|By A.D. Freudenheim||
28 May 2001
In America, lifestyle crimes can be hard to prosecute, because attempts to define their criminality do not always fare well - particularly those crimes committed by seemingly normal adults. Unlike Afghanistan as run by the Taliban, we have neither a dominant religion or religious authority, nor a religious police force. Though it is true that, through the middle part of the last century it was not uncommon (particularly in parts of the American South) for police forces to arrest those committing sodomy, adultery, or even interracial sex acts, modern Americans lead lives with significantly greater freedom from such harassments.
So it is surely with some amusement that the forces of history have brought us to this fine and fortuitous moment in American life. Examine some recent events. To begin with, the results from last year's census are coming in, and newspapers and magazines have been eager to report them, despite the fact that they seem only to confirm what most of us already know: the number of two-parent households has decreased by several percentage points. In turn - and here's the part the news media loves - there has been a marked increase not only in single parent families, but in families constructed by unmarried couples, both hetero- and homo-sexual.
At the same time, the media has reported on growing movements to confront high divorce rates - statistically higher than the national average - within the (predominantly Christian) communities that preach so mightily about the strength and importance of the proper, married family unit. The New York Times in particular has examined this trend, with an extensive article on 21 May, whose title tells all: "Bible Belt Couples 'Put Asunder' More, Despite New Efforts." Neither the "new efforts" nor the communities themselves appear ready to confront the questions that these statistics pose: is something else at work here besides a failure to teach - and preach - with the proper imposing moral authority the importance of the marital commitment?
The "something else" is not really a new morality, nor is it likely a failure of the pulpit in the strictest sense. It is America's one true religion - money - and these new statistics suggest the full bloom of the American capitalist aesthetic, brought to this new, ripe blossom by the wealth of the last decade. With greater affluence come broader options and opportunities, and the flexibility for each individual to rethink his or her own desires - and to feel less bound by either societal convention or by what some would argue is the greater common good. In the world of pure American capitalism the greater common good is, instead, what is best for each of us individually.
Then how to square this with the example of Tom Green, a fifty-something Mormon living in a remote Utah county. Green, who considers himself to have five "spiritual" wives - akin, he says, to mistresses - does not consider himself legally married to these women, but nonetheless lives and procreates with them. Yet Green has just been tried and convicted by a Utah jury for bigamy - for having too many wives simultaneously, under a common law definition of marriage. A religiously-motivated lifestyle "crime" if ever there was one! While Green, his wives, and his children try to practice a kind of fundamentalist, old-style Mormonism, it appears that he and his family have been the unlucky victims of one of the few remaining religious police groups: modern Mormons trying to exorcise the demons of their polygamy-endorsing past.
While Green was convicted on four counts of bigamy and one count of failing to pay child support (for one of his twenty-five children), he has been charged - but as yet, not prosecuted or tried - for a crime of a much more serious nature: statutory rape. (Green is alleged to have "married" and had sex with one of his wives when she was only thirteen.) If Tom Green's five "wives" all wish to continue their relationship with him, in whatever fashion suits their physical and emotional needs, how does that harm the state of Utah or its citizens? Rather, state authorities should be targeting things like child abuse, failure to pay child support, statutory rape, welfare fraud, and spousal abuse - all of which are listed as the frequent results of plural marriage by groups like the Center for Public Information on Polygamy (though Green has only been accused of the two previously mentioned, statutory rape and a failure to pay child support). Unlike the simple act of marriage itself, these are crimes that can have a tremendous negative impact on other people's lives, and the lives of children in particular.
Maybe what the census statistics are really telling us is not that we are at the start of a new trend towards more flexible, societally-acceptable family units, but at the end of the boom? That would be a national shame, particularly if the acceptance of alternative families is tied to our collective economic well-being. It might be true that the nation's wealth has freed Americans from the restraints of some superficial moral judgments of a dubious nature. But it is the very freedoms that the United States has offered its citizens in the first place that has, in turn, helped to create its wealth. We should continue to view the definition of the "family unit" on each family's terms; so long as the choices those families make benefit them without directly harming anyone else, then they will likely benefit our communities as well.
Copyright 2001, by A.D. Freudenheim.
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