April 8, 2013

Book of the Month

Cascadia: The Elusive Utopia

Review by Dusty Hoesly

In Cascadia: The Elusive Utopia: Exploring the Spirit of the Pacific Northwest (Vancouver, BC: Ronsdale Press, 2008), editor Douglas Todd and the volume’s contributors seek to pin down the secular spirituality which they claim pervades the region.  Bringing together a diverse group of writers—including historians, sociologists, theologians, and poets—Todd, a Canadian journalist who covers spirituality and ethics for the Vancouver Sun, insists that while Cascadia has some of the continent’s lowest religious affiliation rates, it remains very spiritual.  Todd defines spirituality broadly to mean “the way that humans create for themselves ultimate meaning, values, and purpose,” and he brings a flexible attitude even regarding committed secularists: “we assume that atheists, who live in record numbers in Cascadia, can and are making profound contributions to this region’s particular sense of spirituality and place” (4).  For nearly every contributor, Cascadian spirituality is characterized by sacred reverence for nature and utopian idealism.  While some authors worry whether Cascadian spirituality is too individualistic and too forward-thinking to sustain a robust social and moral community, Todd claims that Cascadia can serve as a “model for measured progressive transformation, especially regarding how people of the planet interact with nature” (11). 

For the purposes of this book, Todd limits Cascadia to Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia, which he claims share a bioregional and cultural cohesiveness.  (Ernest Callenbach’s prescient novel Ecotopia charts a similar boundary, although it includes northern California.)  Prominent themes and similarities include connectedness to nature, sense of place, anti-institutionalism, individualism, idealism, liberalism, experimentalism, openness to contrasts, and a shared history as the last frontier.  In a more critical mood, several authors, from both American and Canadian perspectives, note that Cascadian spirituality can have a dark side too, leading to self-absorption, lack of roots and collective memory, imperialism, faddishness, and rural-urban bifurcation.

In the next few paragraphs, I will highlight some of the diverse approaches and conclusions presented by the book’s contributors. 

Patricia O’Connell Killen—echoing arguments she made in an earlier volume, which was reviewed previously on this blog—contends that the region’s lack of an established religion, low rate of affiliation with religious institutions, and imposing natural environment all shape its spiritual sensibilities.  Since the region had no established political order until the mid-nineteenth century and has never had a dominant religion, she argues, residents have had to actively construct their religious or spiritual identity, if any.  Moreover, due to high physical mobility rates, many residents experience loosening social ties.  The resulting individualism and anti-establishment mentality also indicate a liberal and libertarian moral worldview for the region, she claims. 

Sociologist Mark Shibley states that Cascadian spirituality reveres both self and nature in a “secular but spiritual” matrix.  He locates three prominent strands of this spirituality in apocalyptic millennialism, nature religion, and New Age and new spirituality.  “None of these spiritual practices is unique to Cascadia, but in the absence of a dominant religion, they define regional culture and identity more substantially than they do elsewhere,” he asserts (35). 

Andrew Grenville, a market researcher based in Toronto, observes that Cascadians exhibit privatized belief, skepticism, social liberalism, weak affiliation with institutions, and a DIY attitude—summing up their ethos as “live and let live” (59).  In this open religious environment, fluid spiritual identities flourish. 

Mike Carr, a regional planning professor, outlines the contours of the Cascadian bioregion before presenting his understanding of Cascadia’s “bioregional Earth-centered spirituality,” giving examples (particularly from native peoples) and arguing that this spiritual worldview can serve as a counterweight to the globalization and rapacious capitalism which threaten natural habitats (129).  Mark Wexler, a business ethics professor, examines Cascadian workplace spirituality and notices the tensions between Pacific Northwest environmentalism and utopianism, a paradox perhaps best illustrated by his image of organic farms with Wi-Fi connections. 

As these examples show, Cascadia: The Elusive Utopia articulates a shared cultural identity between Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia, and an anti-institutional, DIY spirituality that suffuses the region.  Nevertheless, critical omissions and challenges remain.  The work is largely representative of white, middle-class, urban, liberal perspectives.  It ignores the perspectives of Asians, Latinos, and conservative evangelicals, despite their significant presence in the Cascadian population.  Moreover, since much of this “elusive” spirituality takes its cues from indigenous and Asian traditions, this volume fails to analyze sufficiently issues of cultural appropriation or to give voice to members of those communities.

Aside from these omissions, I wonder how unique Cascadia’s landscape and spirituality are.  All of the volume’s authors agree that the “spirituality of place” that pervades the region is based upon its natural beauty and spectacular wilderness, and several claim that environmentalism is the region’s civil religion.  However, these authors do not explain why the landscape in Cascadia is more inspirational than in other regions, a project which would require a more comparative perspective that is missing from this volume.  The Great Basin region, for example, has produced several notable authors who describe its sacred geography, as have the Rocky Mountains.  Is the rugged landscape of the Pacific Northwest any more beautiful, imposing, or regionally-defining?  And now that New Hampshire and Vermont have eclipsed Oregon and Washington as the least religious states, what remains about Cascadia that is so unique from other regions?  In other words, how would the authors explain a Cascadia which is no longer as singular as they have described it?  

