Queer Issue 2012
Polygamous marriage used to be an American tradition, but on July 8, it will have been illegal here for exactly 150 years. About six months before he signed the Emancipation Proclamation, Abraham Lincoln signed into law the Morrill Anti-Bigamy Act, which proclaims, in part
That every person having a husband or wife living, who shall marry any other person, whether married or single... shall... be adjudged guilty of bigamy, and, upon conviction thereof, shall be punished by a fine not exceeding five hundred dollars, and by imprisonment for a term not exceeding five years...
But bigamy and polygamy weren't really big concerns of Lincoln's. The Anti-Bigamy Act was token legislation offered up as a sop to outraged Republican moralists; what with the Civil War and all, the last thing Lincoln felt like doing was picking a fight with the Utah Territory, too. In The Real Romney, a comprehensive biography of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney by Michael Kranish and Scott Helman, the biographers note that Lincoln sent a Mormon courier out to Utah with a message: "You go back and tell Brigham Young that if he will let me alone I will let him alone."
Young, the second president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the strongest advocate of Mormon polygamy, took this cease-fire to heart. Five years later, he commanded a devout, happily married Mormon named Miles Romney to take more wives. Miles's first wife, Hannah, was unhappy with Young's command, reflecting years later in her memoir: "I used to walk the floor and shed tears of sorrow... If anything will make a woman's heart ache, it is for her husband to take another wife." But Young's will was basically the Word of God, so Miles married a second wife, Caroline, became besotted with a third, named Catharine, and took a fourth, named Annie.
By then, it was 1885, and Lincoln's compromise with Young had been forgotten: After several brushes with the law, Miles was forced to flee to Mormon colonies in Mexico. (Kranish and Helman note that Mitt would gloss over this dark bit of family history by writing, brusquely, in his memoir Turnaround: "Eventually Miles was called upon to settle in northern Mexico.") Eventually, one of Miles and Hannah's sons would father a boy named George, who would later move back to the United States, become governor of Michigan, and himself father a boy named Willard, who preferred, for some mysterious reason, to be called Mitt.
Mitt Romney is reticent to discuss his Mormon faith in public, but he has gone out of his way to uncharacteristically wring his hands over plural marriage: "I can't imagine anything more awful than polygamy," he said in a 2007 interview with Mike Wallace. (Presumably, someone will tell the poor dear about the Holocaust when he's old enough to deal with the awful truth of it.) This over-the-top Shakespearean angst is a more calculated effort to defuse questions and concerns about his polygamous background than his earlier attempts. In a 2005 issue of the Atlantic, Sridhar Pappu notes that Romney publicly joked, with an apparently clear conscience, that when it comes to same-sex marriage laws, "I believe that marriage should be between a man and a woman and a woman and a woman."
This joking about the supposed worst thing in the world is weird, but it's also somewhat appropriate. Romney's double-headed relationship with polygamy reflects the greater national attitude. In our personal lives, most of us would shudder if we met a man who kept multiple wives in the traditional Mormon sense, with the women treated as domestic broodmares. But Sister Wives, a popular TLC reality show about a dunderheaded Las Vegas man and his four slightly less dunderheaded wives, is a can't-look-away entertainment train wreck of the highest order. (And of course it's a complicated pleasure, packed with misdirection and vague untruths: For example, the word "Mormon" is hardly ever spoken on Sister Wives, and when it does worm its way into the broadcast, the stars are quick to point out that they belong to an independent splinter group of the religion.)
It's interesting that Romney's attitude toward plural marriage has shifted, even as his distaste for gay marriage has been fossilized in place for his entire political career. He has repeatedly claimed to want to defend the "enduring institution of marriage," and he has reaffirmed time and again that marriage between two people of the same sex is not "appropriate." And it's not even just gay marriage that Romney opposes. He's against giving the same rights as marriage to gays who are in loving, committed relationships, telling a Denver TV station last month, "I don't favor civil unions if they are identical to marriage other than by name." How is it that a man whose own history points to a fluid and forgiving definition of marriage manages to be so hypocritically pigheaded when it comes to the rights of others?