Saturday, November 21, 2015

The People of Deseret

Mormonism: From a prophet talking through his hat to a quasi-state with lessons for us all. Review of "The Mormon experience" by Leonard J. Arrington and Davis Bitton.

What happens when god speaks to an otherwise unremarkable man, telling him to found a new religion? In the case of Islam, that prophet conjured a mishmash of Christianity and Judaism into a new doctrine that took its world by storm. The stronger subtext, however, was Arab tribalism. It is that tribalism that finds such rich expression in the martial and ceaselessly vitriolic aspects of the Quran, and in the problems we face internationally today.

Meanwhile, in upstate New York, another prophet received his revelation, and after authoring an even more bizarre scripture, (though likewise a pastiche of Old and New testament materials, in part), trod a similiar path of nascent church building, continuing prophecy, practical leadership, occasional skirmishes with enemies, mass migration, and even polygamy. As an aside, the book I am working from was written by Mormons, indeed by an official church historian, so while detailed and highly interesting, is hardly an unbiased account. A chapter on the role of women is particularly tortured in its apologetics.

The parallels are deeply interesting, yet the differences are stark. Mormonism flirted with armed resistance, but very sparingly, and has been a stable and exceedingly peaceful part of the national scene for the last century. Its proselytizing is determinedly, boringly, peaceful. Both religions emphasize charity within their community and separation from gentiles, (termed infidels in the Quran), yet Mormonism has always had a much stronger internal governance structure, even though it has never (to my knowledge) had pretensions of running a fully autonomous state or of providing a comprehensive legal code, as Islam has. Indeed, Mormons regard the US constitution as divinely inspired. Mormonism has been dedicated first and foremost to self-reliance, practical development and social togetherness, for its cultural subtext was American frontier can-do-ism, rather than Arab tribalism.

One might think the differences to be subtle, after watching lots of Westerns. Clans, clan wars, and plenty of six-shooters seem to characterize the epoch. But in reality, Americans were probably more obsessed with orderly self-government and institution building. The annals of early California are full of systems of law passed for transient mining camps, and an eagerness for setting up local and state governments. From the first charters that authorized colonization by the English and Dutch in North America and the long legal traditions and enlightenment that the colonists had left behind, to the newness of the land and the colonist's ideals of freedom in a promised land, Americans were experts in self-government. Indeed the Western is not typically a celebration of lawlessness, but  quite the contrary- is a cautionary tale of its baleful consequences. Every Bonanza show ends with the forces of law and order triumphant.

I digress because, coming out of this tradition, Mormons are compulsive organizers. From the first with Joseph Smith at the helm, they selected or elected apostles and other governing bodies. The succession after Smith's death brought an even more talanted organizer to the helm, Brigham Young, who managed the hegira from their freshly constructed city of Nauvoo, Illinois to what the Mormons called for some time the State of Deseret, now Utah.

The beehive symbolizes Mormonism and Utah.

The original territorial government featured Brigham Young as governor, and other church leaders in all other offices. This seemed completely natural at the time, and few even paid much attention to the formality of elections. When the Federal government attempted to appoint its own officers to oversee the territory, the Mormons simply ran all their affairs unaltered, using a shadow system where church officers held all the power and the obedience of the people. It took far sterner measures from the US government, including moves threatening to destroy the church entirely, before the Mormons acceeded to federal supremacy, normal political forms, and particularly the illegality of polygamy, which finally happened concurrent with the grant of statehood in 1896.

The beehive is a fitting symbol, expecially of the early Mormon experience, which in the early Utah period was one of extreme hardship leavened only by thorough social organization and communal support. Communal larders were set up from the tithes which were all paid in kind, and in turn fed the poor and placated the local Indians. Communal effort was essential to manage the scarce water, for agriculture was only possible by irrigation. When the Union Pacific railroad building project came through, Brigham Young arranged for Mormons to do the work in the territory, to prevent the immigration of undesirable elements. Then he used a large part of the proceeds to build his own railroad within the state. And in a thousand other ways, from the territorial militia to the building of the Salt Lake City temple, orderly government and communal activity was and remains fundamental to Mormonism. (How ironic, however, that beehives have a queen as their president, who has mated with multiple husbands.)

