An anti-abortion killer's execution is scheduled for Wednesday evening. Paul Hill, a 49-year-old former Prebyterian minister, killed an abortion doctor and his bodyguard outside a Florida abortion clinic several years ago. See how Hill's actions spur Christian debate
. Is breaking the law allowed if it futhers God's work or is "commanded" by one claiming to be God's "mouthpiece" on earth? To their credit, most Christians answer no; bombing abortion clinics or shooting abortion doctors is no more justified by Christian belief than is the bombing of civilian buses or office buildings justified by Islamic belief. How Mormons view this touchy topic is shaped by their 19th-century practice and their continued theological defense of illegal polygamy. Why is there no Mormon debate about polygamy?
Why don't Mormons sense the moral challenge posed by their illegal practice of polygamy the way Christians sense the moral problem presented by Christians who bomb abortion clinics or shoot doctors?
Mormons in the 19th century defended their right to break the law in the name of religion. First, there was Joseph Smith's secret and illegal practice of polygamy in Ohio, Missouri, and Illinois in the 1830s and 1840s. Second, there was the continued secret and illegal practice of polygamy by Brigham Young and other polygamist apostles from 1847 to 1852. Third, there was the public and illegal practice of polygamy by apostles and other high-ranking Mormons from 1852 (when it was first publicly admitted that the Church practiced polygamy) through 1890 (when the Church publicly professed to cease the practice). Finally, there was the once-again covert practice of illegal polygamy (on a reduced scale) by Mormon leaders from 1890 to 1904, when the whole charade was finally exposed by the US Senate in public hearings.
Mormons in the 20th century tried to have their cake and eat it too, renouncing the practice of polygamy but continuing to defend it theologically. If this "we believe it but we don't practice it" position seems morally inconsistent to you, I agree. The morally consistent positions are espoused by Mormon fundamentalists ("we believe it and we practice it") and Christians ("we don't believe it and we don't practice it"). The most obvious reason Mormon leaders will not simply renounce polygamy is that to do so would require renouncing Joseph Smith's polygamy revelations, both the public one (D&C 132) and the private ones delivered to young maidens or their families. And once you start renouncing Joseph's revelations, there's no telling where the process would stop. LDS leaders can maintain this rather muddled policy only because rank-and-file Mormons embrace it as well, regarding the whole polygamy episode with a mixture of pride, embarrassment, ignorance, and denial.
Mormons in the 21st century will have to face up to this theological mess, as society moves toward an "anything goes" law of marriage. At some point the US Supreme Court will overrule the 1879 Reynolds case or simply find it unapplicable to the "diversity in marriage" test cases that will certainly be before the Court in coming years. At that point, LDS leaders will be forced to make a clear statement either affirming or renouncing the principle of polygamy. They will finally be forced to choose between Christianity (monogamy) and their own Mormon historical legacy (Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, John Taylor, and polygamy). The official and unofficial Mormon response to Krakauer's recent book Under the Banner of Heaven shows Mormons have a long way to go before they can talk address the polygamy issue honestly. Right now, Mormons distinguish between the current practice of polygamy by Mormon fundamentalists (bad polygamy) and its historical practice by "mainstream Mormons" in the 19th century (good polygamy). Sorry, that distinction is rooted in denial. That's like distinguishing between "good murder" and "bad murder," exactly the false moral distinction Christians reject when extremists attempt to justify killing abortion doctors (and that Mormons embrace when justifying Nephi's murder of Laban early in the Book of Mormon narrative). Mormonism has more than its share of false moral distinctions. Coming clean on polygamy would eliminate the most glaring of the lot.