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.