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The Return of Mormon Polygamy?

LDS Prophet Joseph Smith (R) shows Brigham Young the way (Photo credit: Action Sports Photography/Shutterstock)

Ross Douthat has a thought-provoking reflection on the future of religion, both globally and in America. He says that it’s dangerous to assume that the future will look like the present, only moreso. Which Catholics in 1940 would have foreseen something as epochal as the Second Vatican Council, coming just 20 years later? Who could have anticipated that China is on track to having the largest Christian population in the world, and that Africa would be sending missionaries to the West? But here we are. Douthat calls attention to Will Saletan’s Slate piece saying that the Mormon Church has a clear theological method to change doctrine, has done so (on polygamy and other issues), and will do it on homosexuality eventually. Saletan points out that the Mormons have a history of changing doctrine to make it easier for them to get along in American society.

Douthat comes at it from a different place:

So context matters — and while I don’t know how many Mormons would frame it exactly this way, I think one way to read that context is to look at the revelation suspending polygamy and see God basically blessing a political-cultural bargain between the Latter Day Saints and the United States, in which Mormons would be granted the liberty required to thrive in return for adapting themselves to American familial norms … as adapt they did, becoming the archetype of 1950s bourgeois normality and then remaining archetypal long after that norm had ceased to meaningfully exist.

But if that bargain was real, and not only real but divinely-sanctioned, then what should pious Mormons today make of the fact that the United States now seems to be going back on the deal? How should they respond to the possibility that their faith is becoming effectively alien again, developing another “marriage problem,” because it still hews to the terms of the original deal even as American culture demands assent to a very different, effectively post-biblical, understanding of what marriage is supposed to be? Saletan sketches one possible response, in which Mormons simply accept the new bargain, the new terms, and adapt once again. But that’s the Whig’s view of history, in which everyone responds to new incentives by rushing in the same direction. If you take the example of Mormonism’s founding fathers seriously, you might just as easily say, the bargain has been broken, therefore the revelation that helped seal it no longer applies, therefore we can go our own divinely-sanctioned way again even as the wider culture rushes in another direction. And the end result might not a L.D.S. church that evolves toward, say, the current Congregationalist or Unitarian view of marriage; it might be an L.D.S. church that has much more trouble sweeping polygamy to its margins (especially if civil laws against the practice fall), and that suddenly has to deal with powerful fundamentalist currents, a powerful fundamentalist wing, in ways that would have been hard to imagine before the same-sex marriage debate began.

What do you Mormon readers think of this?

It’s a provocative thought: if traditional marriage is no longer exclusive in law and culture in the United States, and if the American people have come to believe (as we have) that marriage is something we have the right to redefine as we wish, then why shouldn’t the polygamous instinct buried deep within the LDS faith not reassert itself? If I were a Mormon inclined to return to the fundamentals of my faith, I would wonder why, exactly, honoring the old bargain still mattered.

On a theological level, I suppose, it matters because polygamy is officially forbidden within the LDS faith, but as Douthat said, it is entirely conceivable that the church’s Prophet could receive a new revelation — and there is no reason to believe, as Saletan does, that that revelation will affirm something as radical as same-sex marriage, which, unlike polygamy, has no precedent in human history, much less in Mormon history.

Let’s speculate, à la mode Douthat, about other unlikely but plausible religious scenarios that could emerge in the decades to come. Since the Synod on the Family, I’ve received several e-mails from Catholics asking about Orthodoxy. I’ve received more of them since the Synod than I have in the entire eight years since I left the Catholic Church for Orthodoxy. Not one of these readers mentioned the Synod as a catalyst, but I can’t help thinking that it was, given the timing of these queries. My guess as to what’s going on is that quite a few conservative or tradition-minded Catholics have been enduring a great deal of nonsense at the parish level — priests and laity who don’t seem to believe the Catholic faith, bad liturgy, ugly music, and the usual complaints — but found the strength to put up with it because of their convictions, and because they believed that however fallen the local diocese or parish was, Rome was a solid rock.

Now, under Pope Francis, they fear they may have been wrong. One reader wrote to say that he and his wife sacrificed economically and otherwise to teach their kids the Catholic faith in its fullness, and did so in a diocese where, he said, they had nothing but opposition, both active and passive, from the institutional church. Now the kids are grown, and all have fallen away from the faith. The reader is left nowadays wondering if what he believed so strongly about the truth of Catholicism was ever true — hence his question about Orthodoxy.

Again, not one word about Pope Francis from this reader, or from any of the others who wrote. But my sense is that something about this Pope and his actions since ascending the papacy serves as the final straw for more than a few beleaguered conservative Catholics, and has allowed them to entertain thoughts that they had previously suppressed.

I don’t believe we are going to see a huge number of conversions from Catholicism to Orthodoxy anytime soon. But I think that if Francis is followed by another pope in his mold, it’s entirely plausible that American Orthodoxy could see a significant number of former Catholics come into its ranks. I personally know quite a few Catholics who long for what the Orthodox Church has: a beautiful, deeply reverent liturgy, a strong mystical sense in its corporate worship, traditional Christian morals, and undeniable apostolicity, which means the sacraments are valid from a Catholic point of view. They remain Catholic because they believe Catholicism is true. As the Catholic writer John Zmirak has said, if they cease to believe that Catholicism is true, at least in its ecclesiology, then what is to keep them from coming East?

Let me be clear: I don’t want to debate in this thread whether or not Catholicism or Orthodoxy is true. What I would like to talk about is the possibility that the liberalization within US society (and, in the Catholic case, the liberalization, real or perceived, within the Church), could pave the way for big changes that seem unlikely now, but are yet plausible. And please, don’t leave it with Mormonism and Catholicism. Feel free to speculate on the futures of other forms of Christianity, or other faiths.

In the next 30 or 40 years I have left to live, I expect to see liberal forms of religion die out, and conservative forms become more conservative — this, while the great mass of the American people drift steadily into secularism. Pope Benedict XVI predicted this for Europe, and I think we are only a generation behind our Old World forefathers. What’s going to be interesting is to see in what ways that intensifying conservatism among religious believers expresses itself. I think we may all be in for some surprises, as Douthat’s speculative post indicates.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. A veteran of three decades of magazine and newspaper journalism, he has also written three New York Times bestsellers—Live Not By Lies, The Benedict Option, and The Little Way of Ruthie Lemingas well as Crunchy Cons and How Dante Can Save Your Life. Dreher lives in Baton Rouge, La.

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