The Latter-day Saints are on the rise in the US, and a Republican named Mitt Romney has hopes of becoming the first Mormon president. But the church has one serious image problem: polygamy. Which is why HBO’s new drama, about a man with three wives, is stirring up controversy. By Julian Borger
There is a quirky new drama coming to American television next month. It is called Big Love, and HBO will air it in a plum weekly slot, just after The Sopranos. Like The Sopranos, Big Love is a tale of marital strife in a dysfunctional family, only in this case the central character is not a Mafioso but a regular guy from Utah who happens to have three wives – hence the wry title.
It is another tale of American subculture. As with the Mob in New Jersey, polygamy in rural Utah may be illegal, but is nevertheless a widely accepted part of the landscape. Big Love is being heavily promoted and boasts big-screen stars.
Tom Hanks is one of the producers, Bill Paxton plays the Viagra-popping husband, with Chloe Sevigny, Jeanne Tripplehorn and Ginnifer Goodwin as his three wives. Harry Dean Stanton is cast in the role of the community’s sinister polygamist-in-chief.
Most importantly for the audience figures, in a television-watching society somewhat jaded by manufactured edginess, the show has succeeded in generating some genuine political controversy. It so happens that this is a particularly sensitive moment in American politics to be making a noise about polygamous marriage.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Mormons, introduced polygamy to the US before the civil war, but it has spent more than a century trying to disown its continued practice by more than 20,000 renegade Mormon fundamentalists in the backwaters of the western states, as well as in Mexico and Canada.
Polygamy is a constant embarrassment to the church in its quest for mainstream acceptance and top-level political influence.
The church elders, who call themselves the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, have insisted that every episode of HBO’s Big Love begin with a disclaimer stating that the Latter-day Saints church does not sanction plural marriage. (The producers insist they intended to put out such a disclaimer anyway, saying the Mormon church’s opposition was integral to the narrative, raising its “dramatic stakes”.)
The truth is that the Mormon church has managed to live down the Osmonds, but it is still struggling to live down polygamy 116 years after banning the practice. Polygamy survives like a batty old aunt in the attic, sounding off at the most embarrassing moments.
All this is not entirely the church’s fault. The fundamentalist sects in Utah and beyond who still use the Mormon label generate a disproportionate number of news stories, mostly about horribly abused women and children. Yet some critics say the church leadership, in its multi-spired temple in downtown Salt Lake City, must shoulder some of the blame. It has sent mixed signals on plural marriages, turned a blind eye to polygamists in its own ranks decades after the ban, and done little to help victims of abuse. Although the church’s 1890 “manifesto” against polygamy prohibits it here on earth, the scriptures retain it as a celestial ideal for believers who find their way to the kingdom of heaven.
Such criticisms have long been an irritant to the Mormon hierarchy, but of late they have become excruciating. Now more than ever, the Mormon apostles do not want dirty old laundry to be aired on prime-time television, just as the Latter-day Saints seem poised to fulfil their founder’s prophecy and scale the supreme heights of US government.
A Mormon from Nevada, Harry Reid, is currently the most powerful Democrat in Congress and could take command of the Senate if the Democrats do well in congressional elections this November. Meanwhile, another Mormon, Mitt Romney, is likely to declare a run for the presidency.
Romney, the Republican governor of Massachusetts, is a direct descendant of one of the Mormon church’s original pilgrims. He joined the Mormon priesthood at 12, and became a church elder at 18, before serving as a missionary in France. In December, he announced that he would not seek re-election for the governorship, and he is now making all the manoeuvres and noises that typically presage the declaration of a candidacy for the White House.
Romney will be a serious contender in 2008. He has a record as a successful businessman and administrator, transforming first the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City and then the high-spending liberal state of Massachusetts from financial basket cases to success stories.
He has shown the breadth of his appeal by winning the governorship in deeply Democratic Massachusetts – “a bit like being a cattle rancher at a vegetarian convention”, as Romney puts it. And at 58, Romney has the advantage of relative youth over the Republican front-runner, Senator John McCain, who is 11 years his senior.
No matter how Romney performs in 2008, his candidacy will do two things – it will turn him into a national figure, and it will pose the question: is America ready to put a Mormon in the White House?
Hardly anyone batted an eyelid when Harry Reid emerged as the Senate minority leader in 2004. In fact the Democrats, convinced they had lost that year’s elections on “moral values”, were proud of Reid’s Mormon credentials.
The church is a byword for conservatism (95% of American Mormons voted for Bush in 2004) and Reid is anti-abortion, opposed to gay marriage and gun control and defends capital punishment.
But he is liberal on bread-and-butter issues such as health and education, and that is good enough for the Democrats in this time of exile. Reid at least offers potential crossover appeal in conservative “red” states.
Reid’s Mormonism is unthreatening. America does not fear excessive religious zeal in its Democrats, as it tends not to worry about weakness on security from its Republicans. It would be counterintuitive. In any case, the job of Senate minority leader is a backroom task for a political engineer. It does not hold sway over the Union.
