Something about Gnats and Camels

  This week, for the first time in nearly fifty years, the state of Utah is beginning the trial of a man for polygamy. If convicted, Tom Green faces twenty years in prison. What's interesting isn't Green's guilt or innocence: It's why this particular departure from the traditional family should upset us so much. Green is a descendant of the original Mormon pioneers who settled Utah 150 years ago. Their practice of polygamy almost prevented Utah from becoming a state. That is, until 1890 when Mormon leaders banned the practice. But banning polygamy isn't the same as eradicating it. Even after Mormon elders repudiated polygamy, some Mormon men in rural areas continued to have multiple wives. For the most part, state officials turned a blind eye to these violations of state law. But in the lead-up to the Olympic Winter Games in Salt Lake City next February, Utah officials have begun to crack down on polygamy. In the attempt to "spruce up its image," Utah named a "polygamy czar," and law enforcement is going after polygamists like Tom Green. Now, Green is an easy target because, unlike other polygamists, he's quite open about his family arrangements. He's been on daytime talk shows and NBC's Dateline with his five wives and twenty-nine children. What's more, several of his wives were under age -- as young as thirteen -- when he married them. While I have no sympathy for Green or his beliefs, I find Utah's efforts to improve its image ironic. In its efforts to impress Olympic visitors, the state is working to eliminate an "embarrassing vestige(s) of [its] pioneer past" -- a past that once embraced unorthodox views about marriage and family. But consider the folks Utah is trying to impress. The Netherlands -- home of gold-medal speed-skaters -- recently became the first nation to legalize same-sex marriage. While other European nations haven't gone that far, they have enacted domestic partnerships laws. These laws reject the traditional understanding of marriage and family every bit as much as Utah's polygamists do. And it isn't only Europe. The winter sports center of the east, Vermont, came close to legalizing same-sex marriages. Instead, it adopted a domestic partnership law similar to those in Europe. Rights and privileges that were only available to traditional married couples are now available to any combination of two people who register with the town clerk. But why stop at two? Why not three or six? If you explicitly reject the idea that marriage is the union of one man and one woman, why balk at polygamy? If you believe that the family can take on any form that meets the participants' needs, why exclude a family arrangement form that is as old as recorded history? And if the courts say marriage is any combination of people, say a man and a man, by what logic can they say it can't be a man and two women? They can't! Objections are foreclosed when we abandon traditional understandings of marriage. While Utah has many reasons to crack down on polygamy, it has little reason to feel embarrassed. Given their current attitudes towards marriage, Western societies -- and many in the United States -- are in no position to pass judgment on Utah's pioneer past. In the end, you see, it's our present -- and not Utah's past -- that really threatens marriage.


Chuck Colson


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