Friday, August 18, 2006

The Next Waco (part one of an irregular series)

Whatever it is that causes charisma, Warren Jeffs, the fugitive Prophet of the Fundamentalist Latter-day Saints (FLDS) Church, seems to have isolated the antidote.

Jeffs is a lanky nebbish who looks a bit like Rick Moranis, minus the raw animal magnetism that makes the "Ghostbusters" actor an icon of rugged masculinity. Or something.

Audiotapes of Jeffs' sermons reveal that he has a speaking style known to mainstream Mormons as "General Conference Cadence": A droning monotone that is either hypnotic or soporific, depending on one's taste.

Despite these disadvantages, Jeffs is regarded as God's surrogate by more than 10,000 followers living in the twin cities of Hildale, Utah and Colorado City, Arizona, an isolated community sitting athwart the Utah-Arizona border. The community is run as a theocracy (actually, a sacerdocracy -- a regime ruled by a priestly caste) in which there is no distinction between the church and the government. Several generations have been raised to make the "prophet"'s will their law.

The community is polygamous and severely endogamous, a combination that reportedly has resulted not only in widespread incest but also the propagation of incapacitating birth defects (owing to the limited and stagnant gene pool) and, allegedly, the quiet practice of infanticide to dispose of children deemed too deformed to live.

Tragic as all of this is, it would be of little public moment were it not for the fact that the FLDS ruling elite is subsidized, by both state and federal welfare agencies, in amounts estimated to be as much as $30,000,000 a year. (Many of the relevant details can be found in the fascinating independent documentary "Banking on Heaven.") The subsidies come not only in the form of welfare payments to polygamous "wives" -- each of whom is considered a single mother under the law -- but also to the FLDS-controlled police department and school district.

Members of the FLDS community, apart from those at the pinnacle of the priesthood/political leadership, do not own property. Their homes are owned by an economic collective called the United Effort Plan, which is controlled by Jeffs and his fellow oligarchs. Jeffs claims the right to seize and re-assign both property and wives (from the FLDS perspective, I just repeated myself) as he sees fit. The FLDS church teaches that women can only be "exalted" in heaven by becoming child-bearing polygamous wives, and male "priesthood holders" must have at least three wives in order to ascend to the highest rank in celestial glory. Thus Jeffs' supposed authority to arrange, re-arrange, and nullify "celestial marriages" is perhaps the most fearsome power he wields over his adherents. In recent years Jeffs and his privileged associates have narrowed the competition for potential wives by expelling many supposedly rebellious young men -- known now as the "Lost Boys" -- from the Hildale/Colorado City community.

By controlling the community's productive assets -- particularly the children, who represent a huge revenue stream in the form of welfare subsidies -- tithing and other donations from members expected to "consecrate" their wealth to the church, and the subsidies received from state and federal welfare programs, Jeffs and his cronies control (according to Arizona state legislator Buster Johnson) cash assets of nearly a half-billion dollars.

In November 2003, FLDS leaders purchased a tract of land in El Dorado, Texas, where the church began to build a temple modelled after the one built by Mormon founder Joseph Smith in Nauvoo, Illinois. In what has to be considered an ominous development, news accounts began referring to the FLDS settlement in El Dorado as a "compound" -- a term generally used to describe any edifice housing any group that finds itself on the receiving end of a Federal paramilitary assault.

Another grim portent is found in the fact that the degenerate race-baiting hustler Morris Dees has added Jeffs and the FLDS to his roster of "extremists" worthy of federal surveillance. Reports are circulating about Jeffs being protected by a retinue of heavily armed followers willing to kill and die in the defense of their prophet -- a plausible allegation, of course, and one that enhances the unmistakable tropism toward a Waco-style denoument.

In 1953, the Arizona state government conducted an armed raid on the border-straddling Mormon polygamous community, which at the time was called Short Creek. More than 100 men were arrested, and 236 children were seized from their homes and taken into state custody. The spectacle of polygamous families being torn apart proved to be a political disaster for Arizona Governor Howard Pyle: Many mainstream Mormons in both Utah and Arizona, nearly all of whom had polygamous ancestors (some of whom were only recently deceased), saw unsettling continuities between the raid on the FLDS and similar incidents in Utah's pre-statehood history, when polygamy was described by Mormon prophets as the only true order of marriage (and monogamy was denounced as a perverse and unnatural arrangement).

Memories of the Short Creek raid are kept alive in fundamentalist circles as an illustration of the unremitting hostility of the apostate "Gentiles" who surround them. Children raised in that tradition are trained fully to expect that someday they will suffer persecution similar to that visited on their ancestors, and that they should be prepared to seal their "testimonies" with their blood, if necessary.

The worst conceivable outcome would be a violent federal crack-down on the FLDS that results in mass bloodshed. It is unconscionable for women and children to be treated as they are in Hildale/Colorado City. Tragic and repulsive as this situation is, it would