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.