Here’s a just-issued Father’s Day Proclamation issued by the President. In a document that praises and celebrates fathers and those who act as mentors (and calls for responsibility by all fathers), Obama adds this:
Nurturing families come in many forms, and children may be raised by a father and mother, a single father, two fathers, a step father, a grandfather, or caring guardian.
The emphasized phrase is still startling to read, but not really surprising from this Administration. Although they’ve lagged on legislative priorities, when it comes to the stuff that the Oval Office — and the vast bureaucracy it controls — can do, they’re such a marked improvement over the preceding one that I feel as though I’ve just come out of a time machine.
I’m about to go watch a documentary about the Mormons’ role in Prop 8. This Proclamation will provide a warm, insulating coat against what’s about to infuriate me. On second thought, maybe I’ll re-run the season finale of “Glee.” Or read yet more Wimbledon previews.
This discussion on polyamorous relationships continues to be interesting, and to generate thoughtful comments. Here’s another, from my lawyer-swimming friend, Eric Cheung:
In my Family Law class, which was taught by a graduate of Yale Law named Jill Hasday, she had us go over some readings discussing how social norms during the early 19th century were established against polygamy specifically to oppress Mormons. Basically, there were these series of pulp romance novels directed towards female readers depicting women being brutalized, raped and enslaved due to their status as a one of multiple wives. The result was a popular movement, led by women, against polygamy — and by extension, against LDS. What I got out of those readings was that polygamy was perhaps more acceptable in early American society, until it became identified with Mormonism. Then it became vilified so that people would learn to fear and hate Mormons.
Well, it wouldn’t be the first time that popular culture has directed legal and social movements, sometimes movements directed against unpopular groups. Of course I’m interested in reading more of your thoughts and comments.
For a political movement to gain traction, it must first come from the shadows. Somewhat to my surprise, that’s what starting to happen with the fundamentalist sect of Mormons (Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints). First there was Big Love, the well-acted and compelling HBO series that depicts one polygamist family, with a patriarch and three sister-wives. And now comes a feature story (“Polygamy in America“) in this month’s issue of National Geographic, which is notable for its balanced look at this reviled and ridiculed group. Of greater significance, in the long run, is the article’s accompanying photo essay. To show a group is, often, to begin a conversation that had been avoided. Sometimes, the depiction only serves to confirm worst fears, but at least the subject is no longer unspeakable. And conversation can lead to a multiplier effect: As more people are emboldened to “come out,” they in turn give courage to others, and so on until the movement seems inexorable and inevitable.
You can see where this is going. When I saw and read the story, I was of course reminded of the gay rights movement. One can pick any milestone from Oscar Wilde’s Invention of (Gay) Love to Stonewall, but the cry for equality and dignity only became deafening after enough people, emboldened by courageous forebears, came roaring out onto the political and social landscape. Now the efforts to hold it back are as doomed as King Canute‘s, even if that conclusion may at times seem less than apparent.
So I’m on a bus traveling from the airport in New Orleans to a conference, sitting next to a colleague who is a member of the more mainstream LDS, a guy I quite like and respect. For reasons that will surely be obvious, I had never engaged him directly in the subject of gay rights, much less marriage equality. But when he heard what I was speaking about at the conference (more gay rights stuff, natch), he performed a cannonball right into the deep water, saying something like: “We’ve never discussed gay marriage, but here’s what I think.” Gulp.
What ensued was about ten minutes of the kind of conversation I wish I could have more often. He told me that some in the Mormon church had serious concerns about the decision to support and fund Proposition 8. While his religious beliefs (he strongly implied) were against gay marriages, he thought that Mormons, “of all people,” should have understood the dangers of ganging up against a despised minority. Somehow, this led into a discussion of polygamy, and my friend said that I had a duty to seriously consider the equality claims of those who sought legal recognition of their (multiple) unions. I murmured something about my concerns regarding whether the women really were consenting, and he said: “I think you’d be surprised.”
Maybe he’s right. Polygamy isn’t exactly unknown, world-wide. What, exactly, are the arguments against it, and how, if at all, do they compare to the arguments on same-sex marriages? Maura Strassberg has relied on Hegel’s notion of the proper role of the family within society to denounce polygamy. Here’s the crux:
Hegel believed that in a monogamous marriage, a “mutual, whole-hearted, surrender” of individuality that acknowledges the husband and wife as fundamentally equal creates positive feelings of love, confidence and faith. Certainly, a husband in a polygamous family cannot make such an undivided surrender to any single wife. As a result, none of his wives will return such sentiments of surrender. Because no mutuality of individual sacrifice for the union exists, positive natural feelings cannot characterize the polygamous family. Competition between individual wives and between their children not only precludes love, trust, and confidence between these sub-units of the family, but must breed jealousy and disharmony within the fully consanguineous family sub-units as well. Indeed, modern studies of formal and informal polygamy across many historical and contemporary cultures have suggested that so little loyalty naturally develops among polygamous family members that strong external controls, such as walls, armed guards, or the threat of torture, mutilation, or death for sexual or political disloyalty to the patriarch, are frequently utilized to preserve family integrity. In the polygamous family, therefore, neither love nor justice is likely to flourish.
Is Hegel right today? (Is Strassberg?) The National Geographic article suggests that, to an extent, these polygamous families are matriarchal, not patriarchal, given the power that these women wield by dint of their specialized labors: not just the labor associated with child-bearing and rearing, but their economic division of responsibility (some teach, some cook, some sew, etc.). I need much more convincing, because fulfilling professional lives don’t seem to be in the mix, and I have a hard time believing that none of these women would have chosen that path, were their choices uncoerced. (I’m not talking here about marriages to under-age girls, which are clearly something else, and at least under a certain age not a fit topic for debate.)
But maybe I’m wrong. And my friend is right: We don’t have the luxury of dismissing, out of hand, others’ claims to authentic lives. I’m interested in reading testimonials. Here’s one that doesn’t reflect the FLDS in a positive light, to say the least: