Thursday, May 03, 2007

more on The Mormons

A few more scattered thoughts about the PBS special earlier this week . . .

Journalist Ken Verdoia, whose voice was one of those heard most frequently in the film, implied at one point that contemporary Mormons are ashamed of the heritage of polygamy. That is untrue in my experience. Polygamy is generally tolerated in Utah, principally because most Utahns had polygamist ancestors. Sometimes at family gatherings where our ancestors were discussed, I heard relatives reflect on the hardship the sister wives dealt with and what a sacrifice it was that they made for their faith, but just about everyone in 19th century Utah suffered hardship. Growing up in the church, I never got the sense that “the Principle” is something that is regretted by today’s membership. It is generally acknowledged as something that was appropriate in another time, a time which has passed. Most Jews or mainstream Christians aren’t ashamed of David or Solomon, if they even realize that those two kings had thousands of wives and concubines.

I appreciated how viewers heard more from the women commentators on the issue of Joseph Smith and polygamy. The official line is that Joseph Smith reinstituted the ancient practice to build up the population of the church at a crucial point in its history and so that women who would otherwise be single could partake of the blessings of the family. The less charitable view is that the prophet was a horny bugger who obscured his many infidelities with religious hoohaw and abused his position of power to bend the social norms of the day to suit his urges.

Given the church’s obsession with having/pretending-not-to-have sex and its stunted views on gender, this is a big issue for many women in the church that is seldom discussed in church settings. Not that I would necessarily know if it was—many church meetings and activities were gender-segregated. This is yet another controversial issue which has more or less been successfully pushed under the surface of official dialogue.

I gained a new appreciation of how actively Mormons were vilified in American public discourse throughout the second half of the 19th century. Apparently it was entered into Senate testimony at one point that Mormons were practicing human sacrifice on the altars of the Salt Lake temple. (In case you're wondering, the claim was false.) One talking head on the show, I forget who, made the comparison to the treatment of Muslims in contemporary media. The dynamic seems similar in some ways—a poorly understood minority religious group clashes with the mainstream in some highly violent but rather limited engagements, fear and hyperbole are ramped up on both sides, and any hope for a common dialogue goes out the window. Except that the Utahns—maybe simply by virtue of being out of reach of military technology of the day—managed to fend off the invading troops long enough to assimilate. Iraqis and Afghanis haven’t been so lucky.

On the issue of blacks and the church, I learned something astonishing. Sometime in the middle of the last century, a Ghanaian man stumbled across a copy of the Book of Mormon and independently converted an entire local community to the LDS faith. This would be any missionary’s dream, except that at the time, the church had a worldwide stricture in place prohibiting blacks from receiving the priesthood. Receiving the priesthood for male Mormons is like being baptized or bar mitzvahed--it's a universal rite of passage. The Ghanaians petitioned the Church leadership to send missionaries to baptize them en masse—according to the film, this request was refused for some 20 years due to the priesthood ban. Incredible.

While I think there is still some lingering racism in Utah, which has historically been a very white community, the diffusion of the great majority of the church’s religiously active young men to every corner of the globe, combined with official multiracial/multicultural rhetoric I can only describe as Sesame Street-esque, the trajectory of the church on racial issues seems clear: the church will lumber along with the mainstream towards something better than before.

Perhaps I’ll have some final thoughts on these matters in the next couple days. In the meantime, IOZ enjoys some well-deserved snark at the expense of Mitt Romney, but in the process unwittingly reveals that he may have read Battlefield Earth. All the way through (dear God). Thankfully, whatever mindnumbing effects such an exercise may have inflicted seem to have worn off.

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