Thoughts, essays, and writings on Liberty. Written by the heirs of Patrick Henry.

“There is no maxim, in my opinion, which is more liable to be misapplied, and which, therefore, more needs elucidation, than the current one, that the interest of the majority is the political standard of right and wrong.”     James Madison

January 16, 2012

Will Romney Have To Answer For Polygamy?

by Brad Warbiany

Over at David Friedman’s blog, he discusses the thorny position Mormon Presdential candidates (which at the time of posting included Huntsman) may face when taking a position against same-sex marriage. Many opponents of same-sex marriage use the slippery-slope argument that if two consenting gays can marry each other, why not three or more consenting adults of any gender? Most supporters of same-sex marriage are loath to acknowledge that this slippery slope is merely a logical progression of supporting freedom. [I don't share their concern, nor does Friedman.] But as Friedman points out, it is a bit more difficult to justify a slippery-slope argument when the founders of your faith supported polygamy:

It occurs to me that this raises a potential problem for two of the current crop of Republican candidates. Neither Huntsman nor Romney supports same-sex marriage. Both are Mormons. Surely at some point some curious voter will ask one or the other for his view of polygamy. Given that they are trying to get votes from people who regard polygamy as so obviously wicked that the mere possibility of legalizing it is a convincing argument against legalizing same-sex marriage, what are they to say?

It is true that the Church of Latter-Day Saints abandoned polygamy a century or so back. But it is also true that it was founded by polygamists, throughout its early history regarded polygamy as an important part of its religion, and abandoned it only under severe outside pressure, including military occupation by the U.S. army. Can a believing Mormon really hold that polygamy is not merely a bad idea at the moment but inherently evil? Can someone unwilling to say he believes that polygamy is evil win the Republican nomination?

I can see his point… But by changing a few words, you can make a completely different point:

It is true that the United States abandoned slavery a century and a half back. But it is also true that it was founded by slaveowners, throughout its early history regarded slavery as an important part of its national economy, and abandoned it only through the bloodiest war in the nation’s history, a war fought between the states for the very continuance of the union. Can someone calling themselves a “Classical Liberal” and claiming to represent the views of the Founding Fathers really hold that slavery is not merely a bad idea at the moment but inherently evil? Can someone unwilling to say he believes that slavery is evil win the Republican nomination?

Logically, I think we’re at the same place here (although, again, I consider slavery to be inherently evil but don’t consider polygamy/polyandry to be inherently evil — as long as only occurs with full consent of all parties).

As someone who would call myself a classical liberal, or libertarian, I don’t think there’s any particular difficulty maintaining that slavery is evil while still revering the work that the Founding Fathers did to create America. Slavery is an unfortunate blight on our history. It is an affront to the values affirmed in the Declaration of Independence. Slavery was a failure of the time, and while we can’t erase it from the record, classical liberals point to the outstanding positive contributions that the Founding Fathers made implementing the ideas of Constitutionally-limited government and the rule of law in solid practice. And the very nature of the system they put into place allowed for some of their mistakes such as slavery to be rectified by the 13th Amendment (sadly, it required a war and the deaths of hundreds of thousands of men in addition).

If we wanted to break it down, there are hundreds of things we could force politicians to answer for if we took the worst of their social associations and forced them to answer for it. We don’t ask Catholic candidates whether the history of the Crusades means they’ll engage in wars of religious oppression. We don’t ask Gingrich, a Southerner, whether he plans to re-institute Jim Crow. And we accept that classical liberals can be anti-slavery without hypocrisy. If anything, the problems that Mitt Romney may face is the fact that he follows a minority religion of relatively recent origin, so the folks who believe in long-established fairy tales are already prejudiced against him with distrust. So he may face the question that Friedman brings up, but such questions — contrary to David Friedman’s implication — are unfair.

Politicians have enough problems that we don’t need to invent “gotchas” like these to ensnare them. It may be valid to ask him whether he supported the efforts of his church to spend as much money as it did on the California Prop 8 ballot measure, as it is at least current, but bringing up long-disavowed sins committed by Mormons three generations ago is completely unnecessary.

A stand-up comedian I heard once said that prejudice is simply a sign of laziness, because if you take the time to get to know someone, they’ll give you hundreds of individual reasons to hate them. The same is true of politicians; they all stink, but each has their own distinctly distasteful odor to find offensive.

