Can a religion change?

Much ink has been spilled (or should I say, many bytes have been generated) about whether Islam can be modernized so that Muslims can integrate with the modern world.  As many have pointed out, devout Muslims feel themselves absolutely bound to live by Mohammed's principles — principles that involve such anachronisms as polygamy, death by stoning, death for homosexuality, violent anti-Semitism, second-class status for all non-Muslims, death for Muslim apostates, etc.  All of these are ideas that are fundamentally at odds with modern Western notions of freedom and equality.  And all of them are the words of the Prophet.  So, clearly, Muslims are stuck with them.  Right?  Well, maybe not.

Folks, I give you the Church of Latter Day Saints and its followers, the Mormons.  As Jon Krakauer reminds me in his book Under the Banner of Heaven, polygamy was a fundamental tenet of Mormonism, as it was revealed to Joseph Smith, the Mormon prophet.  It was also the concept that most dramatically separated Mormons from the rest of mid-19th Century American-Victorian culture.  In the years leading up to the Civil War, polygamy, rather than slavery, was the issue that exercised the large majority of Americans.  It is unsurprising, therefore, that the 1850s ended with the American government actually starting a war against the Mormons (the Utah War), largely in an effort to stamp out polygamy.   The war failed, and the United States turned its attention to the War Between the States.  Still the issue was such a hot button one that Congress took time out from the Civil War to make polygamy in the territories a felony.  Throughout the 1870s and 1880s, Congress acted to beef-up these laws.

Although the federal push initially did nothing to change the strong Mormon allegiance to polygamy, the feds kept pushing, and pushing, enclosing the polygamists into smaller and smaller legal boxes.  And it was always clear that, when it came to polygamy, the federal government was willing to put its money where its mouth was.  That is, these laws weren't simply dead words in untouched books, they were laws that the government relied upon with a vengeance.  Eventually, in the face of this relentless pressure, the Mormon leadership yielded and renounced polygamy

The Mormon Church wasn't just engaging in lip service when it turned its back on one of Smith's prophecies.  Instead, this was a wholehearted renunciation.  The modern Mormon church is vehemently opposed to polygamy, and works hard to distance itself from fringe Fundamentalist organizations that claim the Prophet's mantle and espouse polygamy (a principle that seems to give these Fundamentalists the right to gather around them multiples of really, really young brides).

One could argue that, under the First Amendment, the U.S. had no business forcing a religion to abandon a basic tenet of its belief system, but that's an argument that was lost more than 100 years ago, and I have no intention of fighting it now.  What interests me is that a religion could renounce a belief system and nevertheless continue functioning and, indeed, growing. In fact, the Mormon Church seemed to have learned a lesson from this early battle.  It has also changed its policies over the years regarding women and minorities, and has been rewarded by becoming one of the fastest growing religions in the world (although there are some doubts cast upon that claim).

My point, of course, is that a religion can cast off doctrines that are not in harmony with the world, while retaining core belief systems that keep the religion unique.  Sloughing off ideas that cause revulsion can help make the religion a magnet, and can help the religion focus on those doctrines that are most useful to gain converts or optimize the society in which the faithful live.  Indeed, with regards to converts, I've always had a huge admiration for the early Catholic church's ability to convince those pagans addicted to human sacrifice that they could abandon that disgraceful practice, since Jesus' sacrifice was sufficient for all human-kind.  It's an amazing doctrine, and the Church understood how to use it to invite people into the religion, rather than to force them into it. 

Be Sociable, Share!
  • Zhombre

    I’d like to be optimistic but the Mormon Church was a relatively small culture that existed within a much larger context built upon religious pluralism and tolerance, consensual government, and a wealth of other Western Enlightenment ideas. Islam is its own context. Its own culture. I do not see that the same impetus to adapt and to reform is there. The Mormons sought refuge in the arid, trans-Mississippi West to escape the dominant culture but that culture eventually caught up with them; Islam is quite settled in the Middle East and has infiltrated Europe with no intention of adapting, to the contrary with the intention of remaining separate and even subverting.

  • Heather in KC

    I’d like to be optimistic, too. But….Mormons pass along the position of prophet just like Catholics pass along the position of Pope. In other words, Mormons have a living prophet who has all the power to speak on behalf of God that Joseph Smith did. The man who renounced polygamy wasn’t just some yahoo. He was The Prophet, relaying God’s will. I don’t think Islam has anyone with comparable power.

  • Anna

    Actually, Wilford Woodruff (Prophet at the time) fought for the Mormons’ right to polygamy under the first Amendment. (the fight lasted several decades – even before Woodruff). They finally caved in 1890 when the government threatened to seize their temples. They (the government) had already taken away the polygamists’ voting rights and citizenship.

