On July 20, 2016 Religion News Service published a story by Jana Riess titled “Mormon women fear eternal polygamy.” It is actually an indirect book review: Riess interviewed the author, Carol Lynn Pearson, about the book The Ghost of Eternal Polygamy: Haunting the Hearts and Heaven of Mormon Women and Men (Pivot Point Books, 2016). The book is about a distinctive Mormon practice—that of sealing a marriage in eternity. Most people know that contemporary Mormons no longer practice the “plural marriage” of their earlier period, except for some dissident groups officially excommunicated by the official Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints from its headquarters in Salt Lake City. From time to time such a group attracts the attention of the media (a sectarian leader with many wives and innumerable children), of state authorities (investigating bigamy and child abuse), and (I suspect) of envious males. Less well known is the “sealing” business: A monogamous and (emphatically heterosexual) couple solemnly makes lifetime vows. But if Mormon doctrine about the hereafter is figured in, things become a bit more complicated.For example, “sealed” widows have a special problem. If her deceased husband and she were sealed in their marriage, she would be married to him regardless of any further marriage she might want to undertake. In the hereafter a second husband would have to turn her over to the first one, along with the children from either one. There is a male privilege in play here—the seal obviously favors the husband. It would not be easy to devise a more gender-neutral process. There was a proposal a few years ago to seal a woman to all the men she was married to, but that would also make all marriages polygamous in the hereafter—or maybe polyandrous.Polygamy has had a curious career in Mormon history. It was instituted in the 1830s by Joseph Smith, the founder of the religion. Called “plural marriage,” in 1852 it was declared to be binding doctrine by the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, the highest authority of the new religion. Changing the name of the Mormon “peculiar institution” did not impress the U.S. Congress, which in 1862 passed an act outlawing “bigamy,” which led to the assumption that after the first wife all subsequent wives made the husband a sort of multiple bigamist. (Curiously, this was used many years later as a defense by leaders of dissident LDS sects: The first marriage was legal, and the subsequent ones were legal sexual relationships by consenting adults. Predictably the presence of children and the marital discourse by the adults weakened this defense.) In any case, the anti-bigamy act was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 1879, and the Church of LDS officially terminated the practice in 1890, which immediately led to the acceptance of Utah as a state of the Union. In recent years Mormons have been vocal defenders of monogamy. They strongly supported Proposition 8, which in 2008 led to the banning of same-sex marriage in California. This time the Mormons were not on the “right side of history,” as seen by changing public opinion and (surprise!) the Supreme Court, which in 2013 overturned the California law. Around the same time, Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign, the popular reality-television shows “Sister Wives” and “My Five Wives,” and (last not least) the successful Broadway musical “The Book of Mormon” led public opinion and the judiciary in a Mormon-friendly direction. (There is irony in comparing this coincidence of mass media and the judiciary in the legitimation of same-sex marriage. Did federal judges see all those friendly gays on TV sitcoms?)I first encountered Mormons in the 1950s during my (definitely unheroic) service in the U.S. Army. Because I spoke several languages, I was assigned to a small intelligence unit. It had six members, of which two were Mormons, who had acquired foreign languages during their obligatory two years as missionaries. I was intrigued by their stories and what I learned about what must be the most colorful chapter in American religious history, from the visions of Joseph Smith in the Burnt- Over District of upstate New York to Brigham Young’s heroic trek to the New Zion in Utah. I was invited to a conference in Salt Lake City, during which I visited the technologically impressive genealogical research center (which is based on the Mormon practice of collecting masses of biographical data from all over the world, in order to give their subjects retroactive baptism in the LDS faith). I also had an interesting lunch with a very bright young Mormon woman, who was home from graduate work in an elite university on the West Coast. I asked her whether she believed in a longish list of the more outlandish LDS teachings. I got nothing but no’s from her. I finally asked why she was still a Mormon. She replied: “I am an ontological Mormon. Everything I am and feel has to do with Mormonism, never mind the belief system.” (This, by the way, one often hears from Jews and Hindus.) Then she became confessional. I often seem to invite confessions. She said: “The problem is that I want to get married.” And then she came to the topic of this post—LDS and the hereafter: “Mormon men are impossible. [She didn’t elaborate.] At my university I met a Gentile man [in Mormon parlance, this is any non-Mormon]. We want to get married. When I came here, I decided to tell my mother. She started to cry and said, ‘But this means that I will never see you again in all eternity.’” She explained, “Mormonism is a very humane religion [I cannot vouch for the accuracy of her account]. There is no hell. Everyone goes to heaven. But heaven is strictly stratified, and there is no traffic between strata. The top level, a sort of celestial penthouse, is for Mormons only. A Mormon who marries a Gentile and the children from this union are forever barred from heaven.” I asked, “Do you believe this?” She said, “No, but my mother does. And I can’t do this to her.” (I never saw her again. So I don’t know how this story ended.)Readers of my blog have probably noticed my propensity to make outlandish associations, possibly based on a neurological condition yet to be reliably diagnosed. What happened here is that ontological