12 Questions for . . . Sarah Barringer Gordon

Just a reminder — please submit questions for Professor Gordon by Monday, May 10.

For more information on Professor Gordon, here is an article she wrote in Legal Affairs on polygamy and gay marriage; here is an interview she did on NPR on a similar topic; and here is a Tribune article about a speech she gave at Weber State.

[Posted last week]

Our next volunteer to run the gauntlet here at T&S is Sarah Barringer Gordon. Professor Gordon is the author of The Mormon Question (2002), an acclaimed study of the anti-polygamy movement’s indelible impact on constitutional law and political theory (see Nate’s review here). Perhaps uniquely qualified to tell such a story, she has divinity and law degrees from Yale and a PhD in history from Princeton. The book won, among other awards, the Mormon History Association’s 2002 Best Book Award.

Here is a taste from the introduction of The Mormon Question:

“Driven by religious difference, Mormons and their opponents learned that faith had everything to do with government, and vice versa. Spiritual meaning and this-worldly power converged most poignantly in marriage. In monogamy (as in polygamy), husbands and wives blended faith with governance, obedience with power, spiritual growth with human sexuality. Commitment to one or the other form of marriage shaped public as well as private life. Participants in the conflict discovered that local sovereignty, democracy, consent, economic power, and wifely subordination all hinged on faith and its realization in marriage. As one vision flourished, it diminished the other; and the power to live in light of faith was proportionately realized or denied.

“The conflict of faiths pitted the laws of God against the laws of man; believers on both sides learned that their Constitution was, perhaps, not theirs after all. The instability of constitutional claims and interpretation tortured and energized the combatants. Their struggle to capture and hold the Constitution provided a unifying field of conflict; antipolygamists and Mormon defenders of polygamy alike yearned for the dignity and validity that the defeat of their enemies would bring. To win would be to acquire constitutional legitimacy, and to prove the opposition had betrayed the legacy that was enshrined in the constitutional text. The long and painful conflict over religious liberty, marriage, and law is the subject of this book…”

Professor Gordon teaches at University of Pennsylvania Law School and is currently working on a book project entitled The Constitution of Faith, dealing with the litigation practices of religious groups.

Please email me with any and all questions by Monday, May 10.

7 comments for “12 Questions for . . . Sarah Barringer Gordon

  1. Hey Greg,

    How many others do you have lined up for your “12 Questions” series? Are you taking suggestions for future candidates?

    Aaron B

    P.S. And I must say I enjoyed Ms. Gordon’s book very much.

  2. Aaron,

    We are booked with big names well into the Kerry administration. Ok, we are actually flying by the seat of our pants as always. Suggestions are welcome, especially if you can also deliver an agreement to participate!

    I am reading the book right now and am enjoying it as well. I hope others also check it out over the next couple of weeks — that would make the questions and ensuing dialogue all the richer. It’s not just for lawyers! There’s lots of terrific old political cartoons too! (My favorite is the fat, lazy Mormon patriarch napping under a tree while his wives toil in the field.)

  3. I’d like her comments on neoCalvinism and religious communities.

    (quoting from Crooked Timber:

    April 27, 2004
    Academic Calvinism
    Posted by Henry

    This is Max Weber’s thesis on the origins of capitalism replayed as farce. Weber argued that Calvinist theology provided capitalism’s tutelary spirit. Calvinist beliefs in predestination led believers to distinguish between the elect and the preterite – those who were destined to go to heaven, and those who were destined to go to hell. Because it was impossible to be sure whether they were going to ascend to paradise or to burn, Calvinists sought evidence that they were favoured by God through accumulating goods without consuming them. If you did well in worldly affairs, you could take this as a sign of God’s favour.

    This may or may not be a good historical explanation. Still, it captures a set of attitudes expounded by some (although certainly not all) exponents of free markets. …

    The Calvinist illusion is that luck has nothing to do with it – markets reward virtue. Success in selling your wares is the only necessary proof of one’s innate superiority. I imagine that some tenured and tenure track professors are quite convinced that their privileged position is an appropriate reflection their academic virtue.

    Calvinist reasoning isn’t unique to academics (take a look at some of the comments in this thread to see it in its raw form). But it makes for lousy reasoning and self-serving arguments that markets produce the best possible outcomes in the best of all possible worlds (which isn’t to say that there aren’t more subtle and thoughtful arguments for free markets out there).

    1 The centrality of luck to academic success – connecting with the right person at interview, getting friendly reviewers for an article in a good journal at the right stage of your career – is grossly underestimated.)

    The quote is to give context for my use of “Calvinism” as some have taken issue with the perspective before — I’m at least in good company, and there does seem to be a growing trend of “I don’t have to choose between God and Mammon, God rewards me with Mammon and that is proof that I am virtuous” as a way of identifying the elect in any group.

    I’ve seen it in my ward and it bothers me that people treat me differently than they did before I changed jobs and my wife finished her residency.

    The change in attitude creates a deep sense of loss (not enough to give up my current job or to encourage my wife to go back to school and quit practice, but I’m still reaching for a way to resolve the changed dynamic with some people who I feel should have outgrown that.).

  4. I’ll also put in a plug for Sally’s book. I think that it is the best thing that has been written on Mormon legal history. Period.

    If you are really ambitious, you can read her Ph.D dissertation, which is a longer version of the book. I ran across it in the Harvard Law Library before the book was published, read it the summer after my 1L year, and have been a Sally Gordon fan ever since.

    Here are some other questions to get the ball rolling:

    1. As a non-Mormon who has studied Mormon history, what aspects of the Mormon past do you think are of most interest to the broader, non-Mormon scholarlly community?

    2. Very little has been written on Mormon legal history. What subjects would you like to see researched?

    3. How does the Mormon legal experience fit into the broader story of law and religion in America?

    4. Your current research into the litigation strategies of 20th century religious institutions and groups has lead you away from Mormon history. Do you foresee yourself ever returning to Mormon legal history? If so, what topics might still interest you?

  5. I pose a counterfactual:
    If the Mormons had simply never practiced polygamy, how do you think constitutional meaning might have evolved differently, if at all?

  6. Prof:

    If you are studying litigation practices of religious groups…why not continue using your knowledge of the LDS church & examine their practices also? Nathan & I both know at least one scholar who could provide helpful information in this area…and the LDS church has been especially active in the last decade re: litigation. Just a thought. Not necessarily one of the 12 questions.

  7. Needed to comment on:

    “Over time, antipolygamists convinced Congress to ban polygamy, and this ban was upheld by the Supreme Court. In Reynolds v. United States, decided in 1879, the justices adopted the antipolygamists’ view that plural marriage was inhumane. Religious belief, they said, was no excuse. “Suppose one believed that human sacrifices were a necessary part of religious worship, would it be seriously contended that the civil government under which he lived could not interfere to prevent a sacrifice?””

    One should note that some Native American tribes were allowed to continue human sacrifice into the 1900s by the federal gorvernment. Makes a perfect footnote to the argument.

    The practice ended (at least for the Texas tribe I’m aware of) when the sacrifice ran off with her boyfriend and the sun didn’t go out. Next year the ritual was not repeated, but not because the BIA or the feds ever did anything to stop it.

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