When the weirdos are white

Share on FacebookShare on Google+Email this to someoneTweet about this on Twitter

Clark has a post pointing to the obvious parallels between the practices of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints and those of West African immigrants. The “problem” with the FLDS situation is pretty clear; they’re WASPs with weird folkways. Of course the reaction to the FLDS is simply a retread of what happened with the original Mormons, a culturally heterodox group whose primary following was among the lower and lower middle class of Greater New England.1 I had friends in high school who were from the old Mormon stock whose ancestors had been driven west; many of the remembrances passed down through the generations resembled those of the Trail of Tears. My friends were proud & patriotic Americans, but I was surprised that on a deep level they seem to have never forgotten the persecution which Mormons experienced from the American government and the people which it claimed to represent.

The “problem” with the original Mormon church, and the FDLS today, is that we aren’t living in a land of black & white, where good and evil are clear and distinct. In some ways the early Mormons were an admirable folk, picking themselves up by their own bootstraps and forging a new religion in the wilderness of the American continent. But they also manifested hostility toward outgroups and an exclusionary tendency which ill-suited them in their interaction with other Americans, “gentiles” as they would call them. The history of the Mormons from their original emigration down to the banning of polygyny was one of interminable conflict with the American republic, the Utah territory was defined by the clash between a Mormon theocracy and the occupational government of the United States. This enmity was only resolved by the Mormon rejection of polygyny.


This episode showed that the tolerance of the American polity had its limits. Though multiculturalism is a relatively new concept in terms of its elaboration, the United States of the 19th century was shockingly diverse when it came to religious pluralism. The Mormons themselves were an outgrowth of the Second Great Awakening, which transformed the American South into the domain of Baptists and produced many of the mainstream denominations which are still on the scene today. Joseph Smith’s cult is the most exotic outlier, but it was not entirely atypical. Smith’s sin was not to push Protestantism into a new direction, it was the fact that he dragged the Mormon church into a landscape which transgressed against the bourgeois norms at the heart of American society (this occurred with other religious-social groups which emerged out of the Second Great Awakening, but only the Mormons remain).

The emblematic violation of those norms was of course plural marriage, polygyny. I don’t think that plural marriage is wrong like murder is wrong, but the social dynamics which emerge from its ubiquitous practice among the FLDS are well known, and I am skeptical that the practice is conducive to the perpetuation of a bourgeois republic. Even within the Muslim world modernizers are very critical of polygyny because of the familial destabilization it portends. In a world where time is finite one can make quick back of the envelope inferences about the effect upon parental inputs in a situation where one man fathers dozens of children with multiple wives. Though there are very specific principled arguments one can against polygyny, I suspect that the consequentialist ones are at the heart of the relatively universal objection to the practice from most Americans.

The FLDS situation gets to the heart of a broader problem in any polity, and that is one of diversity of values. As WASPs without the race card to bail them out the members of the FLDS find themselves facing the reality of prejudice & discrimination at the hands of the majority. On pure moralistic grounds I think one can point to the ubiquity of debauched polyamory in much of American society, and low “paternity certainty.” Why this fixaton on the FLDS’s practices? Aside from the formalization of a routine of statutory rape encouraged by Warren Jeffs, I suspect a bigger issue is that the FLDS legitimizes & solemnizes practices Americans want to keep marginalized and sinful (for lack of a better word). Most Americans are regularly bombarded with the message that prejudice & discrimination are bad, but the reality is that we engage in these activities every single day of our lives. Our rejection of polygyny brings into stark relief the persistence of shibboleths and unspoken norms. The non-ethnic whiteness of Fundamentalist Mormons results in our disgust not being buffered by race guilt or discounting of the practitioners of exotic behaviors as marginally human. The members of the FLDS are “All American” in their stock, so their practices are more repulsive than they would otherwise be. They are apostates from the bourgeois consensus.

And consensus is vitally important, no matter how much we wish to emphasize the value of public debate and difference. Winnifred Sullivan’s book The Impossibility of Religious Freedom elucidated the charade that a world without prejudice & discrimination truly is. In Catholicism & American Freedom John T. McGreevy documents how American Catholics became part of the mainstream in large part due to their assimilation of American values and folkways. In other words, Catholicism became acceptable when it became Protestant, the apotheosis of which was John F. Kennedy.2 Because religion is so important to people we treat it differently; Americans receive exemptions and dispensations from civil expectations if their religious obligations or taboos contradict mainstream norms. But these exemptions can only go so far, and they are extended only toward particular groups who have received the acclaim necessary for public recognition.

The treatment meted out to the FLDS illustrates the limits of the tolerance of acts between consenting adults, that the circle of diversity is not without boundaries. The historical record also shows that the tolerance extended toward numerous factions such Catholics and Jews was in large part a reflection of the fact that both of these groups subsumed themselves into the set of expectations which were normal within American Protestantism.3 For sects where the numbers are smaller, such as the Amish, heterodoxy is accepted because their impact is so marginal and their custom are in the generality inoffensive or quaint. In the past the American society admitted the reality of these boundaries and the general outline of our circle of tolerance; today we are somewhat in denial, and the schizophrenic reaction to something like the FLDS controversy reflects the clash between our deep-rooted values and our notional avowal of universal multiculturalism.

Related: Jake Young blogs the economic benefits of monogamy.

1 – Greater New England included much of northern Ohio, for example.

2 – I obviously don’t mean that American Catholicism is in schism from the Roman Church. Rather, in terms of the conception of their relationship to their religion of choice American Catholics bring American Protestant presuppositions. This was clear even during the early 19th century, but the massive influx of European Catholic immigrants de-Americanized the church by around 1850 and brought to the fore “Old World” values and and expectations in terms of how the church would relate to the state. The result was decades of conflict which only abated when the children of the immigrants became numerically dominant and brought their own American sensibilites to the table. Simultaneously with this demographic shift the international Roman Catholic Church was shifting to a more “Americanist” perspective, culminating in Vatican II. The point is that the United States culture didn’t really compromise with the Catholic Church, the church was transformed until it became acceptable.

3 – Note the popularity of non-”Orthodox” Judaism in the United States.

Labels:

30 Comments

  1. During the height of the recent Romney campaign, I happened to come across a paper on the web claiming that Mormon population growth had been exponential for about the last 100 years, and had actually accelerated in the last few decades. Don’t have a clue whether this is correct or just pseudo-academic propaganda, but perhaps you do. 
     
    If so (and even including a substantial drop-out factor), it does explain why Mormons seem to be so much more numerous and visible today than even just a couple of decades ago, and why social “friction” with Mormons seems to have shifted from Utah into Nevada, Arizona, and Texas. As a tiny data-point, Romney himself seemed to have an extremely large family for someone of his socio-economic status. 
     
    Perhaps the correct political question to ask is not the year in which America will elect its first Mormon President but instead the year in which America will elect its last non-Mormon President…

  2. David Friedman seems to think the whole thing was a hoax. 
     
    Aren’t the FLDS about as marginal as the Amish?

  3. During the height of the recent Romney campaign, I happened to come across a paper on the web claiming that Mormon population growth had been exponential for about the last 100 years, and had actually accelerated in the last few decades. Don’t have a clue whether this is correct or just pseudo-academic propaganda, but perhaps you do. 
     
    i’m pretty sure it was rodney stark 
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Rise_of_Mormonism 
     
    he sensationalized his assertions, as he is wont to do. obviously mormonism is growing fast…that being said, lots of religions exhibit sigmoidal growth curves. in the US mormons lose as many as they gain through conversion: 
    http://www.gc.cuny.edu/faculty/images/image019.gif 
     
    here’s the growth rate between 1990-2001 for selected groups 
    1990-2001  
    us adult pop 18.55% 
    catholic 10.58% 
    baptist -0.39% 
    methodist -0.17% 
    lutheran 5.16% 
    presbyterian 12.26% 
    pentecostal 38.11% 
    episcopalian 11.85% 
    mormon 12.06% 
    church of christ 41.49% 
    jehovah’s witness -3.62% 
    assemblies of god 67.58% 
    united church of christ 130.05% 
     
    http://www.gc.cuny.edu/faculty/research_briefs/aris/images/aris13.jpg 
     
    keeping in mind weird things like church reorganization which might inflate numbers…i think it is important to note these sorts of data when considering the possibility of our future mormon overlords. also, mormon SES profile is above the norm, but not too much (though i guess one would have to renormalize for region). 
     
    David Friedman seems to think the whole thing was a hoax. 
     
    i wouldn’t bet against that. seems entirely plausible. 
     
    Aren’t the FLDS about as marginal as the Amish? 
     
    yeah. there are reports of child abuse among the amish, but they don’t engage in welfare abuse and what not, so perhaps that’s one reason why there’s less of a concern.

  4. they don’t engage in welfare abuse and what not“ 
     
    The FLDS do? I wasn’t aware of that.

  5. The FLDS do? I wasn’t aware of that. 
     
    “spiritual wives” collect welfare for their children. if you weren’t aware then you don’t know much since that’s one of the major pretexts that states have used to go into FLDS communities since persecuting polygyny as such was dropped… 
     
    http://www.rickross.com/reference/polygamy/polygamy90.html

  6. “spiritual wives” collect welfare for their children..if you weren’t aware then you don’t know much  
     
    Interesting. I *didn’t* know that which proves that I *didn’t* know much about Mormonism… 
     
    …But then, I never thought I did…

  7. The FLDS also operated a government funded school district
     
    Eric Alterman gives an odd (to me, at least) defense of welfare for Hasidics and drug-using bums here.

  8. Thanks for that data Razib.  
     
    My feeling is that Mormonism is way too-demanding to become a world religion, but that over the forthcoming decades it may well nurture an increasingly-dominant ‘technocractic’ US intellectual elite.  
     
    (‘Technocratic’, because Mormonism seems unsuited to dominating the ‘cultural’ elite activities such as the arts and humanities etc.) 
     
    So far as I can gather, Mormons are absolutely unique in being a basically well-adapted ‘modern’ group of people, who _by choice_ reproduce at well-above replacement level, and in a ‘eugenic’ fashion.  
     
    My understanding is that the nuclear family is an *eternal* unit in Mormonism, the religion and LDS society are organized around families – families (not the state) care for their children, large families have the highest status, and those people who do not reproduce (by choice or accident) inevitably have a lower status.  
     
    Most interesting, Mormon reproduction apparently demonstrates a positive correlation between wealth and the number of children. I believe this is unique among modern populations, where reproduction is a choice. Furthermore, increasing wealth among Mormons is apparently correlated with increasing religiousness.  
     
    The pattern may explain why Mormons as a group seem to have a moderately-high IQ, above 100.  
     
    So the Mormon intellectual elite is growing, while self-reproduction of all other intellectual elites is declining at an increasing rate (the accelerating decline is mainly due to the inverse relationship between IQ and educational attainment/ duration and numbers of kids among women).  
     
    (My evidence for these assertions about Mormon demographics is rather sketchy – from here and there around the internet – and I haven’t read the Rodney Stark book, although I shall aim to do so.) 
     
    This implies that Mormons are probably getting 1. more numerous, 2. more religious, and 3. more intelligent. And the nature of the associations between the three variables introduces a positive-feedback element.  
     
    If it really is correct that Mormons are the only significantly-sized ‘eugenically reproducing’ modern population, and if it is also agreed that Mormonism is too demanding of its adherents to become a mass religion; then this emphasizes that widespread genetic engineering is the only potentially effective method of pursuing ‘eugenic’ goals or undoing ‘dysgenic’ evolutionary changes in modern societies.  
     
    In other words, if it takes a religion as socially powerful and pervasive as Mormonism to combat the tendency for dysgenic demographic change in modernizing societies; then it will not be possible to reverse dysgenic changes by societal changes. We would need to use science.  
     
    I am assuming here that societies will *want* to take effective steps to reverse dysgenic changes – but of course this remains very uncertain, since the topic of ‘eugenics’ is taboo in high status discourse in the US and Western Europe.

  9.  
    My feeling is that Mormonism is way too-demanding to become a world religion, but that over the forthcoming decades it may well nurture an increasingly-dominant ‘technocractic’ US intellectual elite.
     
     
    lots of religions are demanding…mormons seem weird in the context of western christianity is all, which imposes little constraints on practice. 
     
    So far as I can gather, Mormons are absolutely unique in being a basically well-adapted ‘modern’ group of people, who _by choice_ reproduce at well-above replacement level, and in a ‘eugenic’ fashion.  
     
    interesting point. modern orthodox jews are the only other group that i can think of. what about trad catholics?

  10. …also, anyone with pointers to social science data on mormons please post it here. i plan to collate them and repost them at some point since it seems that the pundits are now regularly talking about mormons, but with minimal quantitative feel for the parameters which define their culture.

  11. Mormonisn is a form of gnostic Christianity (see Harold Bloom), and considering the popularity of gnosticism among various university intellectuals (eg Elaine Pagels), it is surprising that it hasn’t spread to the academy.

  12. The treatment meted out to the FLDS illustrates the limits of the tolerance of acts between consenting adults 
     
    I don’t agree at all. If all the parties involved were adults, the government’s attack on these people would be far less well received by the public. Only by highlighting the underage sex / statutory rape angle is the government able to carry out successful PR for this raid. 
    For what it’s worth I think it’s ridiculous that they can take custody of 400+ children without clearing any sort of legal hurdle. The constitution offers guarantee of due process before they can take life, liberty or property from you, but your children are fair game for whatever arbitrary BS they come up with. In reality I would imagine that they did this to force the FLDS to capitulate and not out of any genuine concern for the welfare of the children, since (absent a lot of abuse) children are generally happiest with their parents. 
    So I would say rather ‘the treatment meted out to the FLDS illustrates what the government will do to a marginalized group when they think they can get away with it’.

  13. Razib – I know nothing about modern orthodox Jews. Does this group (like Mormons) reproduce with a positive association between social class (ie. average IQ/ education/ wealth) and family size? And are MOJs well-adapted-to, and comfortable-with modernity?

  14. Mormonisn is a form of gnostic Christianity (see Harold Bloom), and considering the popularity of gnosticism among various university intellectuals (eg Elaine Pagels), it is surprising that it hasn’t spread to the academy. 
     
    mormons don’t have a sophisticated theology nor a professional clerisy. i pretty much think bloom is full of crap btw on this ;-) 
     
    So I would say rather ‘the treatment meted out to the FLDS illustrates what the government will do to a marginalized group when they think they can get away with it’. 
     
    exactly. the child abuse is less of a causal issue here than the fact that they’re ‘weird.’ 
     
    I know nothing about modern orthodox Jews. Does this group (like Mormons) reproduce with a positive association between social class (ie. average IQ/ education/ wealth) and family size? And are MOJs well-adapted-to, and comfortable-with modernity? 
     
    yes to the latter. don’t know about the former.

  15. On the issue of growth, Mormons have been roughly 2% of the U.S. population for the longest time. It’s doubtful that the group’s share will increase much, unless the population growth of non-Mormons disappears or goes negative.  
     
    Also, no one has mentioned that Hispanics are a large and growing segment of the church. If trends continue, there will be a smaller white membership, disproportionately in leadership roles, and a larger, assimilating Latino membership. 
     
    I visited Salt Lake Community College recently and was amazed at how diverse the student population is. My guess is that Mormon converts from all over the world want to study in Utah. (Some of it might also be due to the Mormon embrace of multiculturalism). The image of weird WASPs is rapidly becoming outdated.

  16. The image of weird WASPs is rapidly becoming outdated. 
     
    more than half of mormons are outside of the USA, so yes. but it seems that most american mormons are still the socially conservative wing of ‘greater new england’ (WASPs and later scandinavian immigrants).

