Big Love for Romney

March 10, 2006 | 35 comments

Big Love, the HBO polygamy show, has arrived. Both on National Review’s Corner and in other conservative commentary, folks have been wondering whether this polygamy reminder will hurt Romney. Folks are already sensitive about Mormonism and its wierdness without having their noses rubbed in it.

My free advice to the Governor:

Do your research on Mormon polygamy. Find all the evidence you can that it failed as an experiment, not just because of federal coercion. Did the rates of polygamous marriages decline over time? Were there legal complications in trying to adapt monagamous marriage laws and customs to polygamous ones? Were their jealousies or problems among wives? Look at the problems among polygamists in general–wives who feel distant from their husbands, husbands who rule with an iron fist, young men who can’t get married; can we find any of these problems among the Saints in Deseret?

Publicly review all this evidence and the ills of polygamy in general. Conclude that polygamy and other experimental marriage arrangements don’t work in modern, Western contexts and can even be downright dangerous. Speculate that this is why the Mormon church doesn’t allow polygamy even in places where its still legal. Tie to your views on gay marriage.

This would be a much more satisfying narrative to the public than just ignoring the issue (and it may even have some truth in it). Pragmatic experimenters who learn from their experience are much more attractive than deviant religious fanatics who have been forced to give up their perversion and now try to conceal it.

And, gosh, if you take my advice I’ll be so flattered I’ll probably vote for you.

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35 Responses to Big Love for Romney

  1. Nate Oman on March 10, 2006 at 11:01 am

    Good advice. The problem, it seems to me, is that Mormons are loath to suggest that there was anything about polygamy prior to 1890 that was a failure. We want there to be a clear and decisive difference between the plural marriage of our ancestors and the guys down in Southern Utah. Of course there are important distinctions between 19th century Mormon polygamy and 20th century fundamentalists, but they are not nearly as clear cut as we often want to assume.

  2. John C. on March 10, 2006 at 11:01 am

    Adam, for this to really be effective, shouldn’t Romney have been a polygamist in his wayward youth?

  3. Adam Greenwood on March 10, 2006 at 11:06 am


    I do not think I’d want Romney to say that there was no difference at all, because I think there were some and that those differences probably reflect favorably on the 19th century. But people are people, and I’d be surprised if we couldn’t find at least some of the ills of contemporary polygamy in its 19th Century counterpart.

    John C.,


  4. Mike Parker on March 10, 2006 at 11:39 am

    The (obvious?) problem is that stating polygamy “failed as an experiment” indicates that one believes it was an experiment — something Mormons decided to try out to see what would happen and if it could work — rather than a commandment of God.

    Was polygamy a perfect system? Hardly. Was it sustainable long-term? Almost certainly not. Was it commanded by God regardless of these things? Absolutely.

    There is no need to give up such ground on this subject.

  5. Jason Kerr on March 10, 2006 at 11:51 am


    Don’t go into politics. You are giving very bad political advice. There is essentially nothing that Romney can or should say about polygamy if he expects to be president. Two exceptions–humor (polygamy is pretty funny) or claiming ignorance ( he could say something like “what do I know about a practice of my church that it ended over 100 years ago? I’ve been too busy making millions, running the Olympics, and getting Massacusetts out of debt to be studying about a minor historical issue.”)

    Most people think polygamy is weird. Most people are right. Romney is not going to change any minds, and by discussing the issue at all he is only allowing his enemies to claim that he supports polygamy. That would be the end of his political career.

  6. John Mansfield on March 10, 2006 at 11:52 am

    Should he (and we) go on to explain why consecration doesn’t work?

  7. Geoff B on March 10, 2006 at 11:57 am

    Adam, I think there is some evidence that Romney’s strategy has been to avoid discussions of religion as much as possible except to affirm that he believes in God and Jesus Christ and to make jokes about polygamy. There is probably something very wise about this.

  8. Ivan Wolfe on March 10, 2006 at 12:00 pm

    #6 -

    funny, but I just can’t see the press getting all worked up into a frenzy about consecration.

