April 25, 2008

When the story broke a few weeks ago about the polygamous Fundamentalist Mormon “€œcompound”€ in Eldorado, Texas, from whence 416 children had been taken, I observed to my wife that a neocon pronouncement would soon follow, explaining why the forced separation of the children from their mothers was “€œgood for liberal democracy.”€ Mary’s comment at the time was “€œit won”€™t make any difference. As soon as the media starts talking about a “€˜compound,”€™ you can be sure things will get uncomfortable for those inside.”€ Unlike the incident at Waco, however, this time the state did nothing more destructive than abduct a few hundred youngsters.

Nonetheless, I continued to wait for a neocon whitewash, and it came about the same time as the information that the accusations about the abuse of children, which had prompted the attack, were shown to be baseless. Still, none of this should matter. The neocons are famous for justifying calamitous events by appealing to the democratic spirit, e.g., the forced internment of Japanese Americans during World War Two, the leveling of Hamburg, Dresden, Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of the “€œgood war,”€ and the decimation of Southern States during the presumed progressive struggle against slavery. They could surely devise an ideologically suitable rationale for dragging a multitude of kids away from their parents. And, lo and behold, yesterday Rich Lowry, in a syndicated column “€œBig Trouble, The Legacy of Polygamy,”€ validated my prediction by defending the action in Texas as something illustrating “€œliberal democracy.”€

Monogamy, Lowry asserts, is necessary to nurture “€œdemocratic equality,”€ seeing that polygamy creates a hierarchy in which “€œolder higher status men take as many women as possible.”€ It was in order to avoid this gender inequality that the US government rooted out Mormon polygamy in the late nineteenth century. It was allegedly for the same reasons that predominantly Mormon Utah was not allowed to enter the federal union until 1891, by which time it rid itself of its anti-egalitarian taint. The Texas authorities were therefore correct to address this challenge to liberal democracy, one that had first arisen in the mid-nineteenth century among the followers of Brigham Young. Lowry indicates as much in his peroration: “€œWho are we to say what marriage is? As liberal democrats we”€™ve said it before and have to again.”€

The problem with this analysis is that Lowry, who just a few years ago was confusing the combatants in the Spanish Civil War, knows about as much history as my pet Basset Murray. Presumably being a neocon spear-carrier and a FOX celebrity does not require one to master even the rudiments of nineteenth-century American history. Mormons were not persecuted for their polygamous practices or denied statehood until 1891 because their conjugal habits violated the principle of democratic equality.  The American Protestant establishment opposed them for spurning the New Testament’s commandment about marriage and for reviving what was then considered an archaic Old Testament institution.

Mormons were badly defective bourgeois Protestants, from the standpoint of Justin Smith Morrill, the Republican congressman from Vermont who in 1862 sponsored the first federal Anti-Bigamy Law. This bill, which Abraham Lincoln quickly signed, disincorporated the Mormon Church and declared polygamy illegal in all federal territories (meaning in particular Utah). As can be demonstrated, the Republican Party since 1854 had condemned polygamy along with slavery as a “€œrelic of barbarism.”€ But I am unaware of any “€œliberal democratic”€ justification for this condemnation. The opponents of the Mormons”€™ marital custom protested the “€œself-degradation of women,”€ and they dwelled on the “€œpolygyny,”€ or concubinage that it was correctly believed sometimes accompanied Mormon polygamy. As my dissertation advisor Sydney E. Ahlstrom stresses in his A Religious History of the American People, those who inveighed against polygamy in the 1860s were religiously and morally motivated Christians. They were not concerned with the promotion of “€œliberal democracy,”€ a later Progressive concept that in recent years has become a neocon fixation.

One could only imagine what those Victorian Christians who turned up their noses at polygamy would have thought about gay civil unions or about the even less palatable idea of legally binding marital rites between homosexuals and lesbians. Lowry does not get into this tar baby, but surely he could guess what nineteenth-century opponents of polygamy would have said about homosexual unions? They would have raged against it as an attack on their way of life, even though it is no longer seen as inconsistent with “€œliberal democracy.”€ It would have represented an even greater outrage than polygamy, which, after all, does have a basis in Hebrew Scripture.

I am also struck by the smarmy way in which Lowry presents his neocon rhetorical pose as an act of defiance against the “€œnon-judgmentalism”€ of the liberal Left. I have not noticed any of my liberal colleagues shouting in the streets against the government’s interference with polygamy in Texas. The liberal intellectuals I know and those whom I have recently read on the subject hate polygamy as much as Lowry does, for being incompatible with their feminist views. For the intellectual Left, polygamy is a remnant of bourgeois, capitalist patriarchy. The same Left is of course in favor of “€œnon-judgmentalism”€ when it comes to gay marriage; and so far Lowry has not engaged this delicate question and its relation to “€œliberal democracy.”€ Such judgmentalism, it need hardly be said, could cost him his career or at the very least a whole batch of invitations to New York cocktail parties.


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