Newsweek/Daily Beast reporter Jamie Reno published a provocative interview this week with Sue Emmett, a direct descendent of Brigham Young and a former LDS Church member, that plumbs controversial aspects of Mormon faith and culture, including the status of women in the faith and a tendency among some Mormons to manage the way they speak with non-Mormons about complicated aspects of our history and religious practice.
Flagging concern about how this highly managed communications style has impacted the Romney campaign and might shape a Romney presidency, Reno quotes a former LDS Church employee, who states, “Every Mormon grows up with the idea that it’s OK to lie if it’s for a higher cause.”
That doesn’t quite ring true to my own experience, though I do understand well the truth-swerving phenomenon Emmet and Reno describe. In fact, I cringe when I see the way it connects to Romney’s own tendency to avoid frank disclosure—this week, it’s tax returns—and the frequent charges that ambition and opportunism rather than consistent principle shape his policy stances.
Of course, it’s nothing shocking that an American minority group might develop its own way of talking to outsiders. But in some Mormon circles one does hear bitter accusations of “lying for the Lord,” and sometimes one does witness among Mormon people today the remnants of a deep-seated sense that telling a complete, straightforward story is not always good for LDS interests.
The most penetrating assessment of this Mormon cultural phenomenon comes from linguistic anthropologist Daymon Smith, who ties defensive communication mechanisms—telling outsiders one story in order to protect another version of the story for insiders—to Mormon polygamy and particularly to the decades in the late nineteenth century when federal prosecution of polygamy sent many Mormon men on the “underground.” (Read an excellent summary of his dissertation here.)
Double-speaking on polygamy continues. I myself wrestle with it whenever I’m obliged to talk about Mormon polygamy in public. Since 1890, LDS Church leaders and members have stated publicly and repeatedly that we do not practice polygamy, that the practice has officially ended. This is an earnest effort to distinguish contemporary members of the mainstream LDS Church from ultra-orthodox splinter groups of fundamentalist Mormons. And it is true that any Mormon who were to marry and cohabitate with a two living spouses today would be excommunicated.
But polygamy has not been eliminated from Mormon life. (I’ve discussed this topic at length here.)
The fact is that current Church policy does allow for a living man to be “sealed” (married for eternity) to more than one woman at a time. For example, a widower or divorced man who has elected to terminate his civil marriage but not his LDS temple marriage is permitted to marry another woman in an LDS temple with the assurance that both first and second marriages would be eternal. The same is not possible under current Church policies for living LDS women who have been widowed or civilly divorced.
This may seem like a technicality. But when combined with the fact that polygamy has never been renounced as a doctrinal principle by the Church and that it remains on the books in the Doctrine and Covenants, a book of LDS scripture, it fosters a belief among many mainstream LDS people that polygamous marriages will be a fact of the afterlife. Some mainstream Mormons dutifully anticipate polygamy in heaven. Others take an agnostic view. But many others quietly harbor feelings of grief, anger, and worry. I have experienced these feelings myself, and I hear them from other Mormons all the time. All the time Mormon men and women ask, “What kind of God would expect me to live in an eternal marriage that I would hate?” Not the God I believe in.
Polygamy remains a fact of mainstream Mormon thought and belief—whether as a doctrinal remnant or as a live article of faith, no one knows for sure. And the tensions created by the dissonance between the Church’s public denial of polygamy and the private continuance of the doctrine creates tensions that lead more than a few Mormons to leave the faith.
Given this complicated and conflicted situation, what should a Mormon say when she is asked whether we practice polygamy?
A few weeks ago, I sat in front of a radio microphone for the BBC program “The World”; with me on the program was a high-ranking public relations official for the LDS Church. Together, we did the same program twice: two back-to-back hours of the same hour about Mormonism, one time for the American audiences, and a second time for the whole world. During the first hour, taping for American audiences, when the inevitable polygamy question came, I squeezed my eyes shut and tried to convey in a soundbite the terrible complexity of Mormonism’s relationship to polygamy: how while it is true that Mormons today no longer plurally cohabitate, polygamy has never been eradicated from our doctrine, our scriptures, and even from current policy, and that this causes many Mormon women and men a great deal of worry and resentment. My description sounded jumbled alongside the clear and familiar official message: no, we do not practice polygamy, not at all. I felt self-conscious and incoherent and nervous about publicly contradicting Church PR officials, but also determined not to obscure the more complicated and difficult truth. When we deny those truths, their private emotional costs multiply.
Then came the second hour of programming. Our audience in this second hour was not just BBC’s American listeners, but the world. I thought about the global reach of the BBC—the reach of the former British empire. When the question about polygamy came, I imagined listeners in Wales and Bangladesh and Kenya, listeners who had no concept of Mormonism, perhaps, beyond the most rudimentary and familiar stereotypes; including nineteenth-century Mormon polygamy. I squeezed my eyes shut. “No,” I said, “we no longer practice polygamy,” agreeing this time around with the LDS Church public-relations official. As I did, I registered an old, familiar, sinking feeling. I tried to tell myself it was the best I could do.
Was I lying for the Lord? Or was I a regular Mormon struggling to tell a complicated story to a world that often reduces us to stereotypes? What should I have said? Mitt Romney has said, “I can’t imagine anything more awful than polygamy”—even though polygamy remains a live element in Mormon doctrine and practice. Is that what he really believes? Is that what he felt he had to say? Is this the best we can do?