    Polygamy has a lot of factors that make it interesting to the press and the public (sex and religion). Consecration would be all about economics and social theory and would put the press and the public to sleep.

  9. s p bailey on March 10, 2006 at 12:29 pm

    Bad advice. It strikes me as the rough equivalent of a Catholic candidate getting up and apoligizing for, and explaining the failure of, the inquisition. It is not a live issue. I can’t see what he has to gain by raising it.

    If Romney takes this up, it will leave the image of him defensive, and it will dignify the people who want to use it against him. It will imply, sub-silentio, that this is something about me that needs explanation. People certain that we are freaks will not change their minds, and people who didn’t think we were freaks may begin to entertain the possibility. Adam’s advice also assumes far too much about the ability of journalists and average joes and janes to digest a nuanced analysis of what happened to polygamy in practice. Instead, journalists will excerpt sound bites that sound rediculous out of context (not difficult in a discussion of polygamy) and people sitting at home will watch these sound bites and think: “look, it’s that mormon dude who wants to president … talking about polygamy! Those people are freaks!” And opponents who could not have simply come out and said in a debate or attack ad “Romney’s anscestors were some free-loving religious wierdos” will have the material they want.

  10. Ben H on March 10, 2006 at 1:26 pm

    I didn’t think Adam was recommending Romney make some big presentation on polygamy! I thought the point was to have some staff research it so that every now and then when someone else brings it up, rather than just making a joke about it, he can make a joke and then add, “Besides, it looks like polygamy might have this problem.” That would be much more persuasive that for him polygamy really is a part of the distant past than purely avoiding the issue. Whether this is the right move from a spiritual standpoint is a separate question, though I find it hard to imagine the church reinstituting polygamy any time soon. Politically, though, if Romney let it be just a bit more clear that he is not the least bit interested in promoting polygamy, it would surely help more conservative voters trust him.

  11. Ben H on March 10, 2006 at 1:29 pm

    So, the big question: will Big Love raise or lower the overall anxiety level about polygamy in the U.S.?

    If the show makes enough jokes about polygamy, maybe it will actually take pressure off Romney!

  12. John Mansfield on March 10, 2006 at 2:51 pm

    Better yet, the future former governor could express his confidence in the Church responding to continual revelation. He could express his faith in the divine guidance under which Joseph Smith initiated polygamy and Wilford Woodruff and Joseph F. Smith abandoned it. He could express his appreciation that Gordon B. Hinckley stands at the head of the Church today to lead us in whatever unforeseen directions may be demanded by God. Laban’s severed head could be worked into this somewhere. That should do the trick.

    Polygamy’s blow for Romney is that when courting Hispanic votes, he can’t mention that his father was born in Chihuahua.

  13. s p bailey on March 10, 2006 at 3:48 pm

    Ben H: Adam’s fourth paragraph sounded like a presentation to me, not just off-handed comments by press people. And is the concern that some think Romney actually wants to promote polygamy? That he might have some secret Big Love Act he intends to push through Congress during his first 100 days in office?* Sounds far fetched to me. The real concern seems to be image, and giving polygamy more airtime than it deserves (almost none) won’t help his.

    *And to the extent that people really do fear Romney would be all about righting the wrongs of Edmunds-Tucker, Reynolds, and their ilk, perhaps one of his little polygamy jokes could play on this fear.

  14. Jason Kerr on March 10, 2006 at 4:14 pm

    John Mansfield,

    Do you really believe that Romney could explain in an understandable way through the press the LDS concept of continuing revelation a majority of Americans? Not even religious Americans would understand it. Mitt Romney will not be president unless he can figure out a way to make the fact that he is a Mormon a non-issue. To most Americans we are a weird cult. Romney is not going to change that. So if Romney wants to win, he needs distance himself from the Church.

    On the other hand, if the purpose of Mitt Romney running is to help make the Church more mainstream, then maybe explaining something like you suggest would make sense. But I think Romney wants to win.