  17. Stories of this kind have been coming out for decades both in Canada and the U.S. Boys from the communities are expelled so that the uncles can marry their sisters — at a certain point it was realized that it wasn’t just a guy here and there but a whole demographic. (Polygyny roduces bachelors).  
     
    This strikes me as a kind of case when the state expands human freedom, which historically it often did. These communities are essentially patriarchal clans ruled by elders, and breaking up groups of that type was historically a first step both toward individual freedom and the rise of the state. 
     
    The clincher isn’t polygyny but forced underage marriage. I wouldn’t be surprised if the expulsion of the boys was illegally done too, but maybe since they’re not property-owners there’s nowhere for them to live or work in those towns once they’re adult.

  18. http://religions.pewforum.org/portraits 
     
    american mormons: 
    86% non-hispanic white 
    7% hispanic 
    3% black non-hispanic 
    3% other non-hispanic 
    1% asian 
     
    N = 581

  19. Joseph Smith’s cult is the most exotic outlier 
     
    Most exotic of the ones that survived, but, say, Oneida seems more exotic to me. And I think it an interesting example because it was tolerated in upstate New York. (I learned the comparison from David Friedman.) 
     
    the nuclear family is an *eternal* unit in Mormonism 
     
    I don’t know what you mean by this (perhaps you just meant “central”), but here’s something I heard that seems to contradict “eternal”: a woman claimed to have been told that she had to get used to polygyny because there would be a shortage of men in heaven; and that she shouldn’t worry about whether her husband would get in, just that she needed a proper marriage herself.

  20. John, 
     
    Probably the FLDS society conforms to some medieval societies – like Viking Scandinavia, where surplus males left their communities in search of adventure, wealth and ultimately women and land…

  21. Isn’t large scale polygamy in the U.S. pretty much impossible without welfare, which typically means welfare fraud?

  22. Isn’t large scale polygamy in the U.S. pretty much impossible without welfare, which typically means welfare fraud? 
     
    19th century mormons?

  23. Polygyny would be quite possible if the wives were industrially organized or if the family tried for autarchy on the Amish model.

  24. LDS church growth is driven more by conversions than by births. For the past ten years, each year between 250,000 and 300,000 converts have been baptized; in the same time span, new births were about 75,000 to 90,000 each year (there’s a lag because children born in the church are not baptized until age 8, but you see the scope of the difference). Raw data at: 
    http://setzer.blogspot.com/2008/04/lds-church-membership-1997-2007.html 
     
    (Sorry about the odd tables…) 
     
    The interesting thing is that the numbers haven’t changed that much, and they go up and down from year to year. Total church population grows, of course, which seems to tell me that the rate of growth may actually be slowing. 
     
    The LDS Church is growing slightly faster than the US and world populations.  
     
    Persons born outside the US, Canada and Europe are baptized at a much higher rate than North Americans and Europeans. This imbalance is a matter of some concern to Church leadership, or so I understand from comments in church meetings (I am myself LDS).

  25. Just a reminder that the people just busted are a splinter group which has been expelled from the main LDS group.

  26. Economics: There are a few polygamists in Utah (not FLDS-related) who appear to be “organized industrially” as John suggests. I recall reading about the mayor of some resort town in southeastern Utah with several wives; one was a lawyer and another worked for the state, while two or three wives with a stronger “hearth and home” feeling cared for the children of all. It was a co-op of sorts. 
     
    To Razib’s comment about 19th century, I’ve been told that more children meant more labor for a farm in the mid 19th century. Today, of course, few people farm and the ones who do use mechanization, so that rationale doesn’t apply. Given that plus the modern welfare state, Sailer’s comment on welfare fraud is more applicable in the 21st century. 
     
    Is there any difference, economically, between a man in rural Arizona with several “spiritual wives” and a ton of kids all on welfare, and a man in a big city slum who has children by several women all on welfare?

