My fiance reviewed the new HBO drama Big Love for the New York Sun this week -- which meant I got to watch the first several episodes before they air. It's a very compelling show that normalizes polygamy. In real life, polygamists are known for raping family members, forcing underage girls into marriage, and living on the dole. In HBOland, polygamists are attractive and upright citizens who you'd let watch your children. But, again, if you set apart the obvious agenda against traditional values, it's an excellent show that begins airing tomorrow night. There have been many thought-provoking criticisms of the new show, and nearly everyone is in agreement that it's well done. On National Review Online, Louis Wittig wrote that the slippery slope has become a high-speed luge track:
In late 2004, amid a boiling gay-marriage debate, law professor Jonathan Turley argued the case for legalizing polygamy in a USA Today op-ed. But, he added:
[The] day of social acceptance will never come for polygamists. It is unlikely that any network is going to air The Polygamist Eye for the Monogamist Eye or add a polygamist twist to Everybody Loves Raymond.
Ha ha ha! Fifteen months later and a cable network has, in fact, built an entire show around polygamy. The show goes out of its way to note that the Church of Jesus Christ Latter-day Saints banned polygamy in the late 19th century. In fact, much of the show is about a breakoff Mormon sect that does support polygamy coexisting in the same Utah as the Mormons who do not support polygamy. What's more, the main polygamist family actually doesn't go to any church at all, having broken away from a polygamist compound. The show, and the disclaimer at the end, are causing quite the stir in Utah.
The Salt Lake Tribune, which has to be one of the few papers with an actual polygamy category, looks into the controversy. Unfortunately, the piece is poorly written and lacks an understanding of the religious issues at hand. I wonder why Peggy Fletcher Stack, the Trib's excellent religion reporter, didn't cover it. Thankfully, AP writer Debbie Hummel wrote a great piece about the stirrings in Utah:
Everyone from practicing polygamists to the Mormon church -- which shunned the practice more than a century ago -- are anxiously anticipating the fallout from the show about a Utah polygamist and his three sometimes desperate housewives.
Some worry that the series will perpetuate stereotypes from which the state and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have long sought to distance themselves. Others fear it will diminish the crimes, such as child abuse, reported in some of the state's secretive polygamous sects. And polygamists say they're sure the series won't accurately portray the "boring" reality of their lives.
The entire article is well-written and very interesting. Polygamy is definitely a bigger issue in some areas of the country -- with rather large compounds in Arizona and Utah and -- than others. The Rocky Mountain News has done an excellent job with polygamy coverage for many years. The paper has run lengthy investigative series and short updates on the abnormal communities. But for this story, Hummel kicks the competition. Here's more:
In 1843, church founder Joseph Smith said he had a revelation from God allowing the practice of plural marriage. In 1890, a subsequent church president, Wilford Woodruff, made public a revelation declaring that church members should stop practicing polygamy. The federal government had required the Utah territory end its endorsement of polygamy as a condition of statehood. Utah became a state in 1896.
Speaking not in a theological way at all, Joseph Smith did an amazing job of launching a successful church. But that polygamy thing has had a staying power that I bet many Mormons regret. Polygamy was only practiced for 47 years, although it was huge during those years, and has been banned for 116 years. And yet "Mormon" is probably one of the first words people think of when they hear the word "polygamy." For that reason, it's important for reporters to be very clear about the relationship Mormons have with polygamy:
Polygamy isn't an issue for modern-day Mormons, said church spokesman Michael Otterson, adding that members understand why polygamy is no longer practiced. . .
He's also worried that the church could lose some of the ground it has gained in educating the public about the differences between the mainstream church and splinter fundamentalist groups that practice polygamy.
"This, I think, is going to undo some of that. Because you only have to mention Salt Lake City and polygamy and Mormons in the same breath and people will start to get those old stereotypes again," he said.
I'm not so sure. The show is so obviously a thinly veiled campaign for gay marriage that I think the Mormon issues are secondary. Also, I'd sure love a reporter to ask Turley about his failed prediction.