Saturday, October 23, 2010

Come, Come Ye Saints

In 2006, PBS & Frontline produced a four-hour documentary about the Mormons. Although I think I've seen it previously (at least in bits and pieces), it's been interesting to watch it again, especially because I've only recently moved to the Salt Lake City environs. Tonight Ed and I watched the first half, which covered the history of the LDS church starting with Joseph Smith's childhood, through the migration to Salt Lake City, and ending with polygamy. I already knew something aboutLDS history, but it's interesting to get a more complete picture. I'm pretty interested in religion, the history of religion, and what others belief. Mormonism is so prevalent here, though, that I still feel vaguely uncomfortable, and I'm trying to ascertain why. (It's certainly not because I'm in a religious minority; unless I move to the Vatican, I'm always going to be in the religious minority.)

Of course, the topic that the documentary ended with, and one of the big the hot-button themes, is always the issue (or the non-issue, I suppose) of plural marriage. Because of a constitutional clause prohibiting polygamy, the Utah territory wasn't granted statehood until 1896. Wilford Woodruff, the fourth president of the LDS church, announced that plural marriage was no longer a divine revelation, which made it that much easier to be accepted as a state.

Watching The Mormons got me to thinking a few things, though; they're questions that have been percolating in my mind for some time, without the proper way to express them until I was watching the documentary tonight:

  • Was it difficult for the LDS church to sacrifice polygamy so that Utah Territory could join the union? There are many aspects of my religion I simply must adhere to, and as such, no condition could cause me to forgo those practices. While I'm sure the renunciation of polygamy wasn't a decision that was made lightly, I'm led to wonder how important it was to the church leaders, or if it was really a divine revelation to begin with.
  • Brigham Young, the second leader of the LDS church, was portrayed as someone who really didn't want to accept the divine revelation of plural marriage. (It was noted that something like only 20-30% of the LDS faithful practiced plural marriage, that it was mostly the church leaders who practiced it, and only if they could afford multiple wives.) I would go out on a limb and suggest that most religions require obedience from their followers, but wasn't there any concept of free will? I can't speak about any religion other than Catholicism, but at least within Catholicism, if one is in a position of making a decision contrary to one's perception of morality, then one has the obligation to act in the individual manner one believes to be right. I'm wary of any religion that would require me to act in such a way that really goes against my conscience.
  • I absolutely believe that polygamy is detrimental to families. From time to time I see interviews with sister wives who describe how lovely it is to share one's husband, how it brings families closer together by sharing household and family responsibilities, as well as the children, etc. While I can see how this could bring a family together, I can also see how divisive jealousy could be. (I certainly don't want to share Ed with anyone else. I'm pretty sure he doesn't want to share me with anyone else, either.) However: In specific cases that the family unit is well-preserved, that the parents are able to educate, feed, clothe, and otherwise provide and care for their children, why is the government getting involved? I'm a pretty staunch Catholic, and I extremely in favor of separation of church and state for reasons like this. Whether or not the government has a right to step in to protect children who are forced to marry against their will and before they're ready to marry is another, separate issue altogether; I refer only to the specific cases where adults over the age of (let's say) 21 enter into the situation of their own free will.
  • Was Joseph Smith's divine revelation about polygamy really a divine revelation? I kept getting the impression that he wanted to get around (so to speak), and this was the only way he could think of to resolve a religious belief with sexuality. (The anthropologist's argument that people are incapable of true fidelity!) Granted: Religion is not good at resolving sex and faith. One historian, Kathleen Flake of Vanderbilt University, opined that "[t]here are so many easier ways to satisfy our sex drive than to have many marriages, at least at one time. Now, maybe serially, but having many marriages at one time seems to me to be the least rational way to satisfy one's sex drive." Yet I could see how might not know how else to resolve the issue - aside from abstaining altogether.

My impression remains that plural marriage seemed like a cornerstone to the early LDS church, but when it came right down to it, it was easily removed. The Catholic Church has a lot of problems (as do all religions, I suspect, at least from an administrative standpoint), but I appreciate that it takes the Vatican a very long time to change its policies, because they want to make sure it's the right decision.

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