Americans can be shrill in their morality and selective about their history. They tend also to be blind to that fact, as I was reminded recently by the trial of Tom Green, a ex-Mormon allegedly married to five women at once. Green, the five women and their 25 children live in a clutch of mobile homes in the Utah desert, a landscape of sagebrush and salt flats 50 miles from the nearest gas station. Bearded as an old-time preacher, Green, 52, describes himself as a " fundamentalist Mormon" for whom plural marriage is a religious duty. Not minding the contradiction, he also claims he's innocent on charges of bigamy because he and his women aren't legally married. As for those girls he married as young as 14, well, sir, those were " relations among consenting adults." The jury convicted him anyway.
Journalists as far away as London and Melbourne had a high time pawing over the strange family and gawking at the wives,who came to court covered from wrist to ankle in chaste frontier calico dresses.But beyond the bizarre legalities of the affair,I believe Green's case says a lot about America. At the very least,it is a vivid refutation of the all-too-American tendency to see the past as past,to view hsitory as irrelevant to the present.Mormon Utah renounced polygamy 111 years ago; It's simply hidden. An estimated 20,000 to 50,000 people live in polygamous families in the United States, more than half of them in Utah.
The Green case is the third I've followed for NEWSWEEK since 1998. That year, a 16-year-old girl from a polygamous sect called the Kingston clan was beaten unconscious by her father for refusing to become her uncle's 15th wife. Far from hiding out in the desert, the Kingstons ran a ＄ 150 million business empire right in the suburbs of Salt Lake City. Last fall, amid the remote red-rock cliffs along the Arizona-Utah border, nearly 1,000 children of polygamy bolted the public schools after religious leaders preached that the schools blocked the teaching of what church elder (and town mayor) Dan Barlow called" our heritage." I interviewed Barlow at city hall. He wouldn't admit to polygamy, but he allowed that he'd set up a private school on his property that had more than 100 students. Oh, I said, you're letting the neighbors in, too? No, said Barlow blandly, " just my family."
I've learned that mainstream Mormons have complex feelings about this underground life. They don't believe in it and don't live it. Their church tells them it's wrong and, in fact, excommunicated Green years ago. Many are as appalled as any other American by the reports of incest and child abuse from within polygamous sects. But they have a hard time equating plural marriage with those evils. One reason is that many come from families that were polygamous just a few short generations ago —— among them Sen. Orrin Hatch and Gov. Mike Leavitt. Often they'll begin interviews by noting, " Brigham Young was my great - great - grandfather." Granny and Grandpa weren't criminals. It follows that many folks in Utah aren't as quick as outsiders to blame polygamy for the abuses it masks.
Utahans are also Westerners, people with a wide respect for individual liberty. More than most places, the mountain West still lives by the creed " Leave me alone, and I'll leave you alone." Never mind that polygamy is illegal in all 50 states. In 1953, government agents raided the polygamous Utah-Arizona border towns, sending the fathers to prison and carting off 260 children to foster homes. The spectacle of so many broken families virtually ended prosecutions for 50 years. If the polygamy mess gives the lie to anything, its' that America has become a homogenous mass of conformists. It hasn't.Green and Utah are full-color proof —— and in that,I can almost take a perverse comfort.