This is one of those times where I have to stray from talking about real estate and local politics and talk about something larger and more significant. I dislike the Culture Wars; this never-ending battle of wits where people are compartmentalized as backwards on both sides of countless wedge issues.
Because Utah residents now have legal gay marriage in their state–a notion I thought would never happen; and that Pennsylvania is facing similarly strong court challenges, it’s time to look at this again with open eyes.
And it’s not going to be possible to talk about Utah without the Mormon church. It is the origin of the state of Utah and Utah has been married to it ever since. It’s the only place in America where the line of separation between church and state is as razor thin as possible.Let’s remind ourselves of what The Mormon church is. Or rather, how it got to Utah. Early in its history it was a small sect with numbers in the five-figure range, eeking out a living in central Illinois. Polygamy was a central feature of Mormon life and culture. Brigham Young, the leader of the church fathered fifty-six children. 56! And I thought my great-grandparents were weird for running a household of 14.
Why were the Mormons so into polygamy? It’s practical. If you’re running an offshoot Christian ministry that is considered to be abhorrent to mainline Protestantism, how easy do you think it will be to exist in an America where families were tighter and more tightly bound to their congregations than today? Finding converts would be difficult.
That’s not to say that Mormons don’t try to advertise themselves to non-believers. They reach out a lot. There are temples all across America these days. A huge one is going up right across the street from the Archdiocese of Philadelphia in what will surely be a nice but spiteful dichotomy between the Vine Street Expressway. But in 19th Century America, if you’re selling yourself with a dogma that includes a belief that Jesus Himself walked across North America, you weren’t going to grow your church rapidly.
Polygamy afforded an opportunity to grow the church from within. And quickly. The FLDS church provides some modern-day evidence that backs this up. The church run by prophet Warren Jeffs was raided in Texas multiple times by Texas Department of Child Protective Services over conditions and reports coming from excommunicated FLDS members and nearby observers to the reclusive church.
Polygamy within these confines is merely practical and an economic benefit to the church. Religion often starts at home with the family as children are introduced to it by their parents. Promoting very large families insures that the community grows quickly within a single lifetime. Because the culture is strong and unique it creates tight bonds with its members that are emotionally painful to sever.
It also comes with political advantages as in the case of Brigham Young. The Mormon diaspora into Utah grew rapidly enough that the U.S. Congress found accepting Utah as a state to be problematic. While many Americans at the time were impressed with the piety of Mormons, polygamy shocked the conscious then as it still does now.
To the Mormons themselves they only had to look to the Torah, or the Old Testament for answers. One male married figure after another in the Bible held multiple wives. Christians everywhere have to acknowledge this, as do Jews, yet somewhere in mainstream theology this practice died out and transitioned from a cultural identity to a cultural taboo. It’s still considered one of the most perverted, abhorrent, shocking sins.
This was such a sin in fact that Utah was refused recognition as a state. Further, Congress passed a law forbidding polygamy in the territories, which included Utah. Only until the Mormon church signed the 1890 Manifesto, the Mormon equivalent to an Islamic fatwa, did opposition to accepting a Mormon state subside enough for Utah to be granted statehood. This was important to Mormons because Utah could then gain further Federal protection and also receive funding from Washington.
The Church Becomes a State
When the Church was given an ultimatum to end its polygamist ways or face continued exclusion, it decided to play along. Today many Mormon spiritual leaders insist that the end of the Church sanctifying polygamous marriages was based purely upon divine inspiration, not the result of a business transaction between Brigham Young and the lobbying party to Congress seeking statehood and Federal recognition of a state government in Utah, who… obviously… would be representing the people of Utah, namely the Mormons.
Once that Rubicon had been crossed though, Utah blossomed. Latter Day Saints had spread further around the Wasatch Valley. The Church’s large and concentrated population created a monolithic prosperous culture that echoes everywhere in the state. Utah’s beautiful isolation also made it the perfect place where the other friction points between Mormonism and mainline Christianity seldom intersect. For all we know, the 1800s could have featured an Islamic society growing in Utah and nobody would have cared.
This gave Mormons a chance to become the state and having an entire century to enshrine its belief system into the machinations of state and local government. The Church’s attitude to pornography is one of the most glaring examples of where the LDS church influence echos into the law books. Utah has the highest per-capita consumption of commercial Internet porn in America; mostly because of the restrictions on the sale of physical pornographic material within most localities inside the state. Utah is heavily opposed to gambling. It was also in support of Prohibition and was the last state to repeal the 18th Amendment. When Utah hosted the 2002 Winter Olympics it relaxed liquor enforcement because of all the international visitors coming who certainly would have noticed the theocracy first-hand had anyone been caught drinking 4% beer. Still, recent changes to Utah law have left up the ‘Zion Curtain‘.
