Friday, March 01, 2013

Novel "The Blood Doctrine" depicts a dark side of Mormon fundamentalism

Author: Ross Poore and Ryan Poore
Title: “The Blood Doctrine
Publication: 2012, Patterson Crossroads (Salt Lake City, UT), ISBN 978-0-9858421-0-9, 277 pages, paper.
Amazon Link
This novel tells, in rather didactic fashion, the story of a “blood doctrine: murder by an apparently demented Mormon missionary. It traces the young man’s background, sometimes through letters and diaries, and takes us through the steps of how the criminal justice system in a somewhat “theocratic” state court  handles an apparently religiously motivated killing.
The title of the book refers to a former fundamentalist Mormon belief of “blood atonement”, which maintains that some sins cannot be forgiven by Christ’s sacrifice, but must be atoned by the violent death of the sinner at the hand of the righteous.  Such a belief may have been in force in the 19th Century, as with the Mountain Meadow massacre in 1857 (and the film “September Dawn” in 2007).  Like polygamy, it is a doctrine that the mainstream LDS church has dropped to comply with modern law.
In the novel, the young missionary. Aaron Lee, has grown up in a radical fundamentalist home. After traumatic family breakup, he migrates toward the mainstream church, but had become very attached to absolutist religious beliefs.  In an accident in the mountains when he was 16, another young man accused him of homosexuality, and in the ensuing scuffle the man died.
Perhaps in denial, Aaron becomes lost in his own belief system (as shown in a diary that makes up the book epilogue).  On the mission, he encounters a 34-year-old gay man,  He returns to he home and murders the gay man, out of a belief that the murder will cause the gay man to atone for his sins and be saved.
The book portrays quite well the troubling value system of fundamentalist religious cults.  (The modern day sect  in Colorado City, AZ, and Warren Jeffs, is related to this cult.)  Aaron has come to believe that homosexuals, even when living completely in private or even fantasy, can destroy society or at least destroy the Church.  Other than literal obedience to someone’s idea of scriptural teaching (in this case, handed down supposedly from Joseph Smith and Brigham Young), how can such an idea even make sense?  It contradicts all the modern ideas of personal responsibility, avoiding harm,  and “cause and effect” in a modern, liberal and individualistic society.

The books says that Mormonism claims that God would never create a person who won't reproduce, and therefore that homosexuality must be a chosen sin.  From the viewpoint of science, this sounds ridiculous.  In nature, many individuals of many species don't reproduce, but they are often relegated to supporting those who do.  
People in more closed-knit  or “tribal” cultures, especially religious ones, see the parameters of "harm" differently than those of an open western society.  They tend to believe that the survival of the entire family, tribe or larger community is at risk unless every person toes the line.  They may see other groups as “enemies”, or they may try to persuade or even force external societal groups to accept their values.  Of particular importance in some religious groups, including (often) the LDS church (an especially its mode radical offshoots) is procreation, or the responsibility to create more life.  Homosexuality is seen as refusal to do so, and as threatening to the future of the tribe.  The dialogue in the book minces no words on this point.  Logically, this would seem to contradict polygamy, which would imply that most men would not get the chance to have children even if they want to might be relegated to inferior social status.
Religious and cultural groups do have some valid reason to be concerned that individuals can distract others from loyalty to the group, and that idea tends to translate into more general notions of the “common good” in society at large (as when religious groups like the LDS or Catholic churches try to proselytize anti-gay views.  The book gives a lot of detail on the disproportionate amount of support for California Proposition 8 came from the LDS church.
In a general way, I see conflict between two basic drives:  there is a tendency for those in power to become corrupt and restrict freedom to protect their power.  On the other hand, what individual people do, and their ability to work for ends beyond themselves, really does matter.  A general moral principle like “pay if forward” seems appropriate to bridge this gap.
The book is presented in many short unnumbered chapters with interesting titles.  The typesetting is unusual, with spaces between paragraphs, and blank pages between chapters. The book, despite its crude appearance, is a real page-turner. 

There are certain shocking statements in the book.  In Aaron's diary, it states that before 1990 Mormon temple initiation into the priesthood involved intimate body washing by others, including that of "loins" to encourage future procreation. Another disturbing notion, rationalizing inequality (and previously justifying racism) is the notion that people are born into earthly life based on pre-conception "performance" by their souls.  What could this "performance" comprise?
I received a review copy of this book. 

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