As a student of history, especially United States and Mormon History and a great believer in the American Constitution; I have long wondered why my ancestors and our religion have arguably been the most persecuted faith and this in a country whose principles included religious liberty. In fact because of those liberties and the uniqueness of the American experience, Mormonism had to be born in America; for nowhere else could it have flourished in its beginnings. When I see Mormons branded as “non-Christian” and polygamy continually tied to Mormonism, I believe even today we find the answers to this paradox of religious freedom.
This country from its outset struggled with its ideals of liberty, and who would be included in them. First was the obvious problem of the native peoples who had to be displaced in order to establish such a political unit. Then even as our Constitution was framed, those brought over as slaves to work and settle this land would also be denied full access and liberty.
The difference in the American experience is that the original intent was a country born of laws, rights and citizenship with the idea of a free people to govern over themselves, and not by the historical bonds of blood or force. The sheer expanse of the frontier and the opportunities it held, coupled with such ideals, attracted the world. The world was welcome. However, because the traditional bonds of a national identity, and deep historical past or model did not exist, America had to rely on a few cultural foundations that became critical in defining who belonged in the American experience.
The more varied the immigrants arriving in America, the more important it became to hold to these common cultural foundations. Those pillars seem to have been a broad religious category of Christianity, a common language of English, and a notion of a traditional family. Through understanding this basis, lays the answer to the paradox of the American ideals of liberty and how we narrowed the scope under which it was given. The more people we have included politically, the more we have had a need to exclude them culturally if they did not fit those three expected characteristics.
When I visited Ellis Island recently I was struck by one of the questions on the admittance form for citizenship. Right next to question #21 asking if a prospective immigrant was an anarchist was also “Whether a polygamist?” It seems that polygamy was a way to keep out the non-Christian and many times non-white people, and to culturally exclude them. As Westward expansion began, our nation systematically destroyed and restricted the native populations that did not fit our traditional ideas of religion or culture, and in that path the Mormons also fell victim.
We see these same conflicts taking place even now as we mature in the ideals of our Republic. Today we still try to label Mormons as non-Christian, for to do so is to marginalize them from the greater cultural identity, and polygamy still remains illegal. Not because it is so morally repugnant, after all we allow cohabitation and adultery without the same moral judgments, but because it challenges our traditions of family and the definition of our national identity. In many ways the gay marriage debate is an extension of that in the modern world. Additionally, as we deal with Hispanic immigrants we seek to enforce English only laws and make sure they too fit into our cultural norms before we will give them admittance.
I still believe in the ideals of our Constitutional Republic. At times I see our society growing and maturing as a nation and as a civilization, and at other times I continue to see our ideals compromised and tossed asunder. When we consider polygamists as legal members of our society, or a Mormon for president, or any of the other least favored amongst us, let us not forget the ideals of our Republic; and also understand the causes of our inconsistencies in allowing those freedoms to be applied to all of our citizens.