Thursday, January 6, 2011

Mormon Polygamy on Trial : Day 14 Summary and Media links

The BC Supreme court reconvened on Jan 5, 2011 to hear testimony from independent Mormon scholar Dr. W. John Walsh. Dr. Walsh was requested as an expert witness by Mr. Wickett, the attorney for the FLDS in Canada. Dr. Walsh brought an important perspective to the proceedings - and the media reports do a good job of covering that.

However, before offering my personal slant on Walsh's testimony, it is worth noting some of the important things that the media sources have not mentioned. The most interesting of these points came from the video interviews with Brent Jeffs (Grandson of former FLDS prophet Rulon Jeffs) and Ruth Lane (ex-wife of Winston Blackmore - who is one of the current fundamentalist LDS leaders) that were shown in the afternoon. Both Brent and Ruth have left the FLDS church, and both of them experienced significant abuse of various forms while in that church. However to their great credit, they did not exhibit the one-sidedness and bitterness that often accompanies these traumatic events.

Brent Jeff's concludes that the restrictive and abusive treatment that he experienced has its' roots in Joseph Smith's own teachings. However, in spite of this, he does not hold animosity towards any church. Rather his statements have been consistently targeted towards his own uncle, Warren Jeffs - the current FLDS prophet, who is responsible for an un-precedented reign of abuse where he has torn families apart and forced church members to leave their homes and communities.

It is also worth noting that while Ruth Lane has concluded that the FLDS church is not consistent with her concept of a loving God, and that she would no longer even consider living in a polygamous marriage, she still believes that the polygamy law should be repealed. From her perspective, the criminalization of polygamy only makes the FLDS community more isolated and this makes it more difficult for everyone - men, women and children - in the community. She also believes that people should be allowed to live as they see fit as long as everyone's rights are protected. However, as an interesting caveat, Ruth believes that no one under the age of 21 should be allowed to enter a polygamous marriage. She was 18 when she married Winston Blackmore - who was 17 years her senior and already had 9 other wives - and she believes that this was too young for anyone to make a decision of that significant nature.

Back to Dr. Walsh, his earlier background was in the business world, but over the past years it seems he has retired and begun a serious scholarly focus on religious studies. According to his testimony, Walsh was a convert to the LDS church more than 20 years ago. He went to BYU, was involved in the LDS CES seminary program and has published several articles on the FAIR LDS (mormon apologist) website.

His participation in the FAIR on-line community rose to haunt him during his testimony. Craig Jones, chief lawyer for the BC AG, challenged his qualifications to testify as an expert witness. Primary among these objections, Jones read from on-line postings attributed to Walsh and characterized him as a "cheer-leader for polygamy". Walsh seemed uncomfortable with these postings, and said he does not specifically remember writing them. However, he conceded that they reflect a valid understanding of LDS mormon doctrine and he wrote many similar articles during his early years in the Mormon church.

It also seems that Dr. Walsh has matured in his viewpoints as he has pursued his PhD in religious studies. To his credit, he took his masters level course in religious studies under a supervisor who is a Jewish Rabbi. His PhD thesis is on the theology of Joseph Smith in comparison to other major theologies. Currently, he is sitting in on classes in a Catholic seminary.

Dr. Walsh clearly favors a repeal of the polygamy law. In direct response to the AG BC question, Walsh stated that he did not personally agree with the 1878 US Supreme court decision on the Reynolds case, which effectively led to the forced cessation of Mormon Polygamy. However, contrary to conventional Mormon doctrine, Walsh also offered that he is also a supporter of same-sex marriage. He believes that people should be allowed to associate as they see fit. If a woman chooses to live with 5 men, or if a man chooses to live with 5 women, he stated that he believes the State should not prohibit this - as long as everyone is a freely-consenting adult and people are not abused.

Dr. Walsh's testimony opened the door to an uncomfortable question. Under oath, he stated his opinion that the FLDS and LDS church's have about 95% in common doctrine and 75% in common practice. He also gave an accurate history of the evolution of the mainstream mormon church and the attendant rise in the fundamentalist movement. Probably even more controversially, he stated that a divide exists the present-day Mormon church between those who believe polygamy is a "holy principle" that will one day be practiced again (either on earth or in heaven) and those who believe that polygamy is an "archaic practice" and a stain on the history of the church.

From my personal experience, I believe that Dr. Walsh is correct in this assessment. However, Daphne Branham has taken this statement and made a very unreasonable extrapolation. Stating that close to 6 million LDS live in the USA, she estimates that if our polygamy law were rescinded, that it could provoke a schism in the LDS church. The pro-polygamy faction - which could be as high as 3 million latter day saints, could flood into Canada.

I personally believe that Daphne has left out two major factors from her analysis. First, this was the same argument that was used against Canada's decision to legalize same-sex marriage. Since about 10% of any population is gay, and there are 300 million American, if Canada legalized gay marriage, we would be flooded by 30 million gay Americans who would naturally want to move here. Did that happen? Second, the Mormon church already operates in many countries where polygamy is legal. However, the church explicitly states that polygamous families in these countries cannot become members of the LDS church and if any member becomes polygamous - even in these countries - they are subject to immediate ex-communication.

This is obviously a big inconsistency. The Mormon church doctrine still endorses polygamy as a sacred eternal principle, yet it does not allow the practice because it is "against the laws of the land" - even in countries where it is not against the law. Personally, I suspect that this is because the LDS church has become profoundly American - therefore, the only constitutional law that concerns the church is American constitutional law.

This may be a secondary motivating factor in the LDS church's support for a US Federal constitutional amendment defining marriage as being between "one man and one woman". In the short term, it serves the purpose of prohibiting same-sex unions and in the long term, it reduces the chances that polygamy will ever become legal in the USA - where it really matters. If polygamy were ever legalized in the USA, where there are many influential and powerful LDS families with deep polygamous roots, it could potentially lead to the kind of split that Daphne suggests.

It is also interesting to note that Mormon polygamy did not end with the federal anti-polygamy prosecutions. This only served to drive polygamy into a secret, underground practice among a elite inner circle of church leaders. What really ended polygamy in the LDS church was the appointment of Mormon Republican Reed Smoot to the US senate in 1903. Now, a little over a century later, Mitt Romney has a reasonable chance of becoming the first Mormon to become President of the United States. Romney is the first man since the prophet Joseph Smith to run for that most powerful office - I don't believe the LDS church will allow polygamy to stand in the way of that.

Mormons split over polygamy practice, expert says at trial - Think Tank

Forced polygamy a 'deviation' from Mormonism, scholar testifies

Mormons denounce forced polygamous unions, expert says

Forced polygamous relations against Mormon beliefs, court told - The Globe and Mail

1 comment:

Alma said...

I think Walsh is seriously mistaken in his assertion that FLDS doctrine and practice share respectively 95% and 75% with the LDS. Having interviewed many of the leaders of various fundamentalist sects, and having years of personal observation and interaction with fundamentalists, I would suggest that they are much more widely separated--beginning with the subjects of the godhead, modern revelation, temple ordinances and priesthood authority. You won't find any LDS who believe that Joseph Smith is the Holy Spirit--a fundamental of fundamentalism, as well as a host of other heresies.

The LDS position of forbidding baptism to practicing polygamists is entirely consistent with LDS doctrine--and it isn't rooted in US law--it is in ecclesiastical law.