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4 Comments

  1. There is at least one important difference between the two cases. All of the Republicans candidates are Americans, claim great respect for the founders. Only one of them (two when I wrote my blog post) is a Mormon. So the issue only arises as between candidates in the case of polygamy.

    Of course, Ron Paul, as a libertarian, ought to believe the polygamy should be legal–I don’t know if he does or not. My impression is that he finesses some such questions by arguing they should be decided at the state level.

    So far as libertarians are concerned, I don’t think we generally claim that the U.S. at its founding was a perfectly libertarian, or perfectly classical liberal, society, merely in many ways closer than it is now. Some libertarians even argue that the Constitution was the result of a coup, replacing the more libertarian Articles of Confederation.

    “but bringing up long-disavowed sins committed by Mormons three generations ago is completely unnecessary.”

    As far as I know, the LDS has never taken the position that 19th century polygamy was a sin—merely that God changed the rules c. 1890. Libertarians hold that slavery was wrong then, not just wrong now.

    Comment by David Friedman — January 16, 2012 @ 3:59 pm
  2. As recently as 1978 the Mormons believed that blacks were unfit for the priesthood. If you want to see how they witewash the past- look to the arguments Mormon politicians use to distance themselves from that evil practice.

    Comment by tarran — January 16, 2012 @ 6:05 pm
  3. David,

    Thanks for stopping by, and [I'm sure you hear this quite a bit] great work on The Machinery of Freedom. I really enjoyed it.

    There is at least one important difference between the two cases. All of the Republicans candidates are Americans, claim great respect for the founders. Only one of them (two when I wrote my blog post) is a Mormon. So the issue only arises as between candidates in the case of polygamy.

    Of course, Ron Paul, as a libertarian, ought to believe the polygamy should be legal–I don’t know if he does or not. My impression is that he finesses some such questions by arguing they should be decided at the state level.

    I don’t see the other GOP candidates hammering him on this… The others aren’t exactly going to point out hypocrisy on the gay marriage issue when they don’t support it themselves (and for Ron Paul, where he’s similarly [but privately] religious and isn’t making gay marriage a campaign plank).

    If Gary Johnson had gotten any traction, I could see it being an angle, as Gary fully supports gay marriage and doesn’t strike me as being particularly religious [if he believes at all]. But now that he’s out on the Libertarian ticket, he’ll be largely ignored.

    I would think it more likely to come up in the general election, when his opponents (and the media) are going to be much more willing to go after religious hypocrisy.

    So far as libertarians are concerned, I don’t think we generally claim that the U.S. at its founding was a perfectly libertarian, or perfectly classical liberal, society, merely in many ways closer than it is now. Some libertarians even argue that the Constitution was the result of a coup, replacing the more libertarian Articles of Confederation.

    This is true, but when has ideological honesty been a barrier to demagogues? I don’t think Mitt Romney in any way, shape, or form, supports polygamy. I’m guessing that he falls into the same boat as a lot of “religious” folk — he broadly follows main tenets of what he’s been brought up with, but largely it’s no different than someone who wears only Nike over Reebok, or who drinks Miller Lite b/c he wouldn’t be seen in public with Bud Light.

    Unlike Santorum, Romney doesn’t wear the mantle of a culture warrior. The fact that the elders of his religion believed funny things 100 years ago isn’t relevant. My point was that he doesn’t have to believe *every* little thing in Mormonism, just as it’s not fair to impugn classical liberals with *every* sin of the founding fathers… We apply our own beliefs to the modern world — we can expect Romney to do the same.

    As far as I know, the LDS has never taken the position that 19th century polygamy was a sin—merely that God changed the rules c. 1890. Libertarians hold that slavery was wrong then, not just wrong now.

    I did not know that, but I’m not surprised. It’s tough to get people to believe that you, as an elder of your faith, are infallible if you say that you’d interpreted the scripture wrongly. It’s a lot easier [if you can get your followers to buy that nonsense] to say that God revealed that he changed his mind.

    Comment by Brad Warbiany — January 16, 2012 @ 11:02 pm
  4. tarran,

    As recently as 1978 the Mormons believed that blacks were unfit for the priesthood. If you want to see how they witewash the past- look to the arguments Mormon politicians use to distance themselves from that evil practice.

    That’s a much more forceful charge, as it actually occurred during his lifetime and continued well into his adulthood. I would like to see how he answers for that one.

    Comment by Brad Warbiany — January 16, 2012 @ 11:08 pm

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