It’s fitting that Utah is ground zero in the national firestorm over the definition of what is, and what isn’t, marriage.
In the 1800s, Mormons in Utah ferociously clung to a radical new view of marriage. Not only was traditional marriage of "one man to one woman only" mocked in the pages of the Deseret News as being an "impracticable standard," but in Mormon doctrine "til death do us part" became "for time and all eternity."
America in the 1800s, on the other hand, wasn’t into diversity.
The reason Brigham Young chose the Utah desert, instead of the much more attractive California, was to allow Mormons a chance to practice their peculiar religion "unmolested." Foremost in his thoughts was plural marriage. Rumors of Joseph Smith’s "secret wifery" had been the primary reasons behind Smith’s assassination and Mormons being chased across half a continent from their Nauvoo, Ill., homes.
In 1852, Young declared publicly that polygamy was God’s law and immediately Mormons became the poster child for American degeneracy. To "real" Americans, the hidden Mormon agenda was manifest in their missionary program and "handbook," also known as "The Doctrine and Covenants."
Young, virile men were sent out to seduce, kidnap and transport the wives and daughters of god-fearing Americans to Utah to be slaves to priestly lusts, or so some thought.
Dirty old men made up the Utah church hierarchy and polygamy was producing a generation of weaklings and idiots — at least according to the cartoons and popular press of the day. A traveling lecturer said that the children of Mormon polygamy were easy to spot for, "they were born imbecile pigmies."
The prejudice directed at Mormon marriage burned white hot and led to a decades-long struggle that is mostly forgotten today. Besides bad press, Mormons endured invasion by a U.S. Army, disenfranchisement, imprisonment, seizure of church property and the murder of missionaries, especially in the deeply religious South.
Even the birth of the Republican party owes much to the Mormon fight against traditional one man/one woman marriage. The 1856 party platform called for the elimination of "those twin relics of barbarism—Polygamy, and Slavery."
Popular anger didn’t abate until the Mormons finally gave up. In 1890 LDS Church President Wilford Woodruff issued the Manifesto, renouncing the practice of polygamy and paving the way for Utah to finally become a state. Since then, Mormons have become as militant about traditional marriage as their erstwhile persecutors had been.
Today, the over-the-top rhetoric about gay marriage ushering in the demise of American morals recalls this earlier era. Witness this purple prose decrying gay marriage which recently appeared in an opinion column submitted to The Salt Lake Tribune, "[Judicial activism is] in effect massacring the institution of traditional marriage and morality."
The danger with gay marriage, apparently, is that the corpses of brides and grooms will litter reception halls from Tremonton to St. George.
It was not so long ago that, to most Americans, nonconformist Mormons with their unusual ideas of marriage spelled impending doom to the nation’s moral fabric. Maybe it’s time to take a deep breath and realize that ours is a big country. America will still be around even after they’ve swept up the rice from these latest Utah weddings.
Pat Bagley is the editorial cartoonist for The Salt Lake Tribune.
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