April 1, 2013

Polygamy and Gay Marriage: A Reflection on “Non-Traditional” Marriage

by Konden Smith 

This past week, the Supreme Court has heard two historic cases concerning gay marriage, furthering the intensity of it as a national debate. Jeff Wilson has recently noted that it was in the American West that we see the “earliest religious recognitions of same-sex partnerships.” Interestingly, it was also in the West that we see the first significant argument against traditional marriage (that of “one man and one woman”) as the only viable alternative for American citizens. This fight came from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (aka. Mormons) as they pled for the country to tolerate their practice of plural marriage. Although the church today has taken a strong public stand against gay marriage, this early Mormon struggle for non-traditional marriage offers an important (if not ironic) contribution to the discussion.

Throughout the nineteenth century, prominent Americans looked to Mormonism and its open practice of non-traditional marriage as a national embarrassment and a direct threat to the integrity of the divinely established institution of the family, and as such, was a direct threat to the nation itself. “I must only beg,” spoke historian Philip Schaff to his German audience in 1854, “in the name of my adopted fatherland, that you will not judge America in any way by this irregular growth.” Just a few years later, American Colonel Patrick Connor argued for the “annihilation of this whole people [of Mormonism].” “If the present rebellion [Civil War] is a punishment for any national sin, I believe it is for permitting this unholy, blasphemous, and unnatural institution to exist almost in the heart of the nation[.]” 

Considered “unnatural,” polygamy was thought to encourage sexual promiscuity and cause birth deformities. The first legal test for Mormons came in the Supreme Court case Reynold’s vs. US (1878). In citing religious liberty, the Mormons claimed that the state had no right to criminalize non-traditional marriages. The Court explained however that the founding fathers “never intended” for religious freedom to hurt innocent women and children through unorthodox marriage, and as such, the government had the right “to interfere when principles break out into overt acts against peace and good order.” Establishing it to be the function of government to encourage “religion” and “morality,” the Court criminalized polygamy. Therefore, in order to protect the ideal family, the government ensured the breakup of non-traditional ones. 

At the height of anti-polygamy agitation, Mormon leaders wrote an official protest, complaining that the 1882 Edmunds law, which helped define marriage as between one man and one woman, as oppressive and severe. President Grover Cleveland, upon receiving a copy of this protest, remarked, “I wish you out there could be like the rest of us.” Mormon leaders publicly shot back: “We are inconsiderately asked to rend our family relations and throw away our ideas of human freedom, political equality and the rights of man, and ‘to become like them.’” They then challenged, “Be like them for what?” “It means that E pluribus unum is a fiction; it means that we tamper with and violate the grand palladium of human liberty, the Constitution of the United States and substitute expediency, anarchy, fanaticism, intolerance and religious bigotry for those glorious fundamental principles of liberty, equality, brotherhood, human freedom and the rights of man.” The Church was emphatic: “We cannot do it….We cannot and will not lay aside our fealty to the nation at the bidding of political demagogues, religious fanatics or intolerant despots.” 

As part of this protest in support of unorthodox marriage, Mormon leaders arranged for U.S. flags on government buildings throughout Salt Lake City to be hung at half mast on Independence Day. With widespread national outrage, the Mormon leaders defended the half mast: “A condition of affairs exists in this Territory which, when understood, every lover of human rights must condemn; and in behalf of ourselves, in behalf of our wives and children, in behalf of the Constitution of the United States, and in behalf of the principles of human rights and liberty in this land and throughout the world, we enter our solemn protest against such iniquitous acts as are being perpetrated here.” According to the Court, however, few crimes were “more pernicious to the best interests of society,” and to not punish them “would be to shock the moral judgment of the community.” The theme was established: marriage between “one man and one woman” was divinely ordained, and any unconventional form of marriage was an affront toward God and a threat against peace and social order. 

Mormon leaders rejected such campaigns as an attempt by the US government to enforce, from the “pulpit of our nation,” a particular sexual and theological “orthodoxy.” Men had the right of forming family bonds and worshiping God according to their conscience, “despite the Supreme Court decisions, despite the action of Congress, despite the expressions of pulpit and press.” This was more than a battle over religious liberty, but instead, “we are fighting the battles of religious liberty for the entire people; it might be said, for the entire world.” Mormons fought for the freedom to establish their own family bonds, however immoral others imagined it to be. Even after Mormons officially ended polygamy, efforts arose to constitutionally define marriage as between “one man and one woman.” Mormons charged that such efforts came from “sectarian ministers of the nation” and were “unjust and uncalled for.” 

In looking at these early contests, there are many parallels between gay and plural marriage. For both, opposition comes largely from theological concerns rather than empirical evidence. For early Mormon leaders, at stake were not just their families, but principles of liberty to determine those relationships according to their own conscience and their own sense of divine morality. Importantly, it was not a national departure from “Christian marriage” that caused Mormon leaders to threaten God’s wrath on the nation, but rather the imposing of a majoritarian familial morality on the rest of the nation.