Writing in the U.K.’s Daily Telegraph, Harvard History Professor Niall Ferguson analyzes the Yanks’ ’08 race for the Presidency. He breaks down some of Giuliani’s deficiencies before moving on to this somewhat astounding paragraph about Romney:
No wonder Mitt Romney’s Mormon faith suddenly seems like less of a handicap. Although technically entitled to practise polygamy, Romney is (as he likes to repeat) the only Republican contender who has had only one wife. Giuliani’s children are so sick of his father’s antics that they are unlikely to vote for him. By contrast, Romney’s progeny resemble the Osmonds: handsome, wholesome, and 100 per cent devoted to Dad.
The Romney-as-possible-polygamist meme is making the rounds lately. Moving from middlebrow, above, to very lowbrow, one finds the comments of much-derided, but much-viewed talk show regular Elisabeth Hasselbeck of ABC’s The View. In the video seen here, Hasselbeck apparently (can one ever know for sure what’s being said by anyone above all the cross-cackling on this show?) speculates that there’s a danger in electing Romney because of the chance he may end up having a few more wives than we presently know about.
It’s never any fun to debunk myths that have been thoroughly debunked countless times, but when the myth keeps popping up, you have to figure that the horse is not quite dead yet. So let’s beat it some more.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints officially discontinued polygamy in 1890. It is true that some church members continued to enter polygamous marriages in secret, particularly those who had settled territories outside of the United States, in Mexico and Canada. This practice ended in the early 1900’s, mostly by the 1920’s. Since that time, the LDS Church has never condoned nor encouraged plural marriage. In fact, since at least the 1930’s, the Church has taken a strong stance against those who would resurrect this practice, excommunicating all who do so.
The Church’s President, Gordon B. Hinckley explains the modern Church’s view of polygamy as follows:
“This Church has nothing whatever to do with those practicing polygamy. They are not members of this Church. . . . If any of our members are found to be practicing plural marriage, they are excommunicated, the most serious penalty the Church can impose. Not only are those so involved in direct violation of the civil law, they are in violation of the law of this Church.”
The topic of polygamy is receiving added exposure of late partially because of the ongoing trial of Warren Jeffs, the leader of a polygamous sect based in a few isolated rural towns along the Utah-Arizona border, with one outlying branch in Texas. While Jeffs and his sect trace their theological origins back to Joseph Smith, the schism between their group and the larger, mainstream LDS Church dates back to 1935, when the group was excommunicated from the church for refusing to sign declarations repudiating polygamy. To give a small sense of the contrast between these groups, the LDS Church claims above 12 million members, where Jeffs’ sect, called the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, numbers between 6 to 10 thousand.
Warren Jeffs is on trial for being an accomplice to rape due to his role in pressuring a 14 year old girl to marry a man in his group. Mormons view the activities of Jeffs and his ilk as reprehensible and depraved. Polygamy as it is practiced in these outlying communities is often associated with forcible marriage, abuse, and the marginalization of young men who threaten to compete with group elders for young brides. None of these elements bears any similarity to the polygamy practiced by the early Utah Mormons 130 years ago.
Regardless, the LDS Church has long ago abandoned the practice and moved on. By definition, there is no such thing as a polygamous Mormon, as anyone found to be a polygamist is summarily booted from the Church. Anticipating the publicity surrounding the Jeffs trial, the LDS Church released this statement on September 7th, clarifying the huge chasm between the modern church and its tiny, backwards, distantly related cousin. (And who doesn’t have a cousin they’d like a little distance from?). The major point of the release is to remind everyone that no polygamist can be properly called a Mormon.
All of which leads back to the question that heads this post: Any chance Mitt Romney might be hiding an extra wife or two behind all those nice-looking sons? Truly, this is an outlandish inquiry. We might just as well ask whether Mike Huckabee or any of the other Southern candidates could perhaps own a slave or two that we don’t know about. Mitt Romney is an undeniably modern man, mainstream in every way, unless you count his Mormonism as keeping him from being “mainstream.” But if you want to view him based solely on his religion, you’ll reach the same conclusion: no faithful member of the LDS Church is a polygamist, ergo, Mitt Romney- famously devoted to his church, has only one wife. So no, Mitt Romney is not a polygamist, and he’s not “technically entitled” to be one. Anyone who suggests otherwise is either ignorant or a bigot.
If Romney wasn’t emphatic enough when telling 60 Minutes’ Mike Wallace that he “can’t imagine anything more awful,” there may be nothing he can do to persuade you. But if that’s the case, you are probably a regular host on The View, so the ability to be persuaded by facts and reason may not really be your thing.
UPDATE: To his great credit, Professor Ferguson has admitted his error and apologized for it, via private email. No word yet from The View’s Crack fact-checking-and-truth-in-broadcasting unit.