Mormon Marriage: From Mitt Romney To Polygamy, What's The Norm?

Mitt Romney and wife Ann Romney on the campaign trail

A look at modern Mormon marriage (read: the kind without sister wives).

When you hear "Mormon"—what do you think of first? Polygamy? Utah? Mitt Romney?

Misinformation and confusion about the Mormon faith are not in short supply. This is due, in part, to Mitt Romney's campaign for the presidency, in which his faith has surfaced as an issue and raised Mormonism's profile in the media, leading to such incendiary stories as "Did Mitt Romney Convert His Dead Atheist Father-in-Law to Mormonism?" While political critics may highlight his flip-flopping stances on abortion and gay marriage, and supporters tout his business acumen, an underlying question of his campaign remains: is America ready to elect a Mormon president? Inside Mitt And Ann Romney's Marriage

Meanwhile, TV shows like Big Love and Sister Wives portray Mormons as polygamists, though the LDS church outlawed plural marriages in 1890. Almost all of the stereotypes floating around in regard to Mormonism serve to portray its church members as Other. In a recent Pew Research Center survey of Mormons, 62 percent responded that most Americans know "not too much/nothing" about Mormonism and 54 percent thought that portrayal of Mormons in TV/movies hurt the group's image. In other words, there's a disconnect.

So what does Mormon marriage really look like?

Brandon and Brittany Garrett are newlywed Mormons, members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. It's been about five months since Brandon, 25, and Brittany, 23, tied the knot at the Bountiful Utah Temple—an expansive white building made of white granite that contains eight "sealing rooms," sacred rooms in which Mormon brides and grooms are married. It was in one of these rooms that Brandon and Brittany, accompanied by their families (those who had reached a certain level within the Mormon faith, that is; non-Mormons and those who've not yet been "endowed" are not allowed), knelt at an altar and pledged fidelity to each other—not only in this life, but for all eternity. 

According to the official website of the LDS church, members believe that all of us are literal sons and daughters of God, and that we lived together in heaven before coming to Earth. After death, we return to heaven and are reunited with our husbands, wives and children. It's this belief in the eternal nature of a union, more than anything else, that might set Mormons apart from other faiths and non-faiths in this country—though misconceptions, no matter how erroneous or outrageous, are often hard to shake. Contrary to what popular culture (and outsized rumor) might have you believe, the Garretts do not practice polygamy. Nor do they have horns.

Stan Brown, a 58-year-old marketing professional who has been married since 1980, elaborates. "We get married not 'until death do you part,' but for eternity," he says. "When we're with God in the afterlife, we'll be together as families. It puts more emphasis on family unity, and working things out, rather than just throwing a marriage away. It's much more durable than disposable."

As with most religious unions, the pre-marital process involves more than simply securing a marriage certificate. Eliana Osborn, 34, freelance writer and adjunct English professor in Arizona, has been married for 13 years. She explains the journey to marriage thusly: "To get married or sealed in the temple, both parties have to be LDS. To do so, you have to get what is called a temple recommend. You have to talk to your bishop or pastor, then to the higher up guy, the stake president, who is the head of 5-10 congregations. There are questions about belief and worthiness, but also discussion about marriage in general and yours in particular."

LeeAnne Hanks, who lives with her husband, Jeff, and their three children in Pleasant Grove, UT, speaks of the time leading up to marriage. "You would never enter into a marriage without praying about it, counseling with your parents and bishop, reading scripture together. If you're living a Christ-like life," she says, "your marriage will be a good one." 

Hanks thinks the younger, more divorce-prone generations could benefit from putting family before self. "This is supposed to be forever," she says. "Real love stories never have endings. There's nothing I can see us not working through. Falling out of love? That's not a good enough reason to divorce. Marriage holds you together until you fall back in love."

And while the Mormon marriage rate does seem to reflect the importance of the "eternal family," with nearly 71 percent of Mormons married (compared to just 54 percent of the general population), Hanks is right. Even among Mormons, divorce is more prevalent than it once was.

In the year 2000, Brigham Young University professor Daniel K. Judd reported that only six percent of Mormons who marry in a temple ceremony subsequently go through a temple divorce. But this figure is misleading, in that it does not include those who only receive a civil divorce. Receiving a temple divorce—actually known as a cancellation of the temple sealing—is, unsurprisingly, an involved process. For women, a temple divorce and an "unsealing" won't be granted until she is engaged to a new LDS member. Mormon men are not required to go through the unsealing process, though still require the OK from church heads before divorcing.

