Last night I started reading Shattered Dreams, the memoir of a woman who grew up in the forties in a polygamous Mormon sect and married into a polygamous relationship. At age 14, several chapters in, her story already has me shaking my head in amazement. The centerpiece of the religion into which her community indoctrinated her was "The Principle," a term familiar to Big Love viewers. The "people of the covenant" -- those who rejected the LDS repudiation of polygamy in 1904 -- see their task in the world as "living The Principle," marrying as often as possible (because only through "brethren" husbands can wives be "pulled through the veil," attaining goddesshood after death and ruling over their own worlds after death beside their husbands) and having as many children as possible (because their worlds will be populated by their spirit-children, and because pre-existing "noble spirits" await bodily "tabernacles" so that they too can achieve godhood).
I know all these Mormon doctrines from my own reading and training. But what poleaxes me is how thoroughly and viscerally a group of twentieth-century women can believe it. The memoir makes it clear that most people living this way are far from happy. Ever-burgeoning families mean no escape from scarcity. Men are pulled apart by the demands of wives for space, resources and time; women are made to be complicit in their own marginalization by the requirement to recruit new wives to the family. Given the unsustainability of this life and its failure to bring fulfillment to any of its participants, it's hard to imagine continuing to make it the centerpiece of faith and practice generation after generation.
But the writer presents a familiar rationalization: suffer now, or suffer later. Nobody said living The Principle was easy. In fact, Brigham Young said that plural marriage would damn more than it saved. But they believe that they're called to the difficult way, the higher way, the all but impossible way. Marry for love now ... try to keep a man for yourself alone ... and eternity is lost. Worse, the covenant of which you are a child is betrayed. Your obligation isn't just to your own salvation, but to those who passed down this opportunity to you, and to those to whom you could pass it on.
I can imagine my students reading this book gaping with incredulity at the things these people believed. But it's not what they believed, but how it pulled them into relationships with each other -- not necessarily relationships of happiness, but those of persecution, secrecy, and intimate understanding that no one outside could share. In the end, that's what the vast majority of religions do. They don't necessarily make people happy, they don't necessarily make people ethical, they don't necessarily give people a larger perspective on the common good. They are beliefs and practices, absolute nonsense from outside, unbelievable except in very specific contexts of mutual enabling, that put people in relationship to each other. And it's those bonds that are make them so hard for adherents to put in perspective, even in the face of despair, violence, massive social disapproval, persecution, and the failure of their ideals.