Were Smith’s Mormons Ahead of Their Times?

This column is not about the HBO series Big Love. Only flatterers or irritables ascribe culture-changing force to cultural artifacts like TV shows. Fiction, as Stendhal said, is a mirror carried along a road; it shows us what we are, it doesn’t make us what we are. If a new age of poly-relationships is upon us, it will have its Trollopes, and they might as well be on HBO.

Why are we here? The call for gay marriage led the way, as its opponents insisted it would. If gay marriage were an ancient institution in temporary abeyance, then its restoration wouldn’t necessarily have anything to do with polygamy. But it isn’t, and so one innovation naturally prepares the way for the other. If the State of Massachusetts marries men and men, and women and women, then why not men and many women?

America owes an apology to the Mormon Church. This is an interesting historical moment for Mormonism. A Mormon, Governor Mitt Romney of Massachusetts, is poised to run for President; meanwhile, our eternal pursuit of happiness casts a backward light on the most troubled pages of Mormon history. What enraged 19th-century Americans about the religion, far more than its claim to having found another Bible written on golden plates in upstate New York, was its practice of polygamy. This aversion drove Mormons from pillar to post, and hauled founder Joseph Smith out of an Illinois jail to be lynched.

Finally, in 1890, the Mormons gave up polygamy (Utah statehood followed six years later). Either the Mormons, with their eyes on the main chance, surrendered one good thing to get a better, or a kind God did his children the favor of suspending a doctrine that had brought them so much trouble. Either way, man or God jumped the gun. All those hard-bitten Mormon schismatics, holed up on the Utah/Arizona border with their wives and their broods, can come out of their many-roomed hideaways and join the mainstream.

Is polygamy such a great thing that we should encourage it? The main reservoirs of polygamy in the world today are Islam and Africa. Although Muslims are not obliged to be polygamists, in many Muslim countries those who can afford the extra wives take them on; while polygamy thrives even in the non-Muslim parts of Africa as a product of custom. As a result, in both worlds there is a cohort of unmarried men, a breeding pool of idleness and frustration, as well as a cohort of multiply married men who are too accustomed to having their way. Neither is socially desirable. One leads to a surplus of potential killers, another to a surplus of potential masterminds.

This is not even considering the damage that polygamy does to women. It’s hard enough to live with one peer; few men will want to live with two or three. Therefore, the redundant wives will be younger and younger. If you’re already married to Abigail Adams, you’ll go for Lolita, not Eleanor Roosevelt. In cults, young women are directed to older men more or less by force. John Humphrey Noyes left Yale Divinity School to found his own quasi-polygamist sect, the Oneida Community, in the 19th century. Noyes talked to St. Paul, which gave him a lot of clout among his disciples; among the cuties he steered his own way was his niece. In our day, David Koresh of the Branch Davidians had his teenagers, before they were all roasted.

If we think we’re immune to such grotesque ménages because we don’t wear beards and don’t pray in tongues, consider the license of the very rich. Sir James Goldsmith, the eccentric Anglo-French billionaire, had two families, one with his wife and one with his mistress. “When you marry your mistress,” he explained, “you create a job vacancy.” Therefore, he decided to keep adding. Everyone who knew Goldsmith liked him; I met him once, and he was certainly a charmer. But not every multiple bride will be so lucky.

But maybe the oppressed young women and the young men at loose ends will find their own solace on the side. This is the appeal of polyamory, the arrangement that the control tower is bringing in right after polygamy. The TV show about polyamory could be called Even Bigger Love. No doubt you’ve seen the descriptions in gee-whiz feature stories: Old Goat sleeps with his wife Nymph and their friend Satyr on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. But Nymph also has her lovers, Lipstick and Hardbody, while Satyr spends weekends with his wife, Venus on the Halfshell. Why should these mature and loving adults not find the blessings of holy matrimony?

Polyamory, at least in theory, finds a slot B for every tab A. Yet it scarcely addresses a great pitfall of polygamy, the repression of rivalry and aggression. Didn’t we learn anything from the 1960’s? Didn’t we learn anything from college? When everyone sleeps with everyone, everyone isn’t happy. Love creates jealousy and supplies revenge. Cupid is Mars’ deadliest soldier.

The only people who are concerned about polygamy and polyamory are advocates, and agitated opponents. The great mass of the public gives them a mildly curious “Huh?” and hence is willing to believe the subtlest argument in favor of legalization: how many people will be affected by a change at the margin? Won’t most of us go on as we always have? But marriage arrangements are not tax rates or work-force regulations; they speak to our essential selves. So I propose a thought experiment: Why not legalize slavery? How many slaves, actually, would there be? The old agricultural basis of the institution is gone; no one picks cotton by hand. So if the occasional wretch—a Third World immigrant, perhaps—wishes to better his station by selling himself to a prosperous patron, what skin is that off our noses?

We’re better off sucking it up with monogamy than making small changes of which we can say nothing except that they won’t be small.