  15. Mark B. on March 10, 2006 at 4:53 pm

    I tend to agree, Jason: tell the world that your religious leader has a direct link to God, and the next question will be: if God speaks to you through that leader, will you do what he says? JFK tried to put that fire out 46 years ago re: the Pope, and Romney would do well not to bring it back to life.

    Re:; 19th century polygamy: I remember feeling shock when I saw the dates of my great-great grandfather’s second marriage: he was born in 1821 and married
    (1) in 1840 (she was a few days shy of 17 on her wedding day),
    (2) in 1857 (she was not quite 13!) and
    (3) in 1867 (my g-g-grandmother, who was 22 at her wedding–but it was her second marriage, and she had been 15 when married the first time).

    I remember when I was 16 seeing an absolutely drop-dead gorgeous 13-year-old girl move in to my ward. But I didn’t make any proposals of marriage. And neither did any of the middle aged men in the ward.

  16. John Mansfield on March 10, 2006 at 5:09 pm

    Jason Kerr and Mark B., no, I don’t think my suggestion a useful way for a candidate to present himself. Especially the part about Laban’s severed head.

  17. s p bailey on March 10, 2006 at 5:11 pm

    I liked your comment very much, John M. It was not too subtle for me at all.

  18. Brad Kramer on March 10, 2006 at 5:39 pm

    Romney’s electability problems will not have much to do with polygamy. Granted, social conservatives and evangelicals appear almost as fearful of polygamy as they are of gay marriage and often point out (as in a fairly recent Weekly Standard cover story) that gay marriage will open the doors for relegalizing polygamy. But Romney’s tough stand on gay marriage will be enough to persuade evangelicals that there won’t be any Big Love Act and his otherwise consistent support of gay rights stopping short of marriage (but including civil unions) will be enough to convince moderate and younger voters that he’s not a homophobe. In many ways, he’s a dream candidate for the Republicans. Handsome, extremely bright, well-educated, well-spoken, charismatic, elected governor in the same state that elected Kennedy and Kerry, a successful business man and civic leader, olympics, etc. Romney’s big problems are going to come from the right and from evangalicals, and I suspect will have much more to do with his belief in the Book of Mormon and his position on abortion, stem-cell research, and gay rights than polygamy. When it comes down to it, he’s a northeastern elitist with no real red state credentials ( lists him in their top ten RINOs — Republicans in Name Only — alongside Lincoln Chafee, Arlen Specter, and Olympia Snow) PLUS he’s a total, non-Christian heretic. His real challenge will be during primary season, trying to make it through the South without dragging the Church through the mud in the process. I think he would make a great president, but I don’t know how I’d feel about him going up against Rick Santorum in Southern primaries if I were a mission president in the South (but, of course, a lot of this will also depend on the position of candidates on his left like McCaine and Juliani).

    Just my two cents.

  19. Josh Kim on March 11, 2006 at 2:16 am

    I want to make a point here and that is that we are all 20th/21st century people who are living in this globalized, cosmopolitan world with a different outlook on life. Who are we to judge or conjecture upon 19th century marriage practices?

    I agree that I find the Mormon discomfort at the new HBO show quite laughable. Because the show’s characters have nothing to do with the Church. If anything I think it helps the Church to have shows like this one.

    After all, what Mormon hasn’t been asked about polygamy from their friends? I mean, c’mon. It is the very ignorance (not in a negative sense, they just simply don’t know ) of Mormonism that people have this view. I think that it is the very discomfort of many Mormons at this show and anything else that highlight polygamy that makes us look like outdate, rustic, simple-mindled religious fanatics.

  20. Josh Kim on March 11, 2006 at 2:20 am

    the HBO show “Big Love” is a sitcom. Let’s not forget that. Sitcoms are supposed to be funny and entertaining. People already know that Hollywood is supposed to make some really conservative people a bit uncomfy.

  21. Adam Greenwood on March 11, 2006 at 9:30 am

    A couple of judgment calls here.

