THE BLOG
08/27/2012 12:16 pm ET Updated Oct 27, 2012

Mormons and Polygamy: Truths, Lies and Ambiguities

The old stereotypes about Mormons -- polygamy, theocracy, blood atonement -- have generally faded, but as the older and darker images have receded, new concerns have replaced them. Some reflect lack of knowledge, others are grounded in accurate knowledge, and yet others are based on false assumptions thought by the holders to be true. Where religion was once taboo as grist for polite conversation, it is now pervasive within the public square. Due in large measure to the candidacy of Mitt Romney, the Mormon Moment provides for unending chatter and speculation, rarely burdened by documentation: "Mormonism is a cult. It is a theocracy. Mormons still practice polygamy. They baptize the dead. They baptize in behalf of the dead, including Holocaust victims whose extended families find the practice invasive and offensive. They march in lockstep politically. They practice disturbing, secret rites in their temples, which are closed to the public. They worship Jesus. They worship Joseph Smith. They worship Angel Moroni. They are clannish. They are wealthy, individually and institutionally. They believe they will become gods. They believe they are foreordained to save the United States Constitution. They believe the Garden of Eden was in Missouri." Given the plethora of misinformation and suspicion, it is not surprising that Jacob Weisberg described Mormonism as "Scientology plus 125 years" (Slate, December 20, 2006).

So what is going on today? To what extent are Mormons simply innocent victims of the universal need to demonize the "other"? If fears of Mormonism are simply rooted in ignorance, will the fears dissipate once Mormons have the chance to explain themselves? To what extent do Mormons unintentionally participate -- either because of what they are or because of how they communicate their identity to others -- in offering up grist for many rumor mills?

While Romney's candidacy has gradually eased the misgivings of many towards the possibility of a Mormon President, misunderstanding of Mormonism remains widespread. Indeed, the unprecedented national interest in Mormonism is accompanied by unprecedented misunderstanding. In this and subsequent columns, we will attempt to address some of the most durable concerns about Mormonism -- truths, lies and ambiguities -- beginning with the biggest: polygamy.

Ask the person in the street for the first word that comes to mind when thinking of Mormons. The answer: "Polygamy." Nothing pains the official Church more than the public perception that the straight-laced mainstream Mormon community still practices polygamy. And while this perception is false, there are reasons for its endurance, and those reasons continue to haunt the Church, demanding but never quite receiving a full public airing. We suggest three reasons for its durability.

#1: Polygamy, the Defining Doctrine. Beginning with church founder Joseph Smith's private foray into plural marriage in the late 1830s, polygamy grew in importance until it became the defining doctrine of Mormonism. Historian (and Mormon) Kathleen Flake has noted that in the second half of the 19th century, polygamy was as important to Mormons as baptism was to Catholics. Church leaders at the highest levels taught not only its importance, but also its permanence. Ultimately, two Apostles -- the second-highest office in the Church -- were expelled from their offices for their intransigence in the face of institutional extinction at the hands of a federal government that viewed polygamy as the last "relic of barbarism," and was empowered by the Edmunds-Tucker Act of 1887 to give Mormonism an all-or-nothing ultimatum. Yet even after an 1890 "Manifesto" publicly disavowing the practice, some Mormon leaders (and many church members) continued its practice in secret. While the Church now summarily excommunicates any members who practice polygamy, the history dies a slow death.

#2: Fundamentalism. In the 1920s, a small group of Mormon men who refused to renounce polygamy, instead let go of the Mormon Church and created their own. Under the general title of Mormon Fundamentalism, this movement has subdivided and morphed countless times and into countless factions, the most notorious in current times being Warren Jeffs' FLDS (Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints). While neither the number of denominations nor the number of practitioners is known, estimates generally exceed 50,000 polygamists in the United States today. Yet in spite of a Supreme Court decision (Reynolds v United States, 1878) upholding anti-polygamy laws, state and federal officials refuse to prosecute on grounds of polygamy (Jeffs was convicted of statutory rape, among other non-polygamy charges), wary of allowing the current Supreme Court to revisit, and perhaps reverse, their 1878 decision. Thus, polygamy continues to thrive, and despite Mormonism's disavowal of Fundamentalism, Fundamentalists have not returned the favor. Indeed, rather than distancing themselves from the LDS Church, they often claim that they, alone, now practice True Mormonism.

#3: Evasiveness. While the Church has renounced polygamy politically, it has never done so theologically. This ambiguity has haunted them ever since. Mormonism is unique in its doctrine of eternal families -- meaning that spouses married in Mormon temples will be "sealed" to each other and their offspring as functioning family units even in the afterlife. Current church policy allows a man whose wife has died to be "sealed," in a temple, to another woman, with the promise that both wives will be part of his eternal family unit. This raises the question: "Is polygamy delayed, polygamy denied?"

When asked about polygamy, church officials as well as ordinary Mormons often claim that it was never truly central to Mormon belief. The tour of Brigham Young's house never mentions his 50-plus wives. Nor was polygamy ever mentioned in the Joseph Smith exhibition at the Library of Congress a few years ago. It is precisely this evasiveness that sustains the untruth that polygamy is alive and well. Similar evasiveness about other beliefs and practices also fuels another enduring stereotype that we will take up in a future column: "Mormons are slippery. They don't tell us what they believe." True or false?