Polygamy and Me

by Rebecca Bynum (April 2006)
 
The specter of polygamy has haunted my life from the beginning. The jokes, the stories, the rumors, all have followed me from my earliest days. Prompted by watching HBO’s attempted whitewash of polygamy, Big Love, I pulled my “Book of Remembrance” down from the shelf and leafed through its pages. Lives documented by marriages, births and deaths were all recorded by my father’s elderly aunt who went to the temple and was duly baptized in the stead of long deceased relatives, all born too soon to hear the “restored gospel” of Joseph Smith, through no fault of their own, so they would find admittance to heaven. Record keeping for heaven is meticulous as one would imagine: when baptized, when endowed, when sealed; all these services to the dead are noted, officially dated and stamped. Children are sealed to fathers and wives are sealed to husbands because women are not admitted to heaven on their own accord; they must be sealed to a male relative.
 
On one page are the pictures of my great-great-great-grandfather, Edwin Whiting, along with each of his five wives. On the following page are pictures of some of their homes; some showing large farm families, for Edwin sired 34 children in all. Typed underneath a picture of the first house in Manti, Utah, the caption reads, “Three wives, Elizabeth Tillotson, Almira Meacham, and Mary Cox lived here.” I remember the cold chill that went down my spine when first I read this for Elizabeth Tillotson was my great-great-great-grandmother. How could she stand it? I wondered. 
 
The story is told of how Edwin and Elizabeth converted to Joseph Smith’s gospel in 1837 while they were living in Ohio and, “being called by divine authority to accept the principles of plural marriage, duly obeyed.”   Obedience is a key principle in understanding both Mormon and Muslim religious practice.
 
Then followed the years of persecution. The Latter Day Saints, or simply “Saints” as they called themselves, were driven out of settlement after settlement by townspeople who understood another principal: they could not and would not tolerate polygamy in their midst. The frustrated and angry townsfolk, once on the order of Governor Boggs of Missouri, burned the homes of the Saints and drove them from three different settlements in the Midwest. Once, too, the home of Edwin’s father Elisha was spared the flames, for the old man was “too ill to be moved” at the time. To me this reveals the essential humanity of the other settlers who were determined to drive the Saints away but desired to do so without bloodshed. Nonetheless, Joseph Smith was martyred by an angry mob. 
 
The children clapped hands as they sat upon the bedding in the wagons and marveled at the “big bonfire” in Nauvoo, Illinois. By the family account, “It was nightfall when Grandfather reached the river and loaded his earthly belongings onto the ferry to cross to Montrose, Iowa. By the light of his burning chair factory, he piloted his way across the Mississippi.”
 
And so it came to pass that the Mormon pioneers, encompassing the many strains of my family, crossed over the Great Plains and made their way through a Rocky Mountain pass to settle in a remote desert valley near an ancient dead sea where they hoped to be left in peace to resurrect the long dead custom of polygamy. When the Saints applied for statehood in 1849, before the advent of political correctness, they were not only refused but were threatened with military intervention unless polygamy was ended forthwith. In wasn’t until forty years later, though, in 1890 when the Mormon leadership finally capitulated and issued a manifesto that began the phase-out of officially sanctioned plural marriages. 
 
Polygamy was a short-lived experiment for the majority of Mormon families; it was over and done in two generations. There are still some, however, who have persisted in plural marriage to this day: namely the Mormon Fundamentalists who inhabit the twin towns of Hilsdale, Utah, and Colorado City, Arizona. This remote population of polygamists, after separating from the mainstream Mormon Church over polygamy, has been left alone all this time, except once in the 1930s when authorities raided what was then called the Short Creek community, imprisoning polygamists and unleashing a public relations nightmare, all to no avail. 
 
The parallels with polygamous Muslim populations are striking. Everything from the prevalence of child brides to incest to the problem of excess males, which is not as severe a problem among Muslims due to their unique jihad mandate, to the systematic bilking of the welfare state, to high rates of genetic disease due to inbreeding.  In the UK the Pakistani community accounts for 30 per cent of all births with recessive disorders, despite representing 3.4 per cent of the birth rate nationwide, due to the prevalence of first cousin marriages.  In the FLDS community a rare genetic malfunction called fumarase deficiency is causing severe mental retardation among other congenital complications and a high incidence of domestic abuse is present in both populations. A quick comparison between the two faiths is in order.
 