Mormons made me think of Jewish widows and Japanese “salarymen.” In rabbinical law there is the provision that a divorce is only recognized if the husband gives his wife a get, a letter agreeing to the divorce. There is a curious analogy here to Mormon doctrine: Marriage is a kind of seal, and the husband has a privileged position in the sealing process. Orthodox husbands sometimes refuse to give a get, perhaps to force a better deal on alimony or out of sheer spite. But sometimes the husband could not give the get even if he wanted to—he died but his death cannot be verified, so he can be presumed to be alive. In any of these cases the woman left alone without a religiously valid divorce is called a “chained woman” (Hebrew agunah, plural agunot). Any subsequent union would be deemed adultery, the children bastards. In America the secular law would protect the woman, but in Israel her misfortunate is more serious, because the rigorously Orthodox rabbinate is given great power over the personal lives of individuals defined as Jews. (Irony again: The Israeli rabbinate has no jurisdiction over non-Jews. The Spanish Inquisition could prosecute Christians, but not Jews—unless they became conversos!) The fate of agunot featured in an episode in the life of Jesus (Matthew 22:23ff, a slightly different version in Luke 20:27ff). Some Sadducees, members of a sect that denied the resurrection of the dead, wanted to embarrass Jesus, who like the Pharisees did teach the resurrection. Citing the Jewish law of the Levirate, according to which a man whose brother has died is obliged to marry the widow and adopt her children, these Sadducees posed an example: A woman is handed from brother to brother, and thus has had seven husbands. If she dies, to whom is she married? Jesus refused to be embarrassed, but simply said that the resurrected do not marry, but live like angels.An important notion in Shinto, the folk religion of Japan, is kami—often translated as “spirit” (mistranslated, according to some). The world is full of kami, “enspirited,” in nature (such as sacred mountains) or in humanly created sacred places (shrines or temples). The spirits of the dead are venerated, sometimes feared. Sometimes the spirits travel and only visit the locales where they are venerated, sometimes they are believed to be in permanent residence. For centuries Shinto and Buddhist ideas as well as practices have been intertwined. Until the defeat of Japan in 1945 Shinto was the religion of the state, closely linked to the imperial cult, in which the Emperor was worshipped as a god. In democratized Japan the Emperor, dressed in a Western-style frock coat, has become a sort of citizen-god. But the old spirit still lingers. Shinto priests still perform ceremonies in the Meiji Shrine, honoring the Emperor who presided over the modernization of Japan in the 19th century. Of acute political significance is the Yasukuni Shrine, believed to house the kami of soldiers killed in the service of Japan—including some convicted of war crimes during World War II. Every time a Japanese prime minister visits the Yasukuni Shrine, even if supposedly in a private capacity and not as head of the government, strong protests are made by Beijing and Seoul, roiling international relations.The genius of the Meiji Restoration was the successful merger of tradition and modernity. A very important case of this was the modern Japanese corporation, which instituted lifetime employment. The Meiji government abolished feudalism, and compensated the feudal aristocracy with cash funds, which could be invested in the burgeoning new capitalism. This was a politically astute move. Even more important was the way, probably inadvertently, in which loyalty was shifted from the feudal lord to the corporation. This loyalty was rewarded by lifetime employment. That gave comparative advantage to Japanese companies over foreign competitors. In recent decades, lifetime employment has come under pressure for two reason: It is becoming too expensive. And greater individualism in the culture has made “salarymen” (what in American working-class parlance are called “the suits”) reluctant to delay going home after work, and to fulfill the expectation to go out with colleagues—together drinking, singing, and possibly enjoying the services of bar girls.Years ago I had a conversation with a Japanese professor about lifetime employment. His family had become Catholic (I didn’t know in which generation). His son was a “salaryman” climbing the corporate ladder. The CEO of his company was a fervent Shinto devotee, who had built a shrine to house the kami of dead employees. The young Catholic had qualms of conscience having to participate in Shinto rituals (if not about the bar girls). His father laughed: “That is more than lifetime employment—eternal employment! (You must have noticed the word “curiosities” in the name of my blog. So don’t complain!])Not all religions believe in an individual hereafter. The oldest forms of Judaism didn’t, and some liberal rabbis today insist that you can be a good Jew without such belief. Inevitably, I think, believers hope that in some way they will meet again those whom they have loved in this life. Only the sillier type of atheist will feel superior to this hope, while even an agnostic who cannot honestly share this hope can understand that it represents the deepest expression of life in the face of what Alfred Schutz (definitely not a believer) called the ultimate anxiety. But the stories told in this post suggest that even a believer should beware of being too specific in imagining the hereafter. The believer, on arriving there, may encounter not the great love of a bygone youth, but some disagreeable surprises—if he or she is an ontological Mormon, a host of unwanted children from an ex-spouses; if an Orthodox Jew, a neighborhood full of very angry old agurot; if a Japanese salaryman, the presence of all the colleagues whom one had tried to avoid for many years. Better to leave it as a mystery until (if at all) it is revealed as undeniable reality in the broad light of day.
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Published on: August 10, 2016
Paradise?Eternal Polygamy and Lifetime Employment
When heaven isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.