|Taken the night before our wedding May 22, 2009.|
I am always nonplused, perplexed, and slightly annoyed when I meet others' surprised gapes after they learn I am my husband's only wife.
And it happens, all the time, in disparate places of the world - in the Philadelphia airport by a fairly educated massage therapist (it happens) on my way out to Europe last week, and then again by eastern European graduate students at a conference in Austria in which I participated last weekend (again, I blogged more about this experience on my professional blog).
I read recently that a Pew poll showed the first word most Americans associate with Mormons is polygamy.
Yes, the restorers of my faith practiced polygamy from the 1840s (perhaps a bit earlier, depending on where you mark it) through the 1890s.
But, as my nephew says, "for crying in the mud!" It's been over 120 years, people!
The scapegoat for this misperception must be the media. They love doing stories on the ex-communicant group FLDS, and I hear the highly but subtly inaccurate Big Love HBO series, wherein a polygamist family is portrayed as a mainstream Mormon family, is all the rage. Makes me a bit crazy.
Culture within the church does not do much to help. We simply takes this historical fact in stride, and often make fun of it. Last go-round, Mitt Romney apparently was prohibited by his counselors not to tell a certain joke:
"It's funny that of all the Republican candidates for president, I'm the only one who has ever only had one wife."
It would have been funny regardless. The sad part of the joke--and perhaps, other than making an inappropriately personal, albeit subtle, attack on his co-candidates, the reason why he was disallowed from telling it--is that it would have only been fully understood by a very small fraction of the population.
Mitt's self-deprecating humor as applied to the faith is typical. I've often heard at extended family reunions someone pull out the wry phrase, "so which wife do you descend from?" to snickering all 'round. Too, a law school classmate at Penn had an LDS couple over for dinner. The husband said it was just too bad the other wife couldn't be there, too. When he was met with awkward stares from the guileless hostess, the LDS couple quickly explained that it was a joke and took the opportunity to explain how very far from the truth it was.
The historical fact of polygamy, however, is not always funny. I have had my own bouts of researching, struggling on my knees, and coming to terms with it. I admire the faith and courage of my pioneer ancestors who engaged in a practice they initially found revolting because they learned it was a commandment of God. (I've blogged about some of this here.)
Granted its past controversy and the current practice by break-away groups who have nothing at all to do with my faith, the misperception lingers. I believe at least some of the fault for it lies with members. Some church member should have taken measures to encourage HBO to change or discontinue its show long, long ago. We should not make the jokes, and we should be crystal clear about current practices and non-practices.
But then again, polygamy is so far from present LDS experience that it may just not occur to us on a regular basis that the misperception persists. I'm sure that is why I am always nonplused when I encounter surprised stares or make jokes that belly-flop.