Joseph Smith and Muhammad both claimed the status of “prophet” in the line of Hebrew prophets from Abraham to Moses to Jesus to themselves. Both claim to be the bearers of another divinely inspired text, but, while Muhammad’s Qur’an is thought to completely abrogate and replace both Old and New Testaments, the Book of Mormon is simply an addition to them, so Mormonism contains Christianity, while Muhammadism rejects it. However, both claim to correct the inaccuracies contained in the older documents and both claim to be restorers of lost religious truth. Both also claim polygamy is part of a higher divine law that should be instituted on earth regardless of the wishes of believers.
 
The Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints Church was headed for many years by Rulon Jeffs, a.k.a. “Uncle Rulon,” until his death in September 2002, when the sect was taken over by his son, Warren Jeffs, who is now a fugitive from justice. According to Jon Krakauer in Under the Banner of Heaven:
 
Uncle Rulon has married an estimated seventy-five women with whom he fathered at least sixty-five children; several of his wives were given to him in marriage when they were fourteen or fifteen and he was in his eighties. His sermons frequently stress the need for total submission. "I want to tell you that the greatest freedom you can enjoy is in obedience," he has preached. "Perfect obedience produces perfect faith.”
 
Comparing this with the Muslim concept of freedom as “perfect slavery,” we see an eerie similarity. Both systems remove the power of choice from individuals who are most often born into the system rather than having chosen it originally. Both seek obedience through coercion, threats and fear. Both construct crude clan systems that militate against the state by claiming the loyalty of believers first and foremost. Both systems set up a state within a state and claim legal authority over territory and believers.
 
In my view, those who seek power through the coercion of the will of others are especially loathsome because they exert power over free will even God himself (the real God, that is) refuses to exert. The “God of things as they are” quite obviously allows the full expression of free will for every single individual, regardless of the possibility of sin, making the cruelty and arrogance of its removal all the more repugnant. 
 
For women, being born into polygamy is to be born into slavery. The individual will of women over their most basic life choices is utterly coerced. Young girls are often incestuously abused by male family members and then married off to much older men, who must (one would imagine) enjoy the thrill of coercing young women into strict obedience in every particular. And along with polygamy comes arranged marriage in both Muslim and Mormon polygamous populations. 
 
Again I say, to take away a woman’s basic right to pursue happiness, to love and be loved, to find her own place in the world and to develop her own gifts and talents; this is more than tyranny. This is unconscionable slavery. And it is happening in America, Europe and the UK with surprising impunity.
 
Turning to another form of abuse; this time the abuse of the good will and resources of the state according to Krakauer:
 
Polygamy is illegal in both Utah and Arizona. To avoid prosecution, typically men in Colorado City will legally marry only the first of their wives; subsequent wives, although "spiritually married" to their husband by Uncle Rulon, thus remain single mothers in the eyes of the state. This has the added benefit of allowing the enormous families in town to qualify for welfare and other forms of public assistance. Despite the fact that Uncle Rulon and his followers regard the governments of Arizona, Utah, and the United States as Satanic forces out to destroy the UEP, their polygamous community receives more than $6 million a year in public funds.

More than $4 million of government largesse flows each year into the Colorado City public school district—which, according to the Phoenix New Times, "is operated primarily for the financial benefit of the FLDS Church and for the personal enrichment of FLDS school district leaders." Reporter John Dougherty determined that school administrators have "plundered the district's treasury by running up thousands of dollars in personal expenses on district credit cards, purchasing expensive vehicles for their personal use and engaging in extensive travel. The spending spree culminated in December {2002}, when the district purchased a $220,000 Cessna 210 airplane to facilitate trips by district personnel to cities across Arizona."

Colorado City has received $1.9 million from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to pave its streets, improve the fire department, and upgrade the water system. Immediately south of the city limits, the federal government built a $2.8 million airport that serves almost no one beyond the fundamentalist community. In 2002, seventy-eight percent of the town's residents living on the Arizona side of the state received food stamps. Currently the residents of Colorado City receive eight dollars in government services for every dollar they pay in taxes; by comparison, residents in the rest of Mohave County, Arizona, receive just over a dollar in services per tax dollar paid.

"Uncle Rulon justifies all that assistance from the wicked government by explaining that really the money is coming from the Lord," says DeLoy Bateman. "We're taught that it's the Lord's way of manipulating the system to take care of his chosen people." Fundamentalists call defrauding the government "bleeding the beast" and regard it as a virtuous act.
 
