The Marriage Trap

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Temple Square.jpgIt is no small irony that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints should now be the object of nationwide ire for exercising its ecclesiastical power on behalf of “traditional” marriage. Once upon a time, the church looked to the U.S. Supreme Court to affirm the right of its members to practice marriage according to their own distinctive lights, and had Reynolds v. U.S. gone the other way in 1878, there’s every reason to think that Mormons in good standing would still be committing themselves to bonds of plural matrimony. In the gay marriage wars of the past few years, a standard rhetorical question of many opponents has been that if same-sex marriage is allowed, can polygamy be far behind? You wonder how often that question was voiced by the rank-and-file Mormons canvassing last month on behalf of Proposition 8.
In a conversation Friday, Peggy Fletcher Stack, the longtime Salt Lake Tribune religion reporter who has probably written more stories about the LDS Church than any journalist alive, allowed as how this had not been a very good season for a church that’s highly sensitive to its public image. First there was the presidential campaign of Mitt Romney, which roiled the evangelical dovecotes. Then there was the assault on the Yearning for Zion ranch in Texas that, if it hardly proved a big win for the Texas authorities, served as yet another reminder of Mormon polygamy to a public that may not distinguish too sharply between fundamentalist Mormons and their mainstream cousins. And finally this.
This, of course, the church brought entirely on itself. To be sure, it was part of a coalition of religious institutions promoting Prop. 8, and there’s doubtless a temptation to ask why the much more numerous Catholics and evangelicals haven’t drawn the bulk of the attention. That’s got to be ingrained anti-Mormon prejudice, no? Maybe but maybe not. As we know from the election returns, most Catholics don’t pay much attention to what their bishops say when it comes to voting, and as for evangelicals, there’s no hierarchy that presumes to tell them what to do. It’s a different story when the LDS Church sends out instructions.
There was a lot of shouting yesterday about the need to separate church and state, but under the law religious institutions, like other non-profits, are entitled to advocate for issues they care about without putting their tax exemptions at risk. What they shouldn’t expect to avoid is denunciation and vilification from the other side. As the marriage wars continue, it will be interesting to see whether the famously nice folks in Temple Square decide to make nice or to double down.