Whew, okay. It’s been a while since my last religious hot take, but an article is making the rounds this week in the Mormon world and I have way too many thoughts about it to just add it to the next Weekend Links roundup. And since I’m trying to post more often, let’s have a very cool and calm discussion about a not-at-all-controversial topic: mormonism and polyamory.
This is the article in question. And honestly? It irritates me. Admittedly I’m not an unbiased observer, but it lacks a self-awareness that I’ve spent entirely too much time thinking about.
Why, you ask? Let’s set some priors. I’m personally monogamous and have no interest in polyamory…but I am formerly Mormon, and Mormonism has a sticky, complicated history with “alternative” marriage structures. We’re kinda famous for it. In the nineteenth century we fled the then-borders of the United States in order to practice polygamy openly, fought a small “war” over it when the federal government tried to exert control over the territory, and only gave it up when it became a bar to statehood – and even then an awful lot of people kept up the practice on the sly, often with fairly senior leadership being party to it. Most of the more fringe LDS splinter movement (such as the FLDS group last headed by the horrific Warren Jeffs) broke away from the main church at this point because to them abandoning “the principle,” as they call it, was heretical beyond belief and they refused to do it.
Polygamy’s long shadow still informs politics in Utah, is still cited in changes to church policy (the infamous change which required the child of gay parents to “reject” their parents lifestyle before being able to be baptized in the church is based on an identical procedure for the children of polygamist parents), and I would argue still colors the patriarchal culture of the church from top to bottom. Sidenote, let me point you to the excellent public history podcast project, The Year of Polygamy which explores this topic from every possible angle.
Also, let’s be clear, while the church may have “banned” the practice in the late nineteenth century (and really only enforced it from the early 20th), it is still uncomfortably present in Mormon theology. And sorry, anyone who says otherwise is being disingenuous.
This all comes down to the Mormon view of marriage which includes a legal aspect and a spiritual one. It’s where these do and don’t overlap that things get complicated.
Let’s explain by an example: the current president of the church is currently married to his second wife after his first wife’s death left him widowed. Lovely and so far so normal, right? But according to Mormon theology, he will be married to both of them in the afterlife because he has been “sealed” to them in a Mormon temple ceremony which is considered the most sacred ordinance in the faith.
Oh. Okay, let’s dive into the details.
Men can be “sealed” to multiple women, but women can only be “sealed” to one husband. This has to do with the gendered and patriarchal structure of the church and is also a heritage of patriarchal polygamy where a man could have multiple living wives at the same time. But that was in the 19th century, right?
Well…that depends on a few other factors too.
Now if you happen to be legally divorced, your “sealing” isn’t automatically cancelled. You have to seek the church’s permission, much as you’d have to do with annulling a marriage in the Catholic tradition, and this was historically discouraged because of the value Mormonism places on a sealing. It is considered a binding oath and the glue that keeps a family together in the hereafter. Also, you can’t get into the highest levels of heaven without it. So if your temporal marriage breaks up, the church’s position was to keep the sealing intact to avoid allowing you to be doomed to a less exalted fate.
So to a believer…you’re still married to that person and can look forward to an afterlife with them, regardless of what caused your marriage to end in the here and now. I can personally name a half dozen women I’ve known for whom this meant a huge amount of heartache because to them because they were “sealed” to abusive partners and were afraid of being trapped with them forever.
And what if you want to get remarried? Well, then you’ll have an easier time petitioning the church to void your first sealing so you can immediately jump into a new one. IF YOU’RE A WOMAN. A man doesn’t need to have his first sealing cancelled and can be remarried and sealed to a new spouse without admin headaches. In other words, he technically can be sealed to multiple, living women at the same time, which I would argue is kinda…polygamous.
And finally, if you’re widowed and remarried there’s not a lot of info about what your afterlife with plural wives (or what your life AS a plural wife) is going to look like. I know I’m writing anecdotally, but again I know a lot of women for whom this causes fear and pain, and both men and women for whom it’s a stressful and confusing topic. What if you’re a believer married to a non-believer and therefore unable to be sealed, does that mean you’ll be separated from your partner in the hereafter? What if you’re a second spouse and think you’re going to spend eternity in a polygamous family after being taught that monogamy is the only acceptable relationship your whole life? What if you’re a widowed man, delighted to find love after loss but don’t want to be sealed to your second wife out of respect for your first, are you condemning this woman to a lonely, subpar eternity?
It’s messy and it isn’t grappled with honestly enough, in my opinion. In my experience if you press most believers to explain how exactly the afterlife is going to work for these families, the response is “We trust god to work it out.” Cool, good luck. But that makes your claims about the necessity of the ceremonies in question a little less valid, at least to me. It’s a thread that the more I pull on, the more the whole patriarchal construct, biological theology, and gendered teachings just unravel. I don’t expect everyone to have the same experience, but that was certainly mine.
And so finally, we get back to this article and why it irritates me so much. Because the authors decry polyamory but don’t tackle their own cultural history of it, and the fact that a version of it is very much still alive and well and causing heartache. This article laments relationship dynamics which mean that one partner is dependent on another and can therefore be coerced into a non-consenual poly relationship… without acknowledging that the official stance of the church is that ideally, women SHOULD be dependent on bread-winning male partners for all their worldly support. So…this imbalance already exists in Mormonism (and is already horrifically exploited in far too many cases).
You can’t square this circle. You cannot insist on divinely appointed heterosexual monogamy, except when it suddenly turn poly and is somehow fine and acceptable. You cannot insist on divine gender roles and patriarchal leadership, and then tsk tsk about unequal family dynamics leading to potential harm.
Writings by Mormons invoking a moral worldview informed by Mormonism that don’t deal with the default polyamory inherent in their system while still trying to stake out a moral position against it make me grumpy. Yes, it’s deeply uncomfortable to deal with, as are a lot of historical legacies, but if you don’t do this work, it’s just Prop 8 and anti-LGBT rhetoric all over again. You are advocating for a version of a family that doesn’t hold up to your own theological and cultural scrutiny.
And if that makes you uncomfortable – GOOD. Sit with it a bit and interrogate why. You might have to confront some interesting thoughts as a result.
Basically, I wish to hell that Mormonism would just stop worrying about other people’s marriages as much as they do, and focus on the very real problems they don’t do enough to address in their own community. Some wise man once remarked on motes and beams, or something.