Why Liberty and Religious Freedom Has Not Applied to Polygamy

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.

Three Sisterwives with Lady 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.

Whether a polygamist, question on Ellis Island Immigration Form.

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.

Joe At Ellis Island With New York In Background

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3 Responses to Why Liberty and Religious Freedom Has Not Applied to Polygamy

  1. John Nomads says:

    I believe, like anti – gay marriage laws, anti – poly laws will be struct down as unconstitutional, in my lifetime. Granted i do not want or require state approval of who i marry. Bty, our poly relationship is not based on any religious beliefs or conciderations. While we often meet with various families of faith, and call ourselves christian, we enjoy our poly relationship based on the ideals of mutual love, trust, and respect.

  2. Jason says:

    The idea of persecuting consenting adults who choose to follow a belief that is based on love, comittment, and sacrifice is absurd. I think its time for polygamy marches. Come out of hiding and be proud of who you are. We need to change the mindsets of our government and those who appose polygamy. Once we do that then we can be free to live just like everyone else.

  3. Kevin says:

    There is a mistake in many people thinking of ‘legalizing’ polygamy as well as legalizing homosexual (gay) marriages. The laws adopted by states to curtail polygamy and homosexuality are positive laws. Positive laws are defined as man-made, and are a response to taboo or harmful practices. They can also be called socialist laws, as many of them are laws meant to force conformity. New laws need not be created to ensure this freedom. Instead, the laws in each state must be stricken. What the poly community should be calling for is the decriminalization of poly laws. They are an infringement of our civil and religious liberties. Thank you Darger family for your public voice at this time.

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