    The first one is how much polygamy is an issue with voters. Not that (most) voters think Romney will want to bring back polygamy. But that most voters think the Church is wierd and suspect, and polygamy is emblematic of that. My own anecdotal experience is that most people know practically nothing at all about Mormons except something vague about the Book of Mormon and polygamy. I’ve met quite well educated people who thought the church still practiced polygamy. My thought is that dealing with the polygamy issue will therefore take care of much of the wierdness perception.

    Now, there’s two ways to successfully deal with polygamy and other Mormon wierdness issues. The first, which is Romney’s current strategy, is to distance yourself from the Church. The second is to defuse the issue. Since I don’t care too much about Romney’s success in itself, I prefer the latter strategy.

  22. Jonathan Green on March 11, 2006 at 10:46 am

    Tierney’s NYT column–headlined “Who’s Afraid of Polygamy?”, summary text “If the specter of legalized polygamy is the best argument against gay marriage, let the wedding bells ring”–suggests to me that Tierney does not have Romney’s best interests at heart. I haven’t/can’t read the whole thing, but Editor and Publisher has a bit more. Tying polygamy to gay marriage doesn’t seem like something that helps Romney much at all. Has anybody read the whole thing?

    Watching the last couple presidential campaigns have been painful enough; having Romney as a contender or a candidate seems like it would be excruciating. Is it too late to talk him out of it?

  23. Brad Kramer on March 11, 2006 at 11:38 am

    #22: Amen. I like him quite a bit. But it could be devastating for the Church.

  24. Ivan Wolfe on March 11, 2006 at 12:05 pm

    #22 -

    funny, since we were told over and over again that tying gay marriage and polygamy together was a “slippery slope” and out of bounds. Now people are arguing for polygamy in the NYTimes.

    Yep. We NEVER go down those slippery slopes. Ever.

  25. Jonathan Green on March 11, 2006 at 2:27 pm

    Ivan, when it’s Tierney writing in the NYT, I expect it to be slippery, just not in the direction it might seem at first glance.

  26. Brad Kramer on March 11, 2006 at 6:40 pm

    I’m not sure if I’m violating the laws of the universe (or even worse, those of T&S) here, but this is Tierney’s piece from the Times:

    Copyright New York Times Company Mar 11, 2006

    If gay marriage becomes legal, its opponents have been warning, the next step in America’s moral deterioration will be legalized polygamy. These conservatives won’t be happy with ”Big Love,” the HBO series starting tomorrow night.

    This story of a husband with three wives in Utah will not terrify Americans. Polygamy doesn’t come off as a barbaric threat to the country’s moral fabric. It looks more like what it really is: an arrangement that can make sense for some people in some circumstances, but not one that could ever be a dangerous trend in America.

    After watching the husband on the show struggle to pay for three households and watching his three wives struggle for his attention, the question that comes to mind is not how to keep polygamy illegal. The question is why we bother to ban something that takes so much work these days.

    When polygamy was outlawed in the 19th century, the Supreme Court upheld the ban by citing the ”evil consequences” of a practice that ”has always been odious among the northern and western nations of Europe.” It dismissed polygamy as ”a feature of the life of Asiatic and of African people,” as if that were reason enough to damn it.

    Yet an institution that has been around for so long must have had something going for it. Humans aren’t as inclined to polygamy as some apes are — we probably evolved as hunter-gatherers who mostly had one mate at a time — but some form of polygamy has existed in the vast majority of cultures.

    Some opponents of polygamy call it the exploitation of women by rich men, and that’s true if the wives are coerced into the marriages. But many wives have willingly chosen it, like the three women on ”Big Love,” who have married a successful businessman.

    These three wives, who live in adjacent houses, sound much like the women in polygamous marriages I’ve talked to in rural Africa. The African wives told me they had mixed feelings about the arrangement — and their fellow wives — but over all, they figured it was better to share one prosperous husband than to marry someone else without land, cows or a job.

    That’s the way social scientists figure it, too. Polygamy isn’t the cause of women’s low status in traditional societies, but rather a consequence of their trying to move up. The biggest losers from polygamy are the poorer men who end up with no wives. Women benefit because polygamy increases their number of marriage prospects — and in traditional societies, marriage is often the only way for a woman to improve her status.

