Monthly Archives: December 2013

In Nauvoo… with Catholics

I just returned from a mildly pluralistic holiday getaway in Nauvoo, Illinois, which my husband and I were interested in visiting because it’s a Mormon historical site–the last city Mormons established during Joseph Smith’s lifetime, and the place where some of Mormonism’s most distinctive doctrines and rites were introduced. (My husband and I were both raised LDS.) Most of the reconstructed buildings in historic Nauvoo are owned by the LDS Church; a few years back, that community also rebuilt the Nauvoo Temple, which was first constructed in the 1840s and once again now occupies a very high-profile place on the skyline overlooking the Mississippi River.

However, certain Nauvoo sites associated with Smith himself are owned not by the LDS Church but by the much less well known Community of Christ, Mormonism’s second-largest denomination, which in recent decades has undergone something of what I would call a “Protestantization.” The sites owned by Community of Christ include Smith’s two homes; his “red brick store,” where the LDS Church’s women’s organization was founded and where key esoteric rites were introduced; and Smith’s grave. During the couple of days we spent in Nauvoo, my husband and I stayed in a home in the Community of Christ-owned portion of the historic village; the home had been built in the 1840s to serve as a hotel.

On the block adjoining the Nauvoo Temple, sharing the skyline with it, is a Catholic church, Sts. Peter and Paul. Not being  welcome to worship in the LDS temple, I decided to attend Saturday night Mass at their next door neighbor’s. (Although never Catholic, I served in the 1990s as a volunteer in a Catholic mission, doing community development work in the Dominican Republic, the same country where I had been a Mormon missionary a few years earlier.) The sanctuary was painted pink and filled with Victorian statuary in pastel colors of the kind that immediately makes me think: German immigrants. The pre-Vatican II altar was still in place behind the post-Vatican II table.

There was a curious moment at the end of the Prayers of the People, when the priest announced that they were now going to recite the prayer to St. Michael for religious freedom–which everyone but me, it seemed, proceeded to do from memory. The prayer didn’t overtly mention religious freedom: it was a traditional-sounding petition calling on the archangel to stamp down the forces of evil. I wondered: Was this prayer a local custom? Or is this a practice that the bishops have been promoting nationally in the wake of the controversy over religious exceptions under Obamacare? Can any Catholic readers enlighten me?

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“Silent Night” and the establishment clause

I’m in a Scroogish mood, so I’m going to vent a little about this annoying news story from a few days ago:

School Omits ‘Christ’ from ‘Silent Night,’ Upsetting Parents (Yahoo Shine)

What’s annoying is how the discourse about this incident, as communicated in the news story, revolves around people being “offended.” First the organizers of this public school concert edited the lyrics to make them less overtly Christian so as not to offend non-Christians. Then Christians started howling reverse discrimination because no one cared that they’re offended. As one parent quoted in the news story put it: “It’s offensive . . . If you’re going to remove words to not offend other religions, what about the religion that that song belongs to, which is Christianity?” And then the school district scrambled to apologize to everyone they had offended.

Look, people–whether or not “Silent Night,” or the editing of “Silent Night,” offends someone is not the issue. I mean, yes, obviously, it’s an issue in the political sense that people who feel offended, one way or another, are going to make trouble for the school district. (In this particular case, the offended Christians appear to have screamed loudest–a perhaps predictable outcome given that they’re a majority who perceive themselves as a persecuted minority.) But offensiveness is not the legal or constitutional question at stake here. What matters, constitutionally, is not whether or not someone is offended by the singing of “Silent Night.” What matters is whether or not singing “Silent Night” at a public school concert constitutes an “establishment of religion,” proscribed by the First Amendment.

Maybe you think it does, maybe you think it doesn’t. The Supreme Court would undoubtedly prove divided over that question, so why shouldn’t the rest of the country be? But whatever you think about the question, “Is singing ‘Silent Night’ at a public school an establishment of religion?”, your answer is going to require you to make philosophical and historical arguments about the meaning of “establishment of religion.” You’re going to need more than a mood ring that shows you’re “offended.”

I was pleased that the news story provided a helpful explanation of the constitutional complexities involved in this particular case. An attorney from the Freedom from Religion Foundation is quoted explaining that courts tend to be even more nervous about religion in Christmas celebrations in public schools than they are about things like nativity scenes in courthouses because (a) children are involved, and (b) their presence is mandatory. On the other hand, the attorney explains, the courts have been somewhat permissive about religious music because it can seen as having artistic or cultural value apart from its religious meaning.

Unfortunately, having offered that nuanced explanation, the attorney then lapses back into “mood ring” language. Better to choose secular songs for your Christmas concert, she suggests. That way, “nobody’s excluded, nobody’s offended.” Ack.

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Your polygamous ancestors would NOT approve of your gay marriage

Bb9g8niCQAASYkRFederal judge strikes down Utah’s ban on same-sex marriage (Salt Lake Tribune)
Breaking: Utah’s first gay married couple? (QSaltLake)

I am, I must say, floored by how suddenly this has happened. An appeal is certain, and who knows what will happen at that point, which makes it premature to be issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples, except for political/public relations purposes. But still… wow.

As a fussy historian, though, I feel I need to rain on the parade a little. One of the men who are now being touted as possibly the first gay couple married in Utah tweeted the following, accompanying a photo of the couple posing with their marriage certificate:

Me and my new husband!! My polygamous Mormon great grandparents would be so proud!

