Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Marriage, Religion and the State : A Mormon history (Part 1)


Marriage is a controversial topic in our contemporary society. One side contends that marriage is a sacred institution which provides the foundation for healthy families that provide the basis for a successful society. Others argue that marriage is an individual choice that provides the framework for our most intimate personal relationships and neither society nor government should define who or how we should marry. These competing opinions are clearly present in the California ballot proposition 8 which repealed same-sex marriage rights by defining marriage as being between “one man and one woman” and the upcoming British Columbia supreme court challenge to determine whether the Canadian anti-polygamy law is constitutional. While it may not be surprising to see wide ranging views about marriage within North America’s liberal and multi-cultural society, it is more puzzling to see strongly divergent opinions being expressed by different denominations within the Latter Day Saint movement. Nevertheless, we find the Salt Lake LDS church strongly supporting a federal U.S. constitutional amendment to define marriage as being between one man and one woman, while the Fundamentalist Latter-Day Saints (FLDS) are actively breaking Canada’s anti-polygamy law and claiming legal protection under their constitutional right to religious freedom. Not be be left out, the Community of Christ (RLDS) are exploring the possibility of sanctioning same-sex marriages. This range of opinion is striking, especially considering the LDS movement is relatively new, tracing its origin to 1830 in New York State, and all the denominations are headquartered within the United States. The purpose of this paper is not to determine which of these groups is right, this has been already been done too many times over the past 150 years. Rather it is our intention to understand the changing positions on marriage as an attempt to balance developing theological understanding with dominating social and political pressures.

Early mormonism, like early Christianity, called people to leave their established lives and gather into new Zionic communities where they could live according to an alternative social, economic and religious order. These unorthodox practices placed the saints at odds with their neighbors and resulted in severe persecution. In spite of this radical past, early mormonism is probably best known for its’ practice of plural marriage, or polygamy, which arguably shaped the church more than any other single factor. Accusations about plural marriage led directly to the assassination of the prophet Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum and polygamy is also one of the biggest contributors to the schisms that have occurred from the death of Joseph Smith to modern times. Given this history, why would Latter-day Saints from different denominations want to revisit this aspect of their faith? The intention is not to determine which group is the One True Church. Rather the desire is to explore and document how perspectives on marriage have changed over time in each of the three major LDS traditions.

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