    Even in those societies, polygamy is practiced by just a small minority because few men have enough resources to entice more than one wife. As a society modernizes and women become educated, they gain other economic options and become less and less willing to share a husband. Eventually polygamy is out of question for practically everyone, men and women. At that point, the monogamous majority can safely proclaim its moral superiority and outlaw the practice for everyone else.

    Critics say children would be better off growing up in a home with a full-time father, but a part-time one is better than what’s in many homes today. The father in ”Big Love” is more like Ward Cleaver than today’s alpha males who’ve dumped a series of wives and families.

    Polygamy isn’t necessarily worse than the current American alternative: serial monogamy.

    Elizabeth Joseph, a lawyer and journalist who was married to a polygamist in Utah, says her experience handling divorce cases made her appreciate the stability of her marriage. She also appreciated other perks, like the round-the-clock day care that enabled her to keep an unpredictable schedule at work and to relax when she came home.

    ”If I’m dog-tired and stressed out, I can be alone and guilt-free,” she explained in a speech to the National Organization for Women. ”It’s a rare day when all eight of my husband’s wives are tired and stressed at the same time.” She told the NOW audience that polygamy ”offers an independent women a real chance to have it all” and represented ”the ultimate feminist lifestyle.”

    She won’t persuade many American women, feminists or otherwise. But if a few consenting adults like her still want to practice polygamy, there’s no reason to stop them. And if the specter of legalized polygamy is the best argument against gay marriage, let the wedding bells ring.

  27. Doug on March 12, 2006 at 8:42 pm

    Speaking of Romney…did anyone see the results of the NRLC from this weekend: HOLY COW!

    That Frist would win (in Tennesse) was a forgone conclusion. I would have bet my house that Allen would take 2nd and that the story would be McCain. Who would have guessed that Romney would best everyone but Frist?!? AND DOWN SOUTH!?

    Heck, W. VA baptists voted for Kennedy in 1960…maybe this guy from MA has a shot afterall!

  28. Adam Greenwood on March 12, 2006 at 9:57 pm

    “The (obvious?) problem is that stating polygamy “failed as an experimentâ€? indicates that one believes it was an experiment — something Mormons decided to try out to see what would happen and if it could work — rather than a commandment of God.”

    Interesting point. I don’t think that seeing polygamy as an experiment that failed precludes it from being a divine commandment.

  29. Adam Greenwood on March 12, 2006 at 10:57 pm

    One more thought:

    My impression is that some southerners and conservatives are concerned about Romney’s Mormonism but even more are concerned about his being governor of Massachussetts and a johnny-come-lately to social conservatism. The governor needs some narrative other than political expediency that explains his increasing focus on traditional values . A we-learned-from-polygamy-how-dangerous-it-is-to-tamper-with-marriage-and-traditional-values-so-SSM-here-in-Massachussetts-really-woke-me-up narrative might work, though I’m not sure it would be ideal.

  30. Heather on March 19, 2006 at 7:11 am

    “I am not the Catholic candidate for President. I am the Democratic Party’s candidate for President, who happens also to be a Catholic.”
    - John F Kennedy

    Replace the word “Catholic” with “Mormon”, and I think that’s the only way Romney would have a shot. Granted, he’d have to back that up with a bunch of other dialogue, but that would have to be the main message. If he followed John M’s suggested route in comment #12, he’d never be considered a serious candidate. Stump speeches aren’t for religious banter, they’re purely for talking about where you’d like to take the country as a whole. If a Presidential candidate starts talking about being under the guidance of a church leader who talks to God, no one would listen. We’d be in a strange Hillary Clinton conundrum yet again, only this time we’d see it coming – we all know they’d say that Romney’s not president. Gordon B. Hinckley is.

