At one time, Mormonism practiced and preached polygamy. Then it discontinued and disavowed it, dubbing members apostates if they promoted and participated in it.
Now, the Utah-based faith is taking aim at another unconventional approach to coupling: same-sex marriage.
Last month, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints updated its "Handbook," which provides guidelines for lay leaders of the 15 million-member faith, labeling same-sex couples (either married or cohabiting) as "apostates" and generally forbidding their children from baptism or other religious rites until they are 18 and willing to renounce gay marriage.
The new policy's wording parallels the Handbook's instructions for dealing with the offspring of polygamist parents.
"For generations, we've had these same kinds of policies that relate to children in polygamist families that we wouldn't go forward with these ordinances," LDS apostle D. Todd Christofferson said in a videotaped interview explaining the new policy on gays, "while they're in that circumstance and before they reach their majority."
The two approaches, the apostle said, are "analogous."
Christofferson and many Latter-day Saints see the policy as protecting children from dissonance created when their parents teach them one form of marriage and they hear about the Mormon "ideal," which the church defines as one man and one woman.
Not all LDS observers agree with the juxtaposition and some find it troubling, even offensive.
"The polygamy comparison is fallacious, unhelpful and insulting," says Kendall Wilcox, an LDS gay documentary filmmaker and co-founder of Out in Zion, a podcast about Mormonism and homosexuality. "My inherent drive to bond with another human being is not comparable to someone's desire to take part in a religiously motivated polygamist practice."
The most obvious distinction, of course, is that polygamy is illegal, while same-sex marriage is now legal in all 50 states. The first is a practice that can be taught; the second is based on attraction.
Beyond that, the two marriage systems have played opposite roles within the faith's development. Polygamy was once fully embraced, even central to Mormon teachings. Gay marriage never has been.
"Once you understand the church's history," says W. Paul Reeve, author of "Religion of a Different Color," "you see more differences than parallels."
Paths diverge • The practice of LDS men marrying more than one wife began in the early 1840s with what Mormons believe was a divine revelation to church founder Joseph Smith, according to the denomination's own essay on polygamy. "For more than half a century, plural marriage was practiced by some Latter-day Saints."
LDS leaders viewed polygamy not only as tolerable, but even "superior to monogamy," says Reeve, who teaches Utah history at the University of Utah. "There is all kinds of evidence they were preaching that from the pulpit."
By 1890, however, the U.S. government had made it nearly impossible for Mormons to continue the practice, so then-church President Wilford Woodruff announced the "Manifesto," declaring the faith's intention to give it up.
That proved tough for members who had banked their emotional and spiritual lives on the practice, he says, and thus began a painful period of transition.
"Seven members of the Quorum of the Twelve [Apostles] took wives after the Manifesto," Reeve says, and many Mormons couldn't believe the church truly was abandoning a practice so central to their lives and families.
In 1904, the church got serious about ending plural marriage, threatening sanctions against members who continued it — which only spawned splinter groups.
Such groups, including the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, "describe Woodruff as a fallen prophet," he says, "and polygamy as essential to the identity of Latter-day Saints."
So mainstream Mormonism and its offshoots had to wrangle over the notion of authority — who really speaks for God?
The Salt Lake City-based faith then branded polygamists "apostates," and children being raised by them could not be baptized into the LDS Church.
It was essentially a sectarian battle, Reeve says, not a sexual one.
But it also posed an image problem. Even into the 21st century, outsiders still "label us polygamists," Reeve says. "We've tried for more than a century to get rid of that moniker. You can understand why the church would not want to baptize children of polygamists. It fears the public perception mistaking us for them."
But, he wonders, would anyone confuse the LDS Church as being in favor of same-sex marriage?
Inculcating attraction • Children of polygamists don't always turn out to be polygamists, notes Grant Hardy, a University of North Carolina at Asheville professor of history and religious studies, "but it is a culture they are inculcated into."
Polygamous groups generally are organized in some way "that directly undermines the authority of LDS leaders," says Hardy, a Latter-day Saint scholar who wrote "Understanding the Book of Mormon: A Reader's Guide." "They appeal to a higher authority and perform ordinations outside of LDS Church channels."
Anyone from a polygamous background who is baptized into the LDS Church must "disavow polygamy" before serving a mission for his or her new faith, he says. "That makes sense because belief in polygamy can be spread by missionaries, armed with quotations from early church authorities. You do want to make sure that missionaries are not going to be agents for polygamy."
Plus, many Mormons believe plural marriage is just "in abeyance," Hardy says. "Plenty think it will be practiced in the next life."
Even LDS temple ceremonies allow men to be "sealed" to more than one wife for the hereafter.
People in same-sex marriages "are generally not organized and don't have a claim to higher ecclesiastical authority," he says. "The church has never practiced it, and there is no sense that God is going to command the church to embrace the practice of it."
Sexual attraction is not something that can be passed down from one generation to the next. Try as they might, gay couples cannot teach their offspring to share their attractions.
In fact, the vast majority of children of same-sex couples are heterosexual.
Hardy also worries about designating gay couples as "apostates."
In the past, being an apostate has meant not only serious sin, he says, but also working to "thwart or undermine the leaders' authority."
But, Hardy adds, "no one enters a same-sex marriage to thwart the church."
Some, however, argue that is precisely what gays are trying to do — change God's definition of marriage. And by marrying, they openly defy the faith's teachings.
'Deeply wrong' • Ralph Hancock, professor of political science at LDS Church-owned Brigham Young University, sees similarities — and differences — in the two policies.
In both cases, he says, "the church must attend both to the challenge of apostasy and to the interests of the child, which must ultimately be understood as separating the child from the belief-environment of the apostate household."
In any case, all of the "huffing and puffing and hand-wringing over the new Handbook policy," Hancock says, "is finally a distraction from the main question: the moral status of homosexual relations."
The LDS Church's position is that acting on same-sex attraction "is deeply wrong," he says. "Members who understand and support this position are not at all troubled by the policy regarding children of homosexual households. They understand that the real harm to children is not that of granting them some space and time to separate their own moral and religious identity from that of their unfortunate household. The real harm is to put the child in that environment in the first place."
The "homosexual household," Hancock says, "presents a deeper, more radical challenge [than polygamy] to the LDS idea of the very meaning of human existence and of human happiness."
Though thoroughly repudiated in modern Mormonism, "polygamy has been not only accepted but commanded by God in some instances," he says. "And polygamous households can produce offspring in the natural way. But homosexual unions have never been and could never be prescribed or tolerated by LDS Christians."
Gay marriage, Hancock argues, "offends the very understanding of reality that is fundamental to Mormonism."
To Wilcox, the gay filmmaker, that view lacks empathy.
"It denotes a woeful misunderstanding of the nature of human sexual orientation," he says, "and how it functions."
The only comparison that makes any sense, he says, is not with polygamy but rather with straight Mormons seeking a mate, a stable household and a place in their community of faith.