To some, this degree of togetherness can seem rather creepy, and there is a dark side of extreme patriarchy and conformity. Plural marriage, for instance, was not just an odd and occasional peculiarity, but a reward and sign of church leadership, reserved for top officials. It was Old-Testament patriarchy, and natural selection, in action, Mormon style. But there are also positive lessons for our national economic questions, which largely turn today (in the right-left spectrum) on how together we feel, and how high we wish to set the dial of brutal competitiveness and laissez faire, versus a more compassionate egalitarianism. Mormons are typically Republicans due to their social conservatism. Yet their social organization was at the outset virtually communistic, with high social mobility with the possibility of high office (for men), and thoroughly organized social support. This organization was highly effective, not only socially, but economically, taming an extremely forbidding wilderness and creating a strong state out of nothing. Mormons teach us yet again that it takes management and cooperation to run a successful society, not just competition.

Does it also take religion? Mormonism is explicitly Christian, which, hard as it is for an atheist to say, has contributed, on balance, a peace and compassion-oriented ethic or at least counter-weight to other social forces, over the last millennia. (As has Buddhism in its sphere, even more effectively.) Does strong social bonding require something beyond the Lockean contract, of a more spiritual nature? Does the civic religion of baseball, George Washington, and the Bill of Rights suffice to keep everyone in the US working on the common projects of e pluribus unum, or is a more comprehensive narrative required, of humans as embryonic gods, America as the promised land, and our lives in eternity built upon our diligence, faithfulness, and loving kindness in this life?

It is a difficult question when faced with the obvious social efficacy of bizarrely false and seemingly impractical doctrines- not to imagine that such doctrines are true, but to consider whether we as humans can be communally motivated, idealistic, and purpose-driven without them. We differ, some people being allergic to religious drama, and others being unfulfilled without it. Yet societies can not operate without some degree of fervor and common narrative, to clothe the brute competition that forms the base of natural and social existence, and emphasize more idealistic and cooperative ends. What we have on the national scene in the US is a fraying of this narrative, as the wealthy have pulled away, into their gated compounds and isolated social world, even while they control the political system and put anything resembling the public good on the back burner. The sclerosis and atomization are palpable. The Mormon church carried their narrative and communal principle to extremes, sorely testing the constitutional principle of separation of church and state, but also showing the effectiveness of communalism.

Turning back to the comparison with Islam, great communal projects, especially of a charitable nature, are hardly unknown in Islam, particularly during its golden age. But something about the traumatic collision with the West seems to have sapped the ability of the Islam to function as an effective governing philosophy or ideology. The impulse towards fundamentalism is sadly, and ironically, the opposite from what is needed, and is not just the province of a small extreme minority, but represents the leading direction in the world of Islam, from its twin leading sects / countries, Saudi Arabia and Iran. It took centuries for Judaism to adapt to the position of a minority religion during its diaspora, giving up its dreams of temporal (and Temple) power. Perhaps something similiar, (though hopefully less protracted, degrading, and traumatic), possibly coming from Muslim diaspora in Europe, the US or Indonesia, will be needed to burn off the bitter elements and steer Islam in a new direction.

  • Yes, ISIS is Islamic. Ultra-Islamic.
  • American misadventures in the Muslim world. Why so many bad choices and terrible allies?
  • More on comparative religions.
  • More somewhat aimless, yet apposite, discussion of "whence Islam".
  • Is ISIS fighting a strictly Sunni-Shia civil war, or something a little more ideological and theological? And just how broad is its support?
  • Taliban status report.
  • Our State Department defends crime and immorality.
  • Outstanding TED talk on the minds of animals.
  • David Eagleman's wonderful brain.
  • Honestly, if we are short of our inflation target, the solution is very simple.
  • Is Uber evil, or not so bad?
  • Wall Street votes Republican ... why does anyone else?
  • Some notes on Adam Smith.
  • Splitting hairs on printing money.
  • Indeed, dropping the gold standard and fiscal stimulus saved Japan from the depression.
  • While European policy has not done so.
  • Sanders Snippet of the Week:
"We have a system, which during the 1990s allowed Wall Street to spend $5 billion in lobbying and campaign contributions to get deregulated. Then, ten years later, after the greed, recklessness, and illegal behavior of Wall Street led to their collapse, it is a system which provided trillions in government aid to bail them out. Wall Street used their wealth and power to get Congress to do their bidding for deregulation and then, when their greed caused their collapse, they used their wealth and power to get Congress to bail them out."

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