But a Mormon running as a Republican for the presidency is another matter. Americans want their presidents not just to represent them, but also to embody them somehow as a nation.
Would a Mormon be permitted to do that?
The precedents are not favourable. Joseph Smith, the founding prophet of the Latter-day Saints church, declared his presidential candidacy in 1844, at a time when his followers were a community of outcasts in Illinois. In July that year, he was shot dead by an anti-Mormon at the age of 38, before his campaign even got going. His successor, Brigham Young, fled west to Utah with the remaining Saints (including Miles Park Romney, Mitt Romney’s great-great-grandfather).
They took with them Smith’s prophecy that one day a Mormon would come to America’s rescue.
Mormons would be “the staff upon which the nation shall lean”, the prophet predicted, when the constitution “is on the brink of ruin”. The next man to try to fulfil that prophecy was Mitt Romney’s father, George, an automobile executive and a three-term Republican governor of Michigan who was born in a polygamous Mormon community in Mexico. He launched an ill-fated presidential campaign in 1967, but proved too gaffe-prone even to last until the official starting post, the New Hampshire primary.
In 2000, it was the turn of Orrin Hatch, a softly spoken Republican senator from Utah, but his campaign was quickly crushed under the Bush steamroller. Before Hatch’s effort collapsed, a survey found that 17% of Americans would not vote for a Mormon president under any circumstances.
“One reason I ran was to knock down the prejudicial wall that exists,” Hatch later told the Weekly Standard. “I wanted to make it easier for the next candidate of my faith.”
That candidate is Romney, who insists that the diehard opposition to Mormonism accounts for only a few per cent of the electorate. That may be optimistic on his part. Elections, especially presidential elections, act like a giant magnifying glass on a candidate’s weak points, and Romney’s chief weakness will be Mormon history and dogma.
The press will want to know, for example, whether he wears the Mormon’s secret and sacred undergarments beneath his politician’s suit. There will be a fresh look at why the Latterday Saints’ priesthood was closed to black people until 1978, and whether its principal text, the Book of Mormon, is inherently racist. Evangelical conservatives, the backbone of the Republican party, will quiz him on his faith.
Many deny that it is Christian at all. “The challenge to governor Romney would be the most serious in the Republican primaries,” said John Green, an expert at the Pew Forum on Religion and Politics. “Many of the evangelicals take a dim view of the Latter-day Saints. The Southern Baptists regularly label the Mormons as a dangerous cult. So you could imagine his opponents might bring this up.”
Although Christ is a central figure in Mormon beliefs, the church teaches that God has a material body, and was fathered by another God. Joseph Smith also said that man can ultimately ascend to heaven and become “what God is”: divine. Yet despite – or perhaps because of – these fundamental differences from established Christian dogma, the church is a powerful and growing force. It claims 12 million adherents around the world, two-thirds of them in the US, where it is one of the fastest-growing religions.
That’s a lot of potential campaign volunteers. The Church of Christ of Latter-day Saints is, after all, the only truly American mass religion. It places the Garden of Eden in Jackson County, Missouri, and claims Christ visited America after the resurrection to promise his second coming, also in Missouri. It is an entirely home-grown faith. Joseph Smith founded the religion in 1830 in upstate New York, telling his followers an angel had appeared to him and handed him the Book of Mormon in the form of gold tablets.
Smith gave the tablets back after translating them from the original “reformed Egyptian”. According to the Book of Mormon, Israelites came to the American continent 600 years before Christ, but split into two feuding tribes, Nephites and Lamanites. The Nephites were “pure” (the word was “white” in Mormon scriptures until 1981) and led by a great man called Mormon. Lamanites were idol-worshipping and wicked, and therefore suffered the “curse of blackness” that turned their skins dark. The Lamanites eventually wiped out the Nephites, which is why Christopher Columbus found only brown-skinned native Americans when he arrived. All these Mormon tenets will come under unprecedented scrutiny in a presidential race, which will be an uncomfortable time for the apostles in Salt Lake City.
The difference between a cult and a religion may only be a couple of thousand years, but while the origins of mainstream Christian faiths have acquired the blurred patina of age, the Mormon scriptures are jarringly recent and, in many cases, patently wrong. DNA testing, for example, has shown that the first Americans arrived from Asia, not from the Middle East.
But no Mormon doctrine or practice has proved more troubling to the church than polygamy. The principle did not form part of Smith’s original scriptures, but came to him as a revelation years later. He is said to have taken a second wife, a 16-year-old housemaid, in 1833 – and 30 more wives over the next decade, to the disgust of some of his disciples.
The legacy endured for nearly half a century after Smith’s death, and the church only surrendered it as a compromise, in return for Utah statehood. Polygamy has dogged Mormonism ever since, and it will dog Mitt Romney’s bid to become the Latter-day Saints’ first president.
The fact is that polygamy makes lousy politics – for all the same reasons it will no doubt make great television.