northern Republicans were far more successful at enacting antipolygamy legislation than they were at enforcing the privileges and immunities, equal protection and due process clauses of the fourteenth amendment. In the end, they established the principle that the federal government had plenary power in the territories, even though marriage in the states remained a subject of local law.

All this is a long way of saying that the antipolygamy campaign established that secular government has a powerful and enduring interest in marriage, and that religious groups do not have the legal right to redefine for themselves what constitutes marriage in law. It also established that marriage is important to political life and democratic structures. More than that, it is not reasonable to say.

It is not clear what this means for the outcome of debates about same-sex marriage in the twenty-first century, but it is clear that Utah was a territory, and that plural marriage occupied a place in LDS faith and law that is not comparable to today’s claims for same-sex marriage. To be sensitive to Mormon history, as well as to the claims and motivations of nineteenth-century antipolygamists, is to recognize that 2004 is not 1874 or even 1904.

8. In a recent NPR interview, you argued that nineteenth-century Mormon polygamy was fundamentally distinct from monogamy as it was practiced in the States, while same-sex marriage is an expansion of monogamy to include people long excluded. Could you say more about this?

As I discussed above, Mormon plurality constituted a separate form of marriage. Kathryn Daynes put it best when she called polygamy a marriage “system,” as opposed to an extension of marriage elsewhere. If this is right, which I think it is, then it is fair to say that plural marriage was not “traditional” in the ways that today we understand apply to descriptions of heterosexual monogamy. Among the important distinctions are questions about the legal rights of plural wives, the role and administration of divorce, rules for intestate succession, and more, all of which would require fundamental recalibration under a plural marriage system.

Same-sex monogamy, by contrast, seeks to fit into the legal regime established by states to protect the rights and interests of monogamous spouses and off-spring. Indeed, the animating argument of those who campaign for same-sex marriage is precisely that it will replicate the rights and social commitments of monogamous spouses. In that sense, the American legal system is already set up to accommodate same-sex unions in ways that it has never been calibrated to accommodate plural marriage. However difficult the concept may be culturally and politically, legally the administration of same-sex monogamy is straightforward. The proposed (and now in Massachusetts, actual) expansion of who can participate in monogamy resembles the eradication of anti-miscegenation laws in the mid-twentieth century, rather than the imposition of a new legal regime that would be required to accommodate plural marriage.

This argument is a relatively simple one, and addresses more the administration of a marital regime than the merits of monogamy or polygamy.

9. In the epilogue of The Mormon Question, you argue that the goal of nineteenth-century Protestants was “a Constitution in which explicit political power was prohibited to religious organizations … yet secular law fit comfortably within central Protestant tenets.” This raises the question of America’s moral identity. If the Protestant ethic of church-state separation has been eroded over the last century, is it reasonable to suppose that separationism itself has been unmoored from its moral grounding, and that rejection of secular categories will be necessary to reconstruct a moral identity? If so, might Mormonism (with its theocratic legacy and revelatory belief system) provide moral fiber to replace the tattered Protestant ethic?

I should begin my answer to this intriguing question by apologizing to its author if my editing of the question has altered its meaning in ways s/he finds inconsistent with its original thrust. I also want to emphasize that I’m not at all sure this question has a reliable answer, but that I will do my best to be as thought-provoking as the author clearly deserves. After all, the best questions are never easy to ask or answer!

Here’s my short take on a singular identity grounded in any one faith or even cluster of beliefs in twenty-first century America: it won’t work. I say this because the legitimacy of the American state – its moral identity, if you will – is grounded in today’s America on a deep commitment to liberties of the individual and of belief. Religious freedom, after all, is the quintessential American “right.” We have honored it often in the breach, but the fact that it is precious should not be obscured by the fact that it is rare. After all, freedoms remain ideals worth striving for, more than simple practices. The version of Protestant smugness that I describe in my Epilogue was based on an uninterrogated assumption that democracy, the rule of law, and religious liberty could be perfectly harmonized if kept in proper balance. History has proven the underlying assumption flawed, and no single religious vision has emerged to take its place. This is not such a bad thing. I for one do not mourn the loss of the Protestant ethic, even though I am one of the surviving mainline Protestants myself; the arrogance of such assumptions strike me as more powerful than any benefits of unifying theory.

10. Of the colorful cast of characters in The Mormon Question – both Mormon and non-Mormon – who stands out to you as the most interesting or provocative?

I have never thought about this question before, but the answers are easy. I liked Orson Pratt for his hard-hitting theology and social theory. I liked George Q. Cannon for his urbane political maneuvering. I liked Justin Morrill for his burning conviction, and George Edmunds for his cold precision and determination. I liked Emmeline B. Wells for her impassioned writing, and Ann Eliza Young for her undisguised self-promotion. I also liked Joseph Bradley for his learned opinion in the final case, and Stephen Field for his acerbity

The archives are full of such strong and controversial people. Many of them were also people of extraordinary good will and thoughtfulness. But they rarely stood still. Their restlessness and energy still impress the reader more than a century after their deaths.

11. Polygamy was still in the closet, so to speak, when Deseret first petitioned for statehood in 1849. Had statehood been granted at that time, to what extent do you think the Mormon Question would have been decided on the battlefields rather than the courts, as was the fate of the other “twin relic”?