Overall, the Mormon divorce rate is no different from the average American divorce rate. A 1999 study by Barna Research of nearly 4,000 U.S. adults showed that 24 percent of Mormon marriages end in divorce, a number statistically equal to the divorce rate among all Americans. Still, for those marriages that do last, a glimpse at these couples' day-to-day lives shows families that are fiercely devoted to each other, and to their faith.

Ed Kinsey and his wife De, both 30 and married for nine years, with two kids, detail their church activities for me.

"We go to church every Sunday," says De, "and we all have different callings. Every other week, on Wednesdays, I help our young women. Ed handles money coming in and out. We all do our part."

"Being LDS certainly is a lifestyle choice, because it's so involved," adds Hanks. "No one in our church gets paid to do what they do. Even the bishops are volunteers. Our bishop works in the foster care system. I'm a Sunday school teacher. I don't get paid for that."

But life doesn't revolve solely around the church. In our career-centric culture, Mormons—both men and women—are just as likely to be college-educated, and to have thriving careers.

According to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, Mormons are actually more likely than the general population to have some college education. Sixty-one percent of Mormons have at least some college education, compared with half of the overall population. 

As for income, most Mormon families fall into a middle income bracket; 38 percent of Mormons report earning between $50,000 and $100,000 annually.
And it's not just the menfolk bringing home the bacon. Though the 1995-issued Mormon Proclamation on the Family says men should provide for families while women should raise children, many women these days manage to juggle both career and family.

And for those who choose to stay at home—like Mitt Romney's wife, Ann, who focused on raising their five children—their role is no less crucial. In a recent interview, Ann shared that whatever job her husband was doing at the time, he regarded her job raising five sons as more significant, telling her, 'My job is temporary and your job is going to bring permanent happiness.'" Why Do Ladies Love Mitt Romney?

As I chat with mother-of-three Hanks about her daily life, she laughs and says she worries my article will be boring. She tells me the cult-like and polygamist vision of Mormonism as portrayed by the mainstream media represents just a teeny-tiny segment of the population. On the whole? The life she leads looks a lot like mine.

But what about those who still practice polygamy, despite its criminalization? How do plural marriages play a part in the Mormon faith?

Joe Darger—a co-author of the recently-released Love Times Three—takes care to explain that he is not a member of the mainstream LDS church. Nor is he a member of the Warren Jeffs-headed FLDS Church, which in recent years has gained notoriety for its refusal to stop conducting underage marriages. Rather, Darger and his wives—Alina, Vicki, and Valerie—consider themselves Independent Fundamentalist Mormons, or "Joseph Smith Mormons." They believe in the Mormon faith as it was originally conceived, but do not belong to any church or follow any leader.

Darger describes how plural marriage is a deep part of the Mormon culture. Having been introduced by church founder Joseph Smith early on in its history, plural marriage was eventually acknowledged as a key tenet of the faith in 1852. "So much is centered around the family, and it is an important aspect of the faith," he says.

Though the LDS church now excommunicates those who practice polygamy, Independents believe they must continue to abide by the gospel, which includes perpetuating plural marriage. For this reason, they avoid organized communities, churches, and groups. Darger likens himself and other Independents to those of Orthodox faith. "We follow a stricter code," he says. "This is a deep part of our culture."

Darger responds to the criticism that polygamy is inherently patriarchal. "Our Christ is our head, but he's really our servant. That is the model we use. In marriage, a man is the head of the family, but this is not a place of power. It is one of service. Women are equally important. They just have a different role. We hold high reverence for mothers and motherhood in our faith." He describes his book as part of a campaign to educate others on the myths and stereotypes that exist around polygamy—an attempt to eliminate persecution.

But it is not just the Independents who are facing persecution. Couples like the newlywed Garrets grow up to lead faith-driven, monogamous lives, yet still face confusion from others about their religion, despite the fact that their lives look pretty much like yours and mine.

"As for the day to day of our marriage," says Brandon, "it's pretty normal. Both Brittany and I work. We're trying to save up for a home, and for kids. I do marketing and Brittany is a dental assistant."

Only a few months into marriage, Brandon seems optimistic about the future. "It's great to know that my family will be my family forever because I was sealed through God's power. I will be able to be with Brittany forever."

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