    By the way, there are multiple off-shoot sects. Joseph Smith’s first wife, Emma, believed that their son should be the prophet after his father was murdered, though the church said it was a calling given to Brigham Young, so there was one off-shoot (they are based in Ohio). Then there are at least two polygamists groups that live in Utah and another sect who also practice polygamy in Arizona. One of the groups in Utah is really hideous (intermarrying to the point of birth defects and deformities) and marrying off their daughters at 13 and 14!

    You probably didn’t want all this history, but I’m always fascinated to hear what other people know and what I’ve learned myself. More than half my family are Utah Mormons (the law-abiding kind) and very good people.

  • William

    Reading the post and the comments, one thought struck me as being pivotal, and that is, does renouncing polygamy decrease a Mormon’s opportunity for salvation? Salvation, going to heaven, that’s Mormonism, Islam, Christianity and many other faiths are all about.

    Can tenets of Islam be change so that the ‘heavenly reward’ can be attained? If getting kill while killing infidels can get someone there, why change? There are serious dynamics here.

  • Ymarsakar

    The Mormons were quite violent about their beliefs, and they’d slaughter Indians, immigrants, or whoever else got into their territory. In fact, there was a massacre of settlers, their women and child, over this very thing. Brigham Young, I believe, got off scott free cause he as the “governor” at the time. Times have not changed. Because Islam is a “religion”, it gets off scott free with murders, killings, rapine or whatever else their whims tell them is Godly.

    People can easily change. All you have to do is raise the cost and decrease the benefits. Create a big enough gap, and people will stop themselves, they will police and reform themselves. It is a chain reaction, the activation energy is simply how determined are you in increasing the costs and decreasing the benefits? The federal government vis a vis polygamy, were quite determined to increase the costs of polygamy and decrease the rewards.

    Is America, or anyone else for that matter, doing the same thing to Islamic fundamentalists? I don’t think so.

  • Bookworm

    What interesting and thoughtful comments. Thank you! I think it is true that Islam, which controls large swathes of the Arab world doesn’t have the impetus to change there. But why aren’t there offshoot branches of moderate Islam truly changing in the West? I mean, Muslims in America are surrounded by a vast, dominant culture that might provide a pattern for change.

    By the way, the Mormons were an easy example because of the polygamy tie, but it’s clear that Christianity and Judaism have changed radically too over time. Each of these groups has always cherry-picked the Bible a bit, ignoring some passages; viewing others as metaphor, rather than requirement in an effort to remain committed to God while accommodating evolving sensibilities. I resist when this process goes too fast (which is why I’m digging in my heels to think a lot more about the whole gay marriage issue), but it is a necessary process — or at least I think it is.

  • Patrick O’Hannigan

    I linked to this post with some additional comments over at the Paragraph Farm.

  • Ymarsakar

    The Muslims are speaking out, but their propaganda and PR apparatus is still in their infancy. It is like Asian lobbies an Asian PR, we don’t need them cause we’re too busy getting a job and getting rich. Same for Muslims, mostly they kept to themselves. After 9/11, they have had to form advocacy groups. They, like the rest of America, is rather disadvantaged in the propaganda war against Western Media, AL Qaeda propaganda, and Saudi propaganda.

    Remember, the Palestinians and the Saudi Arabians and the iranians have had nearly 50 years to get their propaganda apparatus up to shape. Muslims in America arrived here to get away from all that. But it caught up to them, as evil always tends to do for those who flee its grasp.

  • Anna

    The Mormons believe in three levels of heaven, no hell and salvation, well, follow the rules, marry in the church, pay your tithe and you’re good.

  • jg

    None of the 9-11 evildoers were recruited from America. So I wonder about the ‘real’ Muslim community in America? Does someone know of attitudes among those who are everyday members of their local communities (vs. the high profile ‘advocacy reps’ the MSM picks up). It is true that immigrants from India and Pakistan have adapted quite well to our part of America. (Their children are often the scholar leaders at the local schools.)
    How have Muslims fared as ordinary Americans?
    I did see one British story last year that reported that assimiliation has occurred much more fully in America than in Britain.
    My facts may be fuzzy, but there was a WSJ? story in 2001 about a young Muslim from America who asserted–in the fury over racial profiling (remember that Leftist storm?)–that he would have found no offense, prior to the murders, in being separately searched at his local airport.
    If it would have helped, if it would have prevented.. How, I remember him saying, glad I would have been to suffered a few minutes of inconvenience in order to have saved so many American lives. Was he representative of other Americans?

  • jhgjhg