I assume that this question asks me to speculate about whether the imagined State of Deseret would have sided with the South after the election of 1860, and seceded. Although I think that this is certainly a possibility, it is also true that Mormons tended to be drawn from the great Yankee migrations, and that their experiences in the South had not been happy. However, if Deseret had thrown its lot in with the South, it is possible that polygamy would have been dealt with as part of the resolution after Appomattox.

If Brigham Young had been able to negotiate a deal with Lincoln, however, throwing Deseret to the Union in return for a promise of protection, I could envision a very steep uphill battle for antipolygamists indeed. On the other hand, Utah did not have a great deal to offer to either side, given its small population and lack of industry in 1860. As it happened, Utah’s loyalty was uncertain at the outset, and sermons about the collapse of the country as a prelude to the Kingdom of God only exacerbated the problem.

12. What books about Mormonism did you find most helpful in your research for The Mormon Question?

This is a great question, as it requires me to remember the process of research and learning about Mormon history in depth for the first time. I began with a week’s reading for a graduate course at Princeton in 1990 Arrington’s Great Basin Kingdom, Shipps’s Mormonism, and Bushman’s Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism. As I began to work in more focused ways once I started work on my dissertation, Hardy’s Solemn Covenant and Lyman’s Political Deliverance were extraordinarily useful. I should also mention here Alexander’s Woodruff biography and Lola Van Wagonen’s NYU dissertation, which has recently been published as a book.

I also found several nineteenth-century works were indispensable, including Whitney’s 4 volume History of Utah, the History of the Bench and Bar of Utah, the work of both Stenhouses, Bancroft’s History of Utah, and especially the collected volumes of sermons, including but not limited to the Journal of Discourses.

I will close here, thanking you all for the opportunity to be part of this process, and hoping that my brief replies to your questions have been useful, or at least provocative. I hope that you will not hesitate to contact me if there is any clarification I could provide. I will be away for much of the month of June, but back in July and for most of August.

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2 Responses to 12 Questions for Sarah Barringer Gordon, part two

  1. noman@post.harvard.edu on June 4, 2004 at 4:07 pm

    Sally: Thanks for these responses. It is good of you to come play with us, and I appreciate the effort you put into framing your comments.

    I do have a question for you (should you come back to read this stuff in July or August) on the value of various sources. In particular, I am curious as to your assessment of Robert N. Baskin’s stuff. Baskin was a key participant in many of the events of the anti-polygamy wars (e.g. helped the feds at George Reynolds’ trial, spear headed a number of challenges to Cannon’s various elections, etc.). How valuable and accurate do you think his “Reminisences” are, and do you know of any other source material (diaries, letters, etc.) on him?

  2. Doc on June 7, 2004 at 12:37 pm

    In answer to item # 9, Ms Gordon states, “Religious freedom, after all, is the quintessential American ‘right.'” The ugly truth of the matter is, right for whom? The popular, the accepted, the majority view?

    “All of the animals are equal, but some are more equal than others . . .” The Orwellian mantra of political demogoguery is alive and well in America. We posit religious freedom as a “right” and then make a political determination which religion can claim that right.

    Polygamy is proscribed by legislatures and the courts, yet it is a deeply held, biblically supported religious belief. Consider the following examples:

    Abraham is known as, “the father of the faithful.” See James 2: 23; Rom. 4: 16; Gal. 3: 8,9,16,29. God blessed Abraham saying, “By myself have I sworn, saith the Lord . . . That in blessing I will bless thee . . . And in thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed; because thou hast obeyed my voice.” (Gen. 22: 16,17,18) Abraham was a polygamist and his wives were Sarah, Hagar and Keturah. (Gen: 16; 1-4 & 25; 1,2).

    Jacob was blessed by God, “And God appeared unto Jacob again . . . And God said unto him . . . thy name shall not any more be called Jacob, but Israel shall be thy name . . . nations shall be of thee and kings shall come out of thy loins . . .” (Gen: 35; 10,11) Jacob had twelve sons, fathers of the twelve tribes of Israel to be honored in the, “ . . . holy Jerusalem, descending out of heaven from God.” (Rev: 21; 10,11,12) Jacob was a polygamist and his wives were Leah and Rachel, who were sisters, Bilhah and Zilpah. (Gen: Ch; 29 & 30)

    “And the Lord spake unto Moses face to face, as a man speaketh unto his friend.” (Exodus: 33; 11) Well–you get the picture. Imagine, polygamists’ talking with God face to face, yet, if these Patriarchs’ were to appear today, they would be treated as criminals . . . “Free Exercise,” where art thou?

    Our legal system and our social and religious traditions have evolved from biblical origins and ironically, bible thumpers of today are no different than the “whited sepulchres” of Jesus’s Jerusalem. Hypocrites, with their noninclusive “Free Exercise” of the “quintessential American ‘right.'”

    The Constitution is a framework of freedom, but it is helpless to act without freedoms’ adherent’s acting for it. Religiously mandated “Plural Marriage” is as much a doctrine of the bible as baptism, so why is it that the monogamy of the Romans is the prevailing freedom?

    The real question is, “What is freedom? The popular majority? Hitler’s Germany proved to the world that the majority can be wrong. Read the Declaration of Independence one more time, and then ask yourself if you really are a true American?