This post started life as a comment at Chino Blanco’s TPMCafe blog. However, the comment never cleared moderation there, clear evidence of a
conspiracy to keep Mormons out of the discussion wacky technical glitch. Given the conspiracy glitch, I thought I’d post a slightly modified version of the comment here. In it, I try to address Jason’s suggestion at TPMCafe that the church’s published statements against same-sex marriage shows “blatant hypocrisy and shameless disregard for Mormon history.”
Many bloggers in the nacle — among them the inimitable Russell Arben Fox — have pointed out the potential incongruence of a once-polygamous church now waving the one-man, one-woman banner. (And other observers such as Jason have pointed this out as well, suggesting that it’s evidence of hypocrisy.) The discussion in the bloggernacle has tended to be less of broad-brush condemnation, and more along the lines of discussion about how the church’s present stance may be affected by its history. For instance, Russell wrote a few years ago of ways that that the church’s history limits its ability to make certain types of argument:
our history of polygamy prevents us, as far as I can tell, from speaking of heterosexual monogamy as either “traditional” or “natural,” at least not in the same way many evangelicals, Catholics, and others have tended to talk about it. Mormons can adopt their language all they like, but until or unless church leaders announce (or at least tolerate the development of the idea) that 19th-century polygamy was wrong and/or a mistake and/or one of those crazy aberrant things, like God commanding Abraham to kill his son (except 19th-century Mormon men did, in fact, go through with marrying multiple women), I simply do not see how we can in good conscience defend a position which instantiates a particular definition of the family as intrinsically necessary or good or worthy.
Russell’s assessment is interesting in both its similarities to, and differences from, the common (typically outsider) assessment of simple hypocrisy — and is, I think, more accurate overall. After all, there are a number of ways that one could conceptually be in favor of one type of marriage change, and not the other. Rejection of some societal constraints on marriage does not imply rejection of all societal constraints on marriage. (To imply otherwise would be, in a lot of ways, to buy in to Stanley Kurtz’s arguments about a slippery slope — that any change in marriage leads inexorably to human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together, mass hysteria.)
I don’t think that gay marriage advocates who oppose polygamy are necessarily hypocritical, for instance. And I similarly don’t think it’s necessarily incoherent to be in favor of polygamy and opposed to gay marriage. That is, it’s overly simplistic to simply say “polygamous history + current opposition to SSM = hypocrisy.”
But the church’s history does, I think, to build on Russell’s analysis, constrain its ability to make particular types of statements. In particular, the repeated reliance on a simple “one man, one woman” opposition-to-SSM framework seems problematic and incongruent with church history. Whatever our opposition to SSM is based on as a church, it should be on something different than simply “one man, one woman.”
Now, I don’t think this potential incongruence bothers many members at the rank-and-file level. Gay marriage comes up regularly as a topic of conversation with ward members, and I really have not heard these kinds of history-based opposition to or criticism of the church’s involvement in the SSM debate. On the other hand, the possible problems with church history of polygamy (and its particular arguments against SSM) seem to come up regularly in online discussions. I’m not sure to what extent this difference reflects the different community and audiences, different discussion norms, or something else (or some combination). But I do think it’s significant to point out to outside observers (hi, Jason!) that the online discussions are not necessarily representative of general rank-and-file member thought.
And, of course, Mormons aren’t the only ones connecting the two concepts. Various other observers wonder whether same-sex marriage will ultimately lead to polygamy. For some critics (e.g., Kurtz, Maggie Gallagher), this is another reason to oppose SSM; some legal scholars — for instance, Jonathan Turley or Elizabeth Emens — have also pointed out ways that SSM may at some point lead to legalization of polygamy.
The Cal decision itself contains a very unconvincing footnote that says in effect, “This won’t lead to polygamy.” I don’t find that footnote very compelling, and I do think it’s reasonably likely that greater marriage equality for same-sex couples will ultimately lead to decriminalization or legalization of polygamy. And I’ve personally talked to plural marriage advocates who hope to use recent gay-rights cases to overturn laws against polygamy. (Weirdly enough, I suspect that the modern LDS church would be strongly opposed to that change as well.)
Even if the two do end up linked in this manner, I don’t think it’s necessarily hypocritical or problematic to try to disaggregate them. The devil is in the details, though. A careful disaggregation may be sustainable, but the simple bumper-sticker anti-SSM sound bites that get bandied about in the political arena are sufficiently broad that they almost certainly conflict with early church history and doctrine, and thus seem singularly unconvincing to many church members I know.
(And the issue of disaggregating the two arguments is sufficiently complicated — and the political soundbites sufficiently simplistic — that an observer like Jason might reasonably draw the conclusion that the church is of necessity being hypocritical. That conclusion might be premature — as I’ve suggested, the issue is more complicated — but it’s not unreasonable.)
The issue becomes particularly charged for members like me who personally support marriage equality (and equal rights more broadly). I don’t want to give the church (or any institution) a free pass for hypocritical behavior. On the other hand, I don’t want to prematurely accuse the church of acting hypocritically, and I think that the issue is sufficiently complex that, as I note earlier, one cannot simply say, “polygamous history + current opposition to SSM = hypocrisy.” And I know that I may be particularly inclined towards caution in making charges of hypocrisy, because as a practicing church member, I’m limited in my ability to directly criticize church leaders. I don’t really want to be the next Sonia Johnson, but neither do I want to compromise on my beliefs; striking the proper balance is a complicated matter.
So, that’s my broad response to the general question of whether opposing SSM necessarily means the church is acting hypocritically: It’s more complicated than that. Certain types of anti-SSM arguments seem inconsistent with church history; but this does not itself mean that all anti-SSM arguments are inconsistent with church history.
(And as a quick side note, I’m going to be on a panel at the upcoming Sunstone conference this August, where my co-panelists and I will examine some of these issues. I hope to see some of you there for an interesting discussion.)
A few quick notes that I should add:
1. An earlier version of the post referred to Chino’s post as an outsider analysis, but I don’t know if that’s correct, so I removed that line.
2. This post examines one particular issue — the accuracy of Chino’s assessment of the church’s opposition to SSM as hypocritical. This is not a general “everything gay marriage” thread. I’m going to watch comments, and I’ll remove threadjacks. The general topic is always threadjack central.
3. I’m not making any statement here about the overall validity of the FP letter; I’m analyzing one particular line of critique, as raised on Jason’s blog.