Because of Utah’s tight codified moral laws, the early repugnance mainline Protestants have had for Mormons a century ago has waned over time as evangelical groups have rallied around politicians who espouse social conservative issues that appeal to all evangelicals. Utah is a cornerstone state for hardline social conservatives, particularly those who see no problem with “government in the bedroom”. I’ve often told similar social conservatives who complain that moral code laws in other states are slowly washing away, like in my own state of Pennsylvania: “why don’t you move to Utah?”
Indeed, self-warehousing of social conservatives into a state of their own is a good idea at first, much like some libertarians have done with mass-migration into New Hampshire. After all, this is the social conservative paradise. While most of the 1980s Moral Majority were Southern Baptist-oriented evangelicals scattered around the Bible Belt, the idea of a beautiful ski-resort concentration camp for those who are obsessed with what other people are doing in their bedrooms, drinking in their mouths and where they spend their money seems like a plausible solution in an America where no one is happy. Everyone who believes America is doomed and needs a friend in the government to help push people to Jesus Christ should check out Utah. It’s a perfect state with perfect people and everyone’s happy and lives with the Lord.
But, there’s the gays.
The Gays and Extreme Evangelicals
Gay marriage is one of those items that the LDS Church is passionate about. It’s resonated outside the Church with other evangelical sympathizers. In Pennsylvania it was embodied in the platform of Rick Santorum and there isn’t a month that goes by when PA State Representative Daryl Metcalfe isn’t harping about it. Many evangelicals truly believe that if we stop treating gay people as freaks that the underpinnings of society as it exists will become unhinged.
Some evangelicals have embraced this dogma so tightly that it has actually helped to accelerate sympathy towards equality. The most notorious of course is the Westboro Baptist Church. The WBC has actually given us two bonuses that I should heavily thank them for: Synder v. Phelps which added more cement behind the First Amendment right to assemble, and that WBC has ran out of people to offend that their anti-gay banner has pushed enough moderates over to the side of supporting equality. If it weren’t for Westboro Baptist Church, I honestly don’t believe that ‘Don’t Ask Don’t Tell’ would have been eliminated.
By Westboro attacking the families of the military and the very tiny contingent of extreme evangelicals cheering them on, the disgust they generated in the vast military community only helped fuel expansion of gay rights and acceptance of gays as normal people. This has also helped diffuse all the negative criticism and stereotypes that are showcased by those who are more moderates; namely the hedonism that’s on display at many gay pride events.
Throughout all this the LDS Church has found a more subtler way to do battle with the gays they despise: spend money.
The referendum in California to stop the state from continuing to marry gays and lesbians was considered crucial by the Church because of the proximity of California to Utah and because it is America’s most populous state. It’s also a state crucial for expanding the Mormon faith to non-Mormon communities.
News reached Californians that the drive for Proposition 8 was half-financed by the LDS Church in the form of a film by Reed Cowan titled ‘8: The Mormon Proposition’. This not only included enormous sums of money, which all referendums in California need to make it on election ballots, but busloads of Mormons from Utah were also sent to proselytize not the word of God, but to win a political battle to keep a part of LDS dogma alive in a neighboring state. After all, if California allowed gay marriage, how long would it be before this washed ashore to the steps of the Utah Capitol, only steps away from LDS Church headquarters?
While this logic may be sound, one unintended consequence for the LDS Church was a growing number of defections of Mormons leaving the church over the divisive issue. After all, the number of gays who appear in Mormon families is no different than any other family. It’s hard enough to keep a social quiet where discussion of the topic is difficult and turmoil within Mormon families is rough. When the LDS Church was identified as the principal backer of Proposition 8 this painted the Church as launching an all out war against gays and exercising plenty of its capital in the process to score a political win rather than spreading the word about Jesus. The defections accelerated as the disgust grew.
This caused alarm within church leadership and the LDS Church has since backed off its massive funding war.
Utah Court Ruling
And now we have the Christmas miracle. Gay marriage is suddenly and unexpectedly legal throughout the land of Utah. This has now hit a church that was created a state and has lived with a status quo theocracy since it was founded. It has been gobsmacked with one of the most shocking things to come its way since the day Brigham Young signed the 1890 Manifesto to cut a deal exchanging its core belief in polygamy for practicality.
I can only imagine right now through Provo, Ogden and the suburbs of Salt Lake there are many church leaders who have had an unhappy but reflective Christmas. Maybe some see this as the end of the universe as they know it? There’s no way to tell.
For one political group in Utah, the Eagle Forum, this has got to be one of the biggest defeats ever. The Eagle Forum is a social conservative lobby in Utah who screams loudest at social issues, like gay equality, abortion and welfare. They’re also quite silent on other topics like fiscal conservatism or anything “fancy” and complicated within Tea Party philosophy (like budget philosophy), spoiling an opportunity to get sophisticated after the 1970s when it cut its teeth and achieved victory against the Equal Rights Amendment. Instead, the group has held hands with other organizations focused only on social conservative dogma, like Focus on the Family and the National Organization for Marriage.
