Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Polygamy: Wives and Republicans

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Polygamy: Wives and Republicans

Article excerpt

It need hardly be said that, in its judgement of the 17 presidential candidates, America is deeply divided. But if there's one thing that unites the Christian right with the liberal left it's discomfort over Mitt Romney's membership of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The Mormon faith is a degree more alienating for secular Democrats even than Bush's Protestantism. And it could be a deal-breaker for the evangelical wing of the Republican Party.

To begin with there's the Book of Mormon. Written, apparently, by fifth-century American-Indians and translated in the 1820s by Joseph Smith, this "third testament" reads like a pastiche of the King James Bible, combining Jacobean English with Hebrew verse rhythms. The original is not available for study, Smith having returned it to its hiding place on the instructions of an angel.

Weirder than Smith's book is his enthusiasm for polygamy. For more than a century, the Church of Latter-day Saints has distanced itself from this practice, a criminal offence in Utah, as it is under federal law. But traditionalist Mormons in the backwoods refuse to let the practice die and, like disreputable relatives, continue to besmirch the family name.

In a widely reported case, Warren Jeffs, leader of a fundamentalist Mormon community, is currently being tried on charges that, in arranging a marriage involving a minor, he was an accomplice to rape. In practice, polygamy is tolerated in Utah. It's the unambiguous issue of statutory rape that has got Jeffs into trouble. …

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