  27. I just noticed this post. My apologies for not commenting earlier. 
     
    Regarding Stark, I think his comments are taken somewhat out of context, but he definitely exaggerated things as well. There was a pretty huge period of growth in the 70′s and 80′s but it tapered off in the mid 90′s during the same period when the Church was emphasizing bridge building and common ground with Protestants. Right now in terms of self-identification polls it seems like we have slight positive growth each year with much of that being due to birth. There are other religions, such as the Assemblies of God, that are growing faster. We may have been the fastest growing religion but I’m not sure we are anymore. 
     
    I think the parallels to Judaism are perhaps more apt due to the strong focus on education and as well as a near ethnicity like society to Mormonism – despite the large number of converts. (Despite the lowered growth rates I still think that something like a third of Mormons were converts within the last 25 years – although I don’t have the exact statistic handy) 
     
    Regarding “weirdness” I think one should note that most Mormon persecution started long before polygamy entered into the scene. The Missouri extermination order really had nothing to do with polygamy.  
     
    A lot of persecution had as much to do with people who had left Mormonism as anything. I’d argue that the persecution from the mid 1830′s through 1845 was much worse than what happened during the Utah War period and then the later Federal attemps to destroy the Church after the Civil War. 
     
    Polygamy was only practiced openly by all members in the Utah period of its history in the 1850′s and then lasted only about 40 years. Even at its peak only about 30% of Mormons tops practiced although clearly most of the leaders did. An interesting fact I discovered was that Judaism only outlawed polygamy in the United States in 1868, only about 15 years before Mormonism did. 
     
    I think Razib is right though that “weirdness” or “otherness” has more to do with current persecution of FLDS than anything. Of course from what I’ve read their current leadership is pretty deserving of some federal intervention. I do think, however, that there is a definite double standard with a kind of racism of lowered expectations for many other groups doing the same thing. 
     
    While I’ve no love for any of the apostate Mormon breakoffs, I should note that it’s unfair to paint them all with the same brush. The FLDS were actually much more open until Warren Jeffs took leadership in the late 80′s. They didn’t practice young marriages until he directed it. Most apostate groups also don’t practice marrying relatives (cousins or worse yet uncles) The group that I believe was prosecuted in Utah for doing that was the Kingston group.  
     
    Regarding welfare use – it’s hard to call if fraud – is it fraud when in an inner city some guy knocks up a girl and pays no child support? It seems to me the women are following the law as written. It seems discriminatory to accuse polygamists of fraud when so many people who don’t ever formally marry do far worse. I’d also note that some polygamist groups are fairly well off with the women being doctors, lawyers and so forth. There are a group in the suburban areas of SLC much like in that HBO show that keep a low profile but are well off and fairly independent. The women share babysitting allowing them to if anything achieve higher levels of education easily. Some of the groups have large construction and mining companies and are actually quite rich.  
     
    While I personally don’t like even the idea of polygamy in a day and age where we no longer charge people for adultery or sodomy and even give homosexual couples many of the same rights as marriage it seems hard to persecute adults for the sexual and emotional unions they form. Underage marriages or incest ought to be prosecuted to the full extent of the law though.

  28. Regarding the assimilation of American Catholics: you should keep in mind that one fact that made this easier was that before the 1930s (when the Anglican Lambeth conference gave some acceptance to the practise of “birth control”), the Catholic Church differed very little from other Christian groups on matters of sexual morality, which is a large part of social morality and not simply a “private” behaviour with no consequences for the state. Divorce (though available) was condemned by nearly all Christians, as were abortion, contraception, and sodomy.  
     
    When the socio-sexual moral consensus began to change so dramatically in the 1960s, the tolerance once extended to traditionally-minded Catholics began to ebb away too.

  29. Aside from the formalization of a routine of statutory rape encouraged by Warren Jeffs, I suspect a bigger issue is that the FLDS legitimizes & solemnizes practices Americans want to keep marginalized and sinful (for lack of a better word). 
     
    Terry Gould makes this argument about mainstream revulsion towards swingers in his book on suburban American non-monogamy, The Lifestyle.

a