Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Too Much Religious Freedom?

Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith
by Jon Krakauer

Eeeeewwwww. I try not to say that about another faith tradition, even one that I disagree with. But I have to say that the members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS) are over the top. These are the people who are still hanging on to the doctrine of polygamy (also called "plural marriage" or "celestial marriage") developed by the original founder of Mormonism, Joseph Smith. The majority of Mormons repudiated polygamy in the early 1900s, under pressure from the federal government to do so. Those who continued to embrace it went underground, holing up in remote outposts of Canada and the American West where no one would bother them.

I've known Mormons who are wonderful, hardworking people, and they are serious and sincere about their faith. Krakauer's book is a fascinating history of the Mormon church and the numerous groups that splintered off from Mormonism, in many cases over disputes about plural marriage. I must be candid and say that I think some of the doctrines of even the original (pre-plural marriage) Mormonism are quite strange, very much antithetical to rational thought. However, I would not be one to hunt them down and persecute those who believe in those doctrines. There are aspects of Christian faith (even for the boring mainliners) that defy rational thinking as well. A major part of faith often is the willingness to suspend rationality and just go with it. People are free to believe whatever they want. Aren't they?

But...this polygamy thing is pretty creepalicious. As Krakauer traces the history of Joseph Smith developing the doctrine in the first place, I can find no theological basis for it whatsoever. It's ridiculous - you wonder how anyone fell for it in the first place. Some did not - Joseph Smith's own original wife was horrified by what her husband had come up with, and never reconciled herself to his having subsequent wives. The doctrine of polygamy seems like a blatant attempt to give horny men licence to do whatever they want while at the same time keeping women in secondary, subservient positions. Convenient, huh?

What is even more troubling about plural marriage, though, is the effect that it has on young girls. Religious freedom is one thing, and it is important, but when parents exercise their religious freedom by forcing an adolescent girl to marry a man (often two or three times her own age) and become a plural wife, an important line has been crossed. Some of these girls get pregnant when they are still children themselves. Most of them are so brainwashed by the FLDS culture that they have grown up in that they do not know to challenge the system. It is even more disgusting when we consider the fact that due to the insular nature of the FLDS community, girls often get married to close relatives - uncles, cousins, occasionally even their own fathers. When one person's religious freedom wrecks the life and psyche of children, something has to change.

I had intended to read Krakauer's book when it first came out several years ago, and just never had gotten around to it. The raiding of the FLDS compound in Texas by the federal government last spring brought the book back onto my radar screen; and I thought it was important to educate myself a little more about the FLDS sect and Mormonism in general. This book is a great place to start for that, but its extensive bibliography shows us that there is a rich supply of history and literature out there about Mormonism and its most famous (and infamous) personalities.

Under the Banner of Heaven is organized around the trial of two FLDS men who commit a heinous crime (the murder of their sister-in-law and infant niece) because they believe God has commanded them to do it. Krakauer artfully narrates this contemporary story while at the same time walking us through the history of Mormonism from its founding to contemporary times. He is able to connect the dots between some of the tenets of Mormon doctrine and the tragedy that can happen when any doctrine is taken to extremes. Krakauer makes the point that the distinction between fervency and insanity can be terribly blurry.

These are tough times that we live in. I think people should be allowed to believe whatever they want, but I also think we have to protect women and children from those who would use their faith as an excuse (or even justification) for violence. Krakauer's book at least opens the way for conversation about how we might do that yet be fair to all parties involved.

Reverent Reader


At 9/16/08, 4:42 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey, why doesn't the author have the guts to go after the big polygamists, the Muslims? Worried about a little thing called a car bomb maybe or losing a head? Muslims are filtrating into the west by the hordes and bringing their polygamy with them and here we are still oppressing the little ole Mormon fundies? If you are going to oppress people and deny them their rights, be an equal opportunity oppressor and stop with the double standard.

At 9/16/08, 5:21 PM , Blogger Seth R. said...

Krakauer's book is a fun read. But it's a bit superficial. And his overall thesis in the book - that religion (any religion) inherently makes people violent - is pretty flaky if you ask me. He also gets quite a bit of his facts on Mormonism quite wrong. But whatever.

If you want some more serious and credible reading on the subject, you might try "Sacred Loneliness" by Todd Compton (detailing the lives of Joseph's many wives) or "Emma Hale Smith: Mormon Enigma" (considered the definitive biography of Emma). For a biography of Joseph Smith, Fawn Brodie's "No Man Knows My History" has long been considered the definitive treatment. But its scholarship is dated, and her attempts at psychoanalysis of Joseph are a bit amateurish. "Rough Stone Rolling" is probably a more up to date comprehensive treatment of Joseph's life.

At 9/16/08, 10:52 PM , Blogger Reverent Reader said...

Thank you for your suggestions, Seth. Brodie's book was cited several times in Krakauer's, so I was curious about it. The Emma Smith biography should be really good - she sounded feisty in Krakauer's book. Plus, I agree that a thesis that any religion makes people violent is incorrect, but I did not read Krakauer that way - I read that EXTREMISM in any religion makes people violent, which history has shown to be true. I appreciate your weighing in!


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home