Few issues in Utah are as simultaneously boring and yet thoroughly exciting as polygamy. For proof, talk to a practicing polygamist. After a long sermon about all the “great” men'and we do mean men'of the Old Testament who married more than one woman you’ll usually get treated to this central question. A practicing polygamist in Bountiful, British Columbia, posed the question this way.
“Are you going to tell me that in all your life you’ve never had sex with more than one woman?” he asked.
One turn deserves another and, in truth, reporters ought to climb down from their podiums more often.
“No,” I answered. But the trump in my hand was that I’d never ventured below the age of consent, either.
Nor has Walter Steed, who married three women, all sisters, in the rational haze of their adulthood. Each nuptial was spaced 10 years apart, too, apparently so Steed could properly digest one wife before moving on to the next. But Walter Steed is also Judge Walter Steed, a part-time municipal court justice in Hildale, Utah, who hears misdemeanor cases and other minor transgressions. Since bigamy is a well-known third-degree felony, the state’s Judicial Conduct Commission, after hearing Steed’s case last week at Brigham Young University, recommended Steed’s removal from the bench. The Utah Supreme Court will soon have the final word, however.
Regardless of your views on polygamy, Steed seems a fine fellow, if not exactly a willing specimen under the spotlight. What seems more troubling is his choice of polygamous sect, the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Surely you know this gang, if only because of the more entertaining news surrounding their leader, “Prophet” Warren Jeffs, the polygamist turned fugitive after an Arizona grand jury indicted him on charges of arranging the marriage of a 16-year-old girl to an adult man already betrothed, no doubt, to several other women. If you’re looking for news regarding Jeff’s able brother, Seth, look no further than Shane Johnson’s “Lake Effect,” p. 10.
According to the spring 2005 issue of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Report magazine, Prophet Jeffs doesn’t like African-Americans or, “the people through which the devil has always been able to bring evil unto the earth.” Nor does he like gays and lesbians. As for women, well, they’re at least part of the stairway to heaven. It would be interesting to hear Judge Steed’s views on black people, but we know at least part of his view toward women: More than one is essential if you want to reach the highest degree of glory in the afterlife. And if the U.S. government says you’ve got to limit yourself to one spouse, why then it’s part and parcel of your rights by conscience, religious freedom and the pursuit of happiness to break the law and marry all you see fit.
Polygamy’s defenders invariably invoke religious freedom and vague notions of conscientious objection and civil disobedience in their arguments. Disregarding the evidence that Jesus himself never married, let alone had more than one wife, comparisons of brave, principle-bound polygamists to Henry Thoreau or Martin Luther King, Jr. are dubious at best, offensive at worst. Thoreau and King sat in their jail cells for the causes of peace and freedom, respectively. Polygamists, on the other hand, skirt the law for selfish reasons. Their sights are set on some speculative goal removed from anyone else’s concern but their own and, hopefully, the adult women who care for them. I mean, don’t you just hate it when someone puts up a roadblock on your way to “the highest degree of glory in the afterlife”?
With 32 children to feed, Judge Steed doubtless needs the paycheck. And in marrying three sisters he’s certainly emulated the man all Mormons, fundamentalist or not, hold dear. Among his 33 documented wives, LDS Church founder Joseph Smith married three sets of sisters. For decorum’s sake, we won’t discuss 16-year-old Fanny Alger.
But what level of understanding, if any at all, should Judge Steed get from us? From the braggadocio that eventually landed Tom Green in prison to the ongoing capers of the Kingston clan, it’s extremely difficult to muster any sympathy for the men driving polygamy’s bizarre engine. Owen A. Allred, leader of the Apostolic United Brethren, ran perhaps the tightest ship in the polygamy business when he strictly forbade the practice of child brides and invited the attorney general’s office to question his flock. But even he found himself in a spot of bother when a woman accused him of stealing $1.54 million in a real-estate deal gone wrong. He died this year under house arrest. Now, thanks to the women of Tapestry Against Polygamy who brought his situation to light, Steed finds himself in the hot seat.
Opponents of gay marriage point to polygamy as the worst that can happen if the benefits of marriage are eventually granted to homosexuals. But as long as marriage is held in esteem as a partnership, that’s highly unlikely. What’s far more likely is that legalized polygamy would be marriage’s death-knell long before gay marriage, because it alone violates the idea of marriage as a partnership between two people. In the case of the FLDS, and polygamy in general for that matter, no one should be surprised that a tenet granting men unequal shares of women might also grant unequal status to black people.
It wasn’t long ago, either, that most people believed in respecting all laws, even those they disagreed with. Obeying and respecting even the most annoying and silly ordinances fortifies respect for laws prohibiting far more egregious offenses, such as theft and murder. So certainly a judge, of all people, ought to respect the law.
And spare me any arguments about polygamy’s biblical glory. As Rabbi Joseph Telushkin notes in his book Biblical Literacy, those arguments crumble under close examination. “Are there any happy polygamous marriages described in the Bible?” Telushkin asks. “No … where the text does supply details about a polygamous marriage, it either is miserable for at least one partner (Hagar and Leah), creates hatred between the children (Joseph and his brothers, David’s sons), or wreaks havoc with the husband’s character (Solomon).”
Far be it from anyone to peer inside Steed’s household. He no doubt rests comfortable in the belief he’ll sit in the highest degree of glory as the rest of us twiddle our thumbs. Finding another job in the here and now, however, could prove quite a task.