    I see absolutely nothing wrong with Romney distancing himself publicly from the Church. To me it’s no different than any professional distancing themselves in the professional world. It’s not like an actor can cut into a film to bear their testimony, and we certainly never saw Steve Young call for a time out so that he could teach the first discussion from the 50 yard line. If Romney chooses to make his faith a non-issue and deal with impending questions accordingly, that doesn’t automatically make him a “Bad Mormon.” His running shouldn’t be looked at as a teaching opportunity first and foremost. First and foremost, this is a politician running for office. To expect anything more, even from a Mormon, is rather silly. If he doesn’t plan on adopting such an attitude, he might as well give up and save himself the time and money.

  31. Adam Greenwood on March 19, 2006 at 9:14 am

    I think it would be very possible for Romney to not run as representative of the Mormon church, but also without acting as if his church and his faith were too toxic for discussion.

    Making faith a purely private thing is bad for faith and bad for the country.

  32. Heather on March 19, 2006 at 5:22 pm

    I by no means meant that Romney should treat his faith as “toxic.” As I said, there would be other dialogue involved, which means yes, he will be discussing his faith and his religion. But I think it would be suicide for him to launch into conference talks about the Mormon church and its doctrine when a presidential candidate should be discussing his political platform and his plans for the country. Kennedy certainly didn’t make his Catholicism toxic, he just refused to make it the center of attention, like his opponents wanted it to be. Romney will face the same opposition only moreso, so why not use a tactic that worked in the past? A presidential candidate wants the public’s attention focused on his plans for the future, not anything that may distract them from the goal at hand – running the most powerful country in the world. I think by not making his faith a big deal and rather just behaving himself as a well-spoken, professional American who happens to be a Mormon, he’ll do more as a shining example of the Church than if he bore his testimony at great lengths everywhere he went.
    I’ve met several great Mormon politicians, Mormon Generals in the Air Force, and other prominent Mormon businessmen. None of them behaved any different from this sort of attitude of professionalism, and yet they have been prime examples to everyone they work with about how normal Mormons are as people, and that we aren’t anything to be feared or looked at as bizarre. Do you really think that President Ezra Taft Benson, as Secretary of Agriculture under Eisenhower, would go into congressional meetings saying to himself, “I’ll get to business later, but first I have some Mormon doctrine to teach!” That’s simply unprofessional. Rather, President Benson led by example, and he was a highly respected professional man, whom all knew to be Mormon. But he didn’t make his being Mormon an in-your-face issue. It’s unprofessional in any executive level environment, because in many ways, if you start proselytizing in the workplace it can be seen as discrimination and harassment. I’m sure Romney has a lot of experience with this as a successful executive and leader and will act accordingly. But does that make him a bad Mormon? No, it just makes him a fine example of a good, respectable, honest businessman, who is also a Mormon. Leading by example means so much more than words; four years of being an example as President of the United States would mean so much more than only a handful of conference-style speeches made in the primary elections that could easily sacrifice those four long and wonderful years.

  33. Doug Forbes on May 1, 2006 at 10:02 pm

    My advice to Mitt Romney.

    Do not listen to Adam Greenwood or any of these other media geeks. For what ever reason, they have a high percentage of sexual deviants among them. Most people don’t give two hoots about the polygamy non-issue. Most people would much prefer to have a son who was a polygamist than one who was gay. In the media, reality is reversed. Do not listen to them. God ordained the practice of polygamy in the past, prophets have practiced it. Adam Greenwood is an idiot.

  34. Adam Greenwood on May 2, 2006 at 6:58 am

    I think we can all agree that, whatever our differences about preferring a polygamist son or a gay son, what we would least like is a high-percentage sexual-deviant son who blogs on the bloggernacle. Also that Adam Greenwood is an idiot.

  35. DKL on May 2, 2006 at 8:50 am

    You mean that there is a high percentage of sexual-deviants blogging here on Times and Seasons? Wow. It’s nice to know that I’m not alone. Actually, I’m not sure I qualify as a sexual-deviant, but I do have a sneaking suspicion that Elder Nelson would not approve of the way my wife and I sometimes talk to each other about child-making. Not that we’d welcome him into our bedroom to find out, but you know what I mean.


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