Ehhhh… No. And it’s worth saying “no” because this rhetorical move is likely to be thrown around a lot in the wake of this news story–i.e., people are going to want to suggest that Mormon polygamy and same-sex marriage are analogous. The analogy is usually drawn in the context of suggesting that it’s ironic for the Mormon church to practice polygamy in the nineteenth century but to oppose same-sex marriage today. In a variation on that move, Seth Anderson is invoking the analogy in his tweet to suggest that same-sex marriage is an extension of the values reflected in Mormon polygamy.

That analogy works if same-sex marriage and polygamy are both understood as “alternative relationships”–at which point Anderson can imagine that since his great-grandparents favored one kind of alternative relationship, they would approve of his as well. But that’s a very dubious historical proposition. Mormon polygamy is (was–take your pick, both verb tenses are defensible) deeply implicated in an enthusiastically heteronormative theology. Mormon polygamy is (was) about men and women coming together to multiply and replenish the earth, on the premise that multiplying and replenishing the earth is what God created men and women to do–and if they’re faithful, they’ll get to go on doing it forever, which is the greatest human bliss attainable. It is, literally, divine bliss. It is far from obvious that a couple committed to that theological vision of family and sexuality would approve of a same-sex marriage.

I’m just saying. The sprinkle of rain has now passed. The parade may continue for those folks who feel inclined to celebrate in the streets.

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“Oh, no, we’re not polygamists”

I’m up to my eyeballs in grading final exams, but I’m stealing a few minutes for a lazy post.

I had a ProjectilePluralism-ish dream the other night. Before you read any further, be advised that this dream trafficks in multiple religious stereotypes.

I dreamed that I was with one of my Mormon brothers and his wife and their (fictional) four young children.  We were visiting a mainline Protestant church whose congregation consisted of three people, all of them elderly. They seemed ambivalent about our presence–thrilled, on the one hand, by this sudden tripling of their numbers, but also annoyed by all these small kids tearing around the place.

They were getting ready for a potluck. My brother and his wife had brought green jello salad, of course.

One of the mainline Protestants, a retiree-aged man, approached me to make sure we felt welcome. In an effort to make small talk, he said, “I’ve noticed that in society these days, we’re seeing more . . . couples . . . like yourselves.”

I understood his confusion. “Oh, no,” I clarified, “we’re not polygamists.”

A look of enormous relief came over his face–like, he had been determined to be tolerant and accepting of this polyandrous family if he had to be, but thank God he didn’t need to after all.

In my dream, I didn’t clarify for him that if we had been Mormon polygamists, we would have been two women and a man, not two men and a woman. I also apparently didn’t feel the need to clarify that the man he thought was my husband was actually my brother. We’ll leave it to the Freudians to interpret that part.

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“Strict scrutiny” and the religious right

This evening I heard on our local public radio station a version of the following news story:

Proposed bill would protect expressions of religion  (Columbus Dispatch)

Here’s the deal: Two Ohio state legislators–one Republican, one Democrat, but united in support of a policy that can be fairly described as characteristic of the religious right–have introduced a bill that would subject government actions to a “strict scrutiny” standard if they restrict religious exercise.  This is an Ohio-specific version of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which Congress passed in the 1990s after the Supreme Court’s much-decried Oregon v. Smith decision. In that decision, the prevailing justices held that the First Amendment’s promise of free religious exercise did not require governments to provide religious exemptions to laws–specifically, that the state of Oregon did not have to exempt people who use peyote religiously from the state’s ban on peyote. In other words, Oregon v. Smith rejected the “strict scrutiny” standard, which would tend to press governments to provide exemptions. RFRA was intended to reinstate the “strict scrutiny” standard. (The Supreme Court later struck RFRA down, in part, but that’s another complicated story.)

The federal version of RFRA had very broad support, from left to right. Civil libertarians supported it as a way to protect religious minorities. The Ohio RFRA, however, at least as it’s being described in the news by its sponsors, is not about protecting the kinds of groups that civil libertarians would think of as “religious minorities.” Rather, the bill is about resisting secularism so as to bring Christian expression back into the public square. The sponsors are touting the “strict scrutiny” standard as a way to authorize things like nativity scenes in government buildings or prayer in public schools. That is, what Ohio RFRA’s sponsors want held to “strict scrutiny” are efforts to exclude religion from public space–and, again, the examples I’ve seen the sponsors give of “religion” are all Christian or, at most, Judeo-Christian.

This is an intriguing example of a phenomenon I was discussing just today in my survey course on American religious history, where we were discussing the contemporary “culture wars.” In our (admittedly simple) map of the culture wars, you have on one side religious liberals who advocate secularism in the name of protecting church-state separation–that is, in the name of the First Amendment’s ban on an establishment of religion. On the other side, you have religious conservatives who oppose secularism in the name of defending religious freedom–that is, in the name of the First Amendment’s promise of free religious exercise.

The Ohio RFRA illustrates nicely the conservative side of the conflict. It’s an anti-secularist initiative launched in the name of protecting religious freedom. What’s particularly interesting about Ohio RFRA is how it invokes “strict scrutiny”–which the courts developed to safeguard free exercise–to try to circumvent rulings made by the courts to prevent establishment. Of course, from the sponsors’ point of view, getting nativity scenes back in courthouses or prayer back in graduation ceremonies are also cases of safeguarding free exercise–as the religious right understands that concept.

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