We see a disturbing parallel in more aggressive form among Muslim polygamists in Europe. According to Bruce Bawer in While Europe Slept, How Radical Islam is Destroying the West from Within,
 
One thing we know now is that many immigrants have been extremely successful at exploiting the generosity of Western welfare states, where it can be a simple matter to walk into a government office and walk out with cash in your pockets. In Norway, the handouts come in a wide variety of forms—among them public assistance, unemployment benefits, relief payments, child benefits, disability, cash support, and rent allowance. One reason the Scandinavian welfare system has worked as well as it has is that most Scandinavians have been pretty good about not taking excessive advantage of it…To a surprising extent, much of the social security apparatus functions on a sort of honor system: unless you require it, you don’t ask for it.
 
Alas, this is a different kind of honor many immigrants are familiar with …many of them are told by their religious leaders that Muslim law gives them the right to abuse the infidel’s system as much as possible—the right in Kheir Sajer’s words, to “cheat and lie to the countries that harbor them.” They are told to view the benefits they receive as jizya—the tribute that the infidel natives of Muslim occupied countries are obliged to pay to Muslims in order to preserve their lives…In Denmark, Muslims make up 5 percent of the population but receive 40 percent of the welfare outlays. Statistics for other countries are comparable.” (page 30)
 
…In France a public official met with an imam at the edge of Roubaix’s Muslim district out of respect for his declaration of the neighborhood as Islamic territory to which she had no right of access. In Britain, imams have pressed the government to officially designate certain areas of Bradford as being under Muslim, not British, law. In Denmark, Muslim leaders have sought the same kind of control over parts of Copenhagen. And in Belgium, Muslims living in the Brussels neighborhood of Sint-Jans-Molenbeek already view it not as part of Belgium but as an area under Islamic jurisdiction in which Belgians are not welcome. (page 33)
 
Then there is the problem of excess males since the “God of things as they are” has arranged a roughly 50-50 split between male and female births. While Muslims often send their excess young men to fight jihad in order to extend the boundaries of Islamic controlled territory, our fundamentalist Mormon community simply dumps them in the desert in the middle of the night. Over 400 such boys have been identified.
 
According to Elaine Tyler, director of Hope for the Child Brides in St. George Utah, when people come out of the polygamous community, “they have no basic life skills, very little education and are afraid to make their own decisions. The religion is very powerful. The control and the fear and the threats are very real.” If a man leaves the polygamist church, he is not only excommunicated, but his property including “his wives and children are re-assigned to someone else.”
 
Similarly, Muslim girls, even if living in Europe, are routinely pulled out of school at a young age and sent back to the old country to be married as prescribed by their fathers. The tolerant countries of Europe and the UK rarely intervene to save these girls. Theodore Dalrymple describes their predicament:
 
Little did I think then that lines from the play [Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet]—those of Juliet’s plea to her mother to abrogate an unwanted marriage to Paris, arranged and forced on her by her father, Capulet—would so uncannily capture the predicament of some of my Muslim patients in Britain…four centuries after they were written:
 
Is there no pity sitting in the clouds
That sees into the bottom of my grief?
O sweet my mother, cast me not away!
Delay this marriage for a month, a week,
Or if you do not, make the bridal bed
In that dim monument where Tybalt lies.
 
How often have I been consulted by young Muslim women patients, driven to despair by enforced marriages to close relatives (usually first cousins) back “home” in India and Pakistan, who have made such an unavailing appeal to their mothers, followed by an attempt at suicide!
Capulet’s attitude to his refractory daughter is precisely that of my Muslim patients’ fathers:
 
Look to’t, think on’t, I do not use to jest.
Thursday is near, lay hand on heart, advise:
And you be mine, I’ll give you to my friend;
And you be not, hang, beg, starve, die in the streets,
For by my soul, I’ll ne’er acknowledge thee,
Nor what is mine shall ever do thee good.
 
In fact the situation of Muslim girls in my city is even worse than Juliet’s. Every Muslim girl in my city has heard of the killing of such as she back in Pakistan, on refusal to marry her first cousin, betrothed to her by her father, all unknown to her, in the earliest years of her childhood. The girl is killed because she has impugned family honor by breaking her father’s word, and any halfhearted official inquiry into the death by the Pakistani authorities is easily and cheaply bought off. And even if she is not killed, she is expelled from the household—O sweet my mother, cast me not away!—and regarded by her “community” as virtually a prostitute, fair game for any man who wants her.
 
This is the reality of polygamy and forced marriage. The creators of Big Love may want to pretend polygamy is a progressive institution compatible with the rest of modernity, but when they promote this idea to the general public they are performing a propaganda feat even Herr Goebbels would admire. 
 
 


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