Most everywhere else in America the ‘Moral Majority’ has not ruled a U.S. state since its inception and it’s the only place where social conservatives have been comforted by the triple support of one type of church, one central theology and one blanket code of values that overshadows all other voices within the state.
If there was ever a state you would expect gay marriage to never happen for all eternity, it would have been Utah.
Why Did This Happen?
I’ve been keeping up with the Salt Lake Tribune over the holidays, who has been providing minute-by-minute coverage of what’s been happening across Utah since the shock decision came down by Judge Shelby.
Normally in a case like this any state attorney general worth his salt will have pre-prepared the motion to stay papers begging the judge to suspend his order should the state lose. But it appears that the Attorney General’s office of Utah is in a bit of a mess. The motion wasn’t prepared in time for the decision, so the Utah AG had to go back a day later to file it with the Federal Court, leaving Utah counties in limbo as the ban on gay marriage in Utah’s constitution had now been obliterated. Gay and lesbian couples rushed to offices to file the paperwork and several hundred Utahns are now legally married couples.
Compounding that error this week was the failure of the Utah Attorney General to obtain a stay from the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals. With echos of the the Lawrence v. Texas Supreme Court case where everyone agreed that Texas had sent the most incompetent person to defend Texas’ sodomy law, it appears that Utah’s best legal minds have not been put to the task of defending Utah’s constitutional amendment.
The state governor has decided that it will hire an outside competent lawyer to try to get the hole plugged to stop gays from marrying in Utah while it begins appealing Judge Shelby’s decision. This is probably because the state AG is caught up in a scandal for bribery and wire fraud which hit only four days after taking office. This is likely what led to the AG’s office slipping up and not vigorously defending the state in Federal court.
This couldn’t have come at a worse time for the LDS Church, as it could have at least rested comfortably for a time that LGBT people would always be second-class citizens in Utah and no threat to the Church.
Today church leaders in Utah have had that blanket comforter of theocratic bigotry ripped away when marriage equality was delivered to their very doorstep. The odds of Utah being able to take gay marriage rights away don’t appear to be good. Sonia Sotomayor all by herself decides emergency appeals for the 10th Circuit, a liberal Obama pick from the Bronx who probably won’t grant Utah a stay but is more likely to refer it back to the full Supreme Court or deny it.
One of Utah’s core claims in its original case has been irreparable harm; or a legal way of the “but they will fuck goats!!!” argument ala Rick Santorum: if you allow gay marriage, then you will allow everything society deems to be immoral [maybe even polygamy!]. People will be rushing to bestiality. It will be a Refer Madness of crazy that will destroy our planet.
It’s the Westboro Baptist dogma, but in a sweater vest.
Somehow, somewhere… people must have forgotten that Mitt Romney, one of the LDS Church’s “most-important” Mormons for a time was in charge of a state where gay marriage was, and still is, legal. And each second that ticks by where marriage continues to be legal in Utah, the more obvious that the irreparable harm argument shows itself as the theocratic cop-out it is.
Perhaps Utah may make inroads with a State’s Rights argument, but one of the litigants in the case transported their legal Iowa marriage into Utah, where it is not recognized. If that reaches the Supreme Court that opens up the question of whether states can selectively recognize marriage certificates issued by other states. Iowa is one of the most conservative states to allow gay marriage. Society certainly hasn’t collapsed there, or even changed; it’s still a conservative midwestern state. Have states had a long history of discarding marriage certificates between each other as invalid? That sounds like a marriage wormhole where all the anti-gay marriage states might be forced to recognize out of state gay marriages if Utah can’t defend the practice.
Our country throughout its entire history has chosen to expand freedom and never when freedoms have been pulled back has it not resulted in uproar or endless criticism. Utah will be living with gay marriage for a long time. It will certainly spend more boatloads of money trying to put the brakes on as best it can, and I certainly would love to be the recipient of that fruitless cash.
The battle of social conservatives on this wedge issue has been lost. Utah is the Gettysburg state where a theocratic dogma dominates both life and law, and they failed. There isn’t much hope for the other states that hanged their hat on the wrong side of this if Utah goes down. The writing is on the wall.
Yes, Duck Dynasty may still be on the air next year, as it should be. Homophobes across America should certainly never have their First Amendment rights ever abridged including the freedom to practice their faith, because that damages the right of speech, religion and assembly for all of us; but it’s not worth sacrificing freedoms and begging the government to get into our bedrooms for the sake of winning the Culture Wars.
Now, if we could turn this energy against the anti-American “Patriot Act”, we’d have something.
God Bless America, and Happy New Year.
— The Management