Strangers in Egypt, Prop. 8, and Reynolds vs. U.S.

Okay, this is going to be esoteric. Reynolds vs. US was a Supreme Court case, decided in 1878, in which the justices (including John Marshall Harlan, whom I generally admire because later on, he dissented from the majority in Plessy vs. Ferguson) held that the religiously promulgated duty of male members of the Church of Latter-Day Saints to marry multiple wives did not exempt them from compliance with anti-bigamy laws, despite the First Amendment’s guarantee of free exercise of religion. I personally believe this decision was wrongly decided, and ought to be revisited. It probably won’t be, because the beneficiaries of any such review would be some fringy cult with very few votes behind it.

The official hierarchy of the Latter-Day Saints accepted this decision and were divinely inspired to scrap plural marriage, and most Mormons followed this ruling. As a result, Utah was declared a state in 1890, and we all sort of lived happily ever after. Well, sort of. Mitt Romney’s grandfather was one of a group of schismatic polygamist Mormons who moved to Mexico to avoid the law. (As a result, Mitt’s father George was born in Mexico, but the constitutionality of his candidacy for president was never ruled on.) There are still a fair number of polygamist Mormon groups out there, in varying degrees of closetedness.

The reason the Mormons ended up in Utah in the first place was that they had already been forcibly dislocated from Ohio, Missouri, and Illinois. They decided to try their luck in a territory where the locals might be less intolerant. This strategy worked well enough to establish them as the predominant social institution of Utah, but it delayed the admission of Utah as a state until the polygamy issue was resolved to the satisfaction of the federal government.

So it strikes me as ironic that, having endured so much harassment and persecution for the oddities of their family life, they now feel entitled, or even obliged, to subject other people to similar strictures.

I should, I suppose, not be surprised by this. After all, the ancestors of the white settlers in the Carolinas who encouraged Andrew Jackson to evict the Cherokees onto the Trail of Tears in the early 1800s had themselves been exiled from Scotland for participating in the Jacobite rebellions of 1715 and 1745. There are undoubtedly lots of other equally esoteric and equally ironic instances lurking in human history, of the victims of persecution becoming persecutors in their turn.

Amazingly, this is something the Bible actually does say something about. Yes, gentle reader, Biblical morality actually forbids the victims of persecution to victimize others. Exodus 22:21 says “you shall not wrong a stranger, nor oppress him, for you were strangers in Egypt.”

But we are all accustomed to hearing the Bible thumped more often than it is read. I just thought it was time for a history refresher.

Jane Grey

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