Thursday, November 17, 2005

Hand-wringing After All: Polygamy’s Pendulum

I said that I couldn’t bring myself to wring my hands too much about 19th century Mormon polygamy. But maybe I will after all—just a little.

Why say more? Two reasons. First, I came across a news story about the French complaints that Muslim polygamy played a role in the riots. This filled in some lacunae in my sketchy memory of the skimpy blurb on MSNBC I mentioned yesterday, and inspired another thought—this time, a hand-wringing one. Second, yesterday’s post generated no comments as of this writing, and for some perverse reason I feel inclined to continue a conversation (well, monologue for the moment) in which there seems to be little interest.

It turns out that what I called “French authorities” were senior conservative politicians whose specific complaint was that youth from large polygamous families become anti-social due to the lack of a father-figure, presumably because the father has to divide his time. (I suppose racism and the ghettoization of minorities would not be the first possible explanations to occur to such conservatives.) Given Mormon conservatism today, I find it interesting that it’s conservatives arguing against large (and polygamous) families.

This inspires the following armchair thesis: the signature Mormon ‘hyperisms’ of social conservatism and patriotism—and associated allegiance to the Republican Party—are lingering overcompensations for our polygamy, resistance to federal authority, and indifference (or worse) to the cause of the Union (Lincoln’s Republican Party famously railed against polygamy and slavery as the ‘twin relics of barbarism’). In the 19th century we were sexually, economically, and politically radical; but a pendulum was deliberately swung all the way to the other side at the opening of the 20th century as our people’s entrance fee to American society.

This hanging pendulum may now be a sort of hangover (forgive the mixed but homophonic metaphor), suspended still in its high unstable extremity, awkwardly now as the society whose acceptance we craved a century ago moves on and forgets the particular norms of the era in which Mormonism’s modern identity happened to be expediently forged. Have we been left holding the bag with this historically contingent socially conservative identity (I’m loving the word ‘contingent’ this week), now irreversibly hardened into our consciousness—once again a peculiar people as the 21st century opens, strange and backward in the eyes of the world?


I hate to see you monologging. I think the political conservatism of the Church is a result of our religious conservatism, like the Evangelicals, who had a much different history. After the normalization of relations with the Federal Gov't, the natural conservatism of Mormonism gradually moved to the fore.

I think in the last fifty years that natural conservatism has become reinforced by in increasingly conservative leadership, who self-select conservative replacements. If there was turnover in leadership and a more balanced view from the top, I think the Church as a whole might diversity politically, but that is rather unlikely.

Your line of thinking sounds like "the colonization of the Mormon mind" thesis, which someone trots out every time this topic comes up. I'm no fan of that approach, but I'd still like to read Bushman's tough-to-find paper someday. 

Comment by Dave | 11/17/2005 05:53:00 PM  

Dave,  thanks for saving these threads from a lonely fate. I'm not familiar with the "colonization" thesis, though the name sounds like it might fit the transition of the early 20th century. I'm curious to know why you don't like it. Does it have obvious flaws? (Well obviously it's not too comfortable for many believers in prophetic quasi-inerrancy, but I wouldn't guess that to be the source of your dislike.)

However, part of my point is that the "colonization" during the turn to the 20th century is not holding: society is moving on while Mormonism stays put (or rather changes much more slowly), so that Mormonism's resistance is leading to a de-colonization, one that appears reactionary from the reference frame of evolving society.

Another point: This post disagrees with your comment that there is a religious conservatism inherent in Mormonism. What makes you think there is? Maybe there is now, but early on it was progressive theologically, politically, and economically. It was moving out ahead  of society. This makes its present mode of detachment from society—lagging behind instead of pressing ahead—all the more interesting and ironic. (On the other hand maybe this is a natural progression of all religions; isn't this an idea of German sociologist, Weber or somebody?) 

Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 11/17/2005 06:19:00 PM  

This reminds me of John Dehlin's interview with Armand Mauss--he seems to support your idea here. Mauss talks about the Church needing to be in an optimal state of tension with society. It's here. | 11/17/2005 07:17:00 PM  

Jared,  thanks for the link. My goodness it was long!  I'm not used to podcasts, but one thing I can see that's difficult about long ones like this is that it's not possible to skim. Nevertheless it was very interesting.

Because I'm not versed in Mormon Studies---not a reader of Sunstone, Dialogue, etc., and only a handful of books---I may often say things that have been "obvious" to many for a long time, and find myself reinventing the wheel. Though for sure some things I'm not reinventing at all, but regurgitating (hopefully with some new twists) some ideas I've absorbed by osmosis from book reviews, internet discussions, etc.  

Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 11/18/2005 10:20:00 AM  

Regarding the substance of the Mauss interview... (My goodness, the pendulum metaphor even just came up as I'm listening to it... It seems I'm incapable of an original or less-than-obvious thought!)

I think it's interesting that the magnitude  of "optimum tension" was implicit in the discussion, but one thing I pointed out here was that the tension also has a sign, positive or negative. By that I don't mean 'good' or 'bad', but in a numerical sense: if you were to put the continuum of reactionary to progressive on a numerical scale, with 0 being society's current position, my argument is that the Church had tension on the progressive side early in its history, close to 0 during assimilation into American society, and is now shifting to the reactionary side---not because the Church changed in the 20th century, but because society did. In terms of the numerical scale, the origin (zero point) is shifting.  

Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 11/18/2005 10:36:00 AM  

One more thought about the Mauss interview. That the Church must maintain an optimum tension with the surrounding society is not easily reconciled with the idea of God implementing his will through revelation to current prophets. This is because the position of "optimum tension" is always dependent on where society happens to go, and not what God's will is.

Indeed it seems Mauss understands this, for while he says in the interview that he has faith that God instituted the Church through Joseph Smith, he believes God has basically 'let it go' since then. In the end it seems to 'give away the store' in terms of revelatory prophetic leadership.

I suppose one could still argue that God is in fact leading the Church, not directly through the apostles, but ultimately by guiding society, with the Church then led around on a leash whose length corresponds to the "optimum tension." It's a theory I would find too elaborate and extravagant for my taste. 

Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 11/18/2005 10:51:00 AM  

It was just coincidence that I listened to the Mauss interview last week. I find the best time to listen to Mormon podcasts is while I do the dishes--no complaints from my wife.

I brought this up over at M*, but it didn't get much play-- We often view God as having a checklist of things he wants to reveal. Yet we also see that many of his revelations are in response to questions. Many of those questions will be generated based on what is going on outside of the Church, so in a way, maybe society does play a role in shaping revelation. | 11/18/2005 04:19:00 PM  

That last post was mine. 

Comment by Jared | 11/18/2005 06:35:00 PM  



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