On April 3, 2008, state authorities raided a polygamous compound in Eldorado, Texas founded by Warren Jeffs, the now imprisoned leader of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS), a breakaway Mormon sect. Within several days, authorities took protective custody over 468 of the community’s children in what they called “the largest child-welfare operation in Texas history,” and one the Texas Supreme Court later ruled was “not warranted.” Six weeks later, on May 15, the California Supreme Court invalidated the state’s ban on same-sex marriage. Writing for the majority, Chief Justice Ronald George was careful to limit the Court’s ruling to same-sex couples, stating explicitly that the decision did not disrupt prohibitions against “polygamy and marriages between close relatives.” The proximity of these two state interventions invites reflection on the rhetoric and politics of marital diversity in the United States. Most analysis to date understandably focuses on the contrasting visions of sexual and gender morality that polygamy and gay marriage represent. Frequently overlooked, however, are the deep racial codings of marital politics in the U.S., which same-sex marriage advocates too often unwittingly reinforce. We believe that acknowledging these repressed meanings can help frame a more inclusive and inspiring family politics.
As Stephanie Coontz signals in her post on “traditional” marriage, a long history of state intervention into religious doctrinal disputes underlies the installation of monogamous, heterosexual Christian marriage as the singular government-sponsored family form. These interventions contained often explicit racial messages. In Public Vows, historian Nancy Cott persuasively argues for the centrality of this marital ideal to the founding project of the U.S. republic and its manifest destiny mission. Voluntary monogamous marriage signaled democracy and the racial superiority of its practitioners. The practice of Mormon polygamy, therefore, when it surfaced among white Christians in the mid-nineteenth century, directly threatened this self-conception. Legal scholar Martha Ertman demonstrates that opponents portrayed Mormon polygamists as race traitors. Eradicating plural marriage became crucial to establishing a uniquely American (coded white and Christian) national identity. Rendering Mormons “metaphorically nonwhite,” Cott suggests, the federal government relentlessly pursued this goal, adopting extreme, punitive measures, including raids to “rescue” women and children from their polygamous families.
In 1856, the new Republican Party pledged to extinguish the “twin relics of barbarism,” polygamy and slavery. Between 1854 and 1887, Congress passed a series of acts to criminalize bigamy and disenfranchise the Mormon Church and its followers. In the historic Reynolds case in 1878, the Supreme Court outlawed bigamy as an “offense against society.” Associating it with “barbaric African and Asiatic practices […] odious to the northern and western nations of Europe,” the Court denied Mormon polygamy constitutional protection as a free exercise of religion. After the federal government conditioned the granting of statehood to Utah on the repudiation of Mormon polygamy, church officials finally capitulated. The 1890 “revelation” that terminated LDS plural marriage spawned the breakaway, underground FLDS sect from which the now infamous Yearning for Zion Ranch in Texas descends.
Sporadic raids, prosecutions, and court rulings against polygamy have continued ever since. As late as 1946, the Court recuperated Reynolds by upholding the conviction of a Mormon polygynous husband under the Mann Act: “The organization of a community for the spread and practice of polygamy is, in measure, a return to barbarism. It is contrary to the spirit of Christianity and of the civilization which Christianity has produced in the Western world.” Widespread efforts to prosecute practitioners of polygamy culminated in the infamous Short Creek raid on FLDS communities in 1953, an effort to rescue women and children from their polygynous families that was strikingly similar to recent events in Texas. Short Creek proved such a political debacle for the government, however, that five decades of unofficial state accommodation to the open secret of Mormon polygamous enclaves in the West ensued before the recent, likewise ill-conceived, raid in Eldorado.
Televised images of the distraught FLDS mothers—without exception white women donning uniform homemade nineteenth-century prairie dresses and blonde-braided coiffures—evoke this unfamiliar, and indeed incongruous, history of the racial politics of plural marriage in America. Early LDS polygamy may have spelled racial (and religious) treason to the white Christian contemporaries of the Latter Day Saints, but the Mormons themselves were white racial (and racist) purists. Brigham Young taught that whites were “pure” and “delightsome,” while blacks were the “unrighteous,” “despised” and “loathsome” descendants of Cain, the cursed murderer of Abel. State coercion convinced the official Mormon Church to modernize its marriage doctrine in 1890 by repudiating polygamy, but the state did not demand or invite the Mormons to repudiate their racism. The LDS “revelation” that ended racial apartheid in the church did not occur until 1978, and it provoked yet another schism in the Church, followed by a small exodus among believers who joined the lily-white FLDS communities.
If slavery was the barbaric twin of polygamy for many nineteenth-century Christians, same-sex marriage seems to be supplanting it in the eschatology of contemporary Christian conservatives. In 2003, Chief Justice Antonin Scalia invoked the “slippery slope” argument in his dissent in the Lawrence case to claim that decriminalizing consensual sodomy would open a fearsome floodgate of challenges to restrictions on sexual and marital practices. He specifically linked same-sex marriage to polygamy, inciting defensive denials from gay marriage advocates of any links between the two. Few gays who distinguish same-sex from plural marriage, however, address the uncomfortable racial commonalities invoked in debates about both. Some contemporary critics of the movement for same-sex marriage, in contrast, underscore its implicit whiteness. In “Is Gay Marriage Anti-Black?” Kenyon Farrow argues that, for decades, social science research and “family values” rhetoric have stigmatized black families by positioning the monogamous marital family as the sole socially and psychologically healthy model. Instead of confronting this ideology or addressing the core concerns of poor, black Americans—housing, health care, employment and the over-incarceration of black men—that undermine black heterosexual marriages and families to begin with, the campaign for same-sex marriage insensitively places black churches and communities in the cross-hairs of an ideological battle between white religious conservatives and primarily white gay activists.
In 2006, a coalition of academics and activists released a statement, “Beyond Same-Sex Marriage: A New Strategic Vision for All Our Families and Relationships,” calling for a “flexible set of economic benefits and options” for individuals irrespective of their familial or sexual circumstances. Nancy Polikoff, one of the authors of the statement, develops the argument more fully in her recent book, Beyond (Straight and Gay) Marriage, which shows how we could protect far more individuals and families if we divested marriage of its unique legal status and awarded rights, benefits and obligations to the multitude of relations of care that currently exist in our society. She provides a rigorous accounting of public benefits attached to marriage and offers sample policies from other democratic countries that do not favor one family form at the expense of all others.
We endorse Polikoff’s policy framework for “valuing all families,” along with Ann Pellegrini and Janet Jakobsen’s call for a conception of “sexual ethics” that is far broader than any notion of consensual marriage, whether straight or gay, and we would add, whether monogamous or polygamous. Sexual and gender justice require getting the state out of the marriage business altogether, returning marriage to the province of diverse religious and secular communities. A democratic state should award equal dignity and respect to all consensual, responsible forms of intimacy and care. Racial and economic justice require the same thing. We cannot achieve one without the other.