Utah polygamist returns to a world without a definition of marriage

After serving 25 years in state and federal prisons, Utah polygamist Addam Swapp was released from parole supervision last week. Incarcerated since 1988—at a time when marriage was defined as a union between one man and one woman—Swapp returns to a country that is now abandoning that definition.    

Convicted of orchestrating the 1988 bombing of the meetinghouse of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in Marion, Utah, and implicated in the shooting death of Utah Department of Corrections Lt. Fred House, Swapp claimed that he was acting on a revelation from God to destroy the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints because the Church leaders had abandoned their commitment to polygamy. Using dynamite to blow up the LDS building, Swapp believed his actions would lead to the “resurrection” of his father-in-law, John Singer, a Utah polygamist, who was killed by local law enforcement officers in 1979 when he pointed a loaded weapon at the officers as they entered his property to serve him with a contempt of court citation at his ranch in Marion, Utah. Singer, described by the Salt Lake City News Tribune as a “fundamentalist Mormon,” had been “embroiled in a years-long feud with local officials that began when he and his first wife, Vickie, decided to homeschool their children.”

During the years following Singer’s death, Swapp lived a polygamous lifestyle, having married two of Singer’s daughters.  He began to believe that Singer would be resurrected if he destroyed the LDS Church. After the bombing, which occurred on the ninth anniversary of Singer’s death, Swapp fled to the Singer ranch with 14 members of his extended family and began a 13-day standoff that ended violently with the death of Lt. Fred House. While he did not personally kill Lt. House—who was shot by Swapp’s brother-in-law, John Timothy Singer—Swapp was held responsible because he had created the conditions for the standoff. 

The US government’s opposition to polygamy within Mormonism (which officially rejected polygamy in 1890) was based on the government’s definition of marriage at the time—a union of one man and one woman. Both Swapp and Singer lived as polygamists with the memory of more than a century of opposition to their lifestyle (and that of their ancestors) from the government. Now that the government is sanctioning what it calls “same-sex marriage,” it will permit marriage between same-sex couples on the basis of a legislative negation of the previous definition. This is the same definition that has been used for more than a century to oppose polygamy.

That opposition helps to explain the actions of individuals like Swapp and Singer. Utah’s History (1989) by Richard Poll, Thomas Alexander, and Eugene Campbell, maintains that both Republicans and Democrats were united in their denunciation of Mormon polygamy. And, even though the Mormons outlawed polygamy in 1890, the practice has continued amid splinter sects, and the US government has persisted in its opposition. Swapp was just one figure among many who grew up amid more than a century of government opposition to the practice of polygamy. 

Now, the same government that opposed Swapp, Singer, and their ancestors’ embrace of polygamy because it was not in keeping with the government’s definition of marriage as between one man and one woman is poised to remove that definition—based not on a new law, but rather, a legislative negation of the previous definition. Logically speaking, apart from concerns of faith, a negation does not constitute a definition—only the absence of a definition. This means that once laws against same-sex marriage are struck down, there will be no legal definition of marriage. With no definition of marriage remaining, how can the US government legally oppose polygamy?  

Once the heterosexual requirement for marriage is struck down throughout the country, we are left without a definition of marriage. Without a definition of marriage, on what basis can any State respond to polygamists like Addam Swapp and John Singer? On what basis can any state require that individual human beings be restricted to marriage only to other human beings? Perhaps it is time that we begin to ask the legislators who are striking down the laws restricting marriage to one man and one woman to begin to consider what will fill the void.

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About Fr. Dan Pattee 0 Articles
Fr. Dan Pattee, TOR, is Chair of the Department of Theology at Franciscan University of Steubenville.