More on Big Love
A couple months ago, Cathleen Kaveny offered a brief plug for the HBO show Big Love, which portrays the life of a polygamous Mormon family (the Hendricksons) trying to live their religious commitment to “the principle” of plural marriage in mainstream society. Following Cathy’s suggestion, my wife and I rented the first disk from Blockbuster and promptly finished the whole first two seasons in about two weeks. The show sparked controversy this season by depicting a Mormon temple ceremony that is usually only open to a very select subset of Mormons. The ceremony is particular to the “mainline” branch of Mormonism, also known as “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints” (LDS). People in the LDS church have been uneasy about the show from the beginning mainly because the LDS church is portrayed in the show as the “mainstream, yuppie, suburban, politically-catty” religious foil to the humble and religiously sincere Hendricksons. On the other side, there is the fundamentalist polygamous compound that Bill Hendrickson (the husband) “escaped from,” which fills the role of “cultish, anti-modern, backwoods, economically-exploitive” religious foil to the honest-dealing, secular-friendly Hendricksons. These two foils make the Hendricksons’ polygamy look quite “mainstream” much to the understandable chagrin of LDS folks. One of my theology students, who happens to be Mormon, recently pointed me to this blog post by Matthew Bowman, who is a Mormon graduate student in history at Georgetown. I thought it was a fascinating and insightful treatment of the controversy and the show, and I just thought I’d share it along with a few of my own reactions.
Bowman attributes the recent dust-up to a long-standing tension within Mormonism between the desire for “secular” assimilation and the need to keep one’s religious tradition sacred. Indeed, this is well-trod territory in the history of the co-emergence of religion and secularity more generally. I think Bowman is right to point to this as the crux of the issue. I think the Hendricksons are most sympathetic to the viewing culture because their faith interferes little with the pursuit of their secular interests (Bill is a business owner, Nicki (wife #2) has a shopping addiction, Barb (wife #1) is a school teacher and one-time (almost) “mom of the year,” etc.). The culture at large, I think, expects the kind of “humble honesty” toward which the Hendricksons’ aspire, and they present little threat to the established political and economic order, which is the one thing, above all others, Western secularism holds sacred. Both the LDS and the fundamentalist groups are portrayed as having potential political aspirations or questionable business dealings, both of which are destabilizing to the “secular order.” Furthermore, as people insert themselves more and more into this “secular order,” secrecy becomes less and less tolerable, which you see with the Hendricksons’ “coming out of the closet” as the series progresses. Because the fundamentalists and the LDS still want to maintain a level of “separateness” from the “secular order,” they will always seem to destabilize that order. What seems most interesting here is that the stability of the “moral order,” which one would expect to be challenged most by the Hendricksons’ polygamy, is much less important than the stability of the “political/economic order.” As the long as the Hendricksons’ remain honest about their lifestyle and keep it from interfering in the commercial, political, and moral lives of those around them, they will remain the most sypathetic characters on the show. The show, then, seems to tout the long-held secular dogma that as long as religion remains private almost anything goes, but once it becomes public, watch out! Thus, the show is perhaps less about being Mormon in America than it is about how to be religious in America, which, it seems to me, could be both a source of relief and consternation for Mormons (not to mention the rest of us!).