Commentary: LDS history of polygamy still used to victimize women

We must publicly admit as a culture that polygamy was a mistake.

(Tribune file photo) Brigham Young, second president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Three years ago, I wrote a commentary for The Salt Lake Tribune pointing out how the history of polygamy in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints makes space for LDS men to use that history to sexually coerce victims.

Since I wrote that, dozens of women have shared with me their experiences of being groomed and assaulted by older men in their lives with power and authority over them. These were men they had trusted automatically, given their status as priesthood holders, as former teachers, bishops and, yes, mission presidents.

As a psychologist, I have seen LDS men justify infidelity and sexual assault by framing their desires as a prompting to live the higher law of polygamy. This is unfortunately more common than you might think.

In this age of #MeToo and the Missionary Training Center abuse scandal, there have been many suggestions regarding how we can prevent sexual abuse in the LDS Church.

McKenna Denson, who has sued the church over allegations of abuse at the MTC, has encouraged victims to go straight to the police before approaching their priesthood leaders for advice. Others, such as Sam Young, have suggested ending worthiness interviews with children altogether. I support all these suggestions and would like to reiterate another I’ve brought up before:

We must publicly admit as a culture that polygamy was a mistake.

I strongly encourage church leaders to prayerfully consider disavowing polygamy, as sexual predators use this precedent to groom victims. While the church acknowledges in its Gospel Topics essay on polygamy some of the thornier elements of our history (like Joseph Smith taking multiple wives, some as young as 14, and having sexual relationships with many of them despite publicly disavowing polygamy), it still insists that all of this was God’s will.

Consider with me, please, the following scenario: A male seminary teacher takes particular interest in a female student and requests to meet with her after class to discuss “deep doctrine.” He reads the Gospel Topics essay on Joseph’s polygamy with her and asks her what she thinks about those brave girls who were obedient when the prophet asked them to be sealed to him. He might point out how the essays quote these girls saying they were blessed for their obedience.

Many of us have heard this quote in Sunday School and conference: “Happiness is the object and design of our existence; and will be the end thereof, if we pursue the path that leads to it; and this path is virtue, uprightness, faithfulness, holiness, and keeping all the commandments of God.”

What we typically don’t hear, though, is that this quote is from a letter from Joseph to teenage Nancy Rigdon asking for her to secretly marry him. In this same letter where Joseph promises happiness to the obedient, he also makes a case for moral relativism to justify polygamy:

“That which is wrong under one circumstance, may be, and often is, right under another. God said, ‘Thou shalt not kill’; at another time He said, ‘Thou shalt utterly destroy.’ This is the principle on which the government of heaven is conducted — by revelation adapted to the circumstances in which the children of the kingdom are placed. Whatever God requires is right, no matter what it is, although we may not see the reason thereof till long after the events transpire.”

Is it hard to imagine this hypothetical seminary teacher using this same rhetoric to justify and persuade his student to enter an inappropriate sexual relationship? It shouldn’t be, because we have many concrete examples of exactly this happening. Too, too many examples.

In Denson’s recent news conference, she asserted that Bishop had a history of sexual misconduct before he was her MTC mission president. Even though we have no concrete evidence that Bishop used polygamy to justify his urges, we do know of many other Brother Bishops who have.

Though Elder Quentin L. Cook’s General Conference talk condemned what he called “nonconsensual immorality,” this is not enough. Many of these men might perceive their victims’ positive responses to their grooming as consent. If we want to protect our communities from abuse, we need to disavow the tools offenders use. In Mormonism, we cannot do this without disavowing polygamy.

Kristy Money is a psychologist and founder of the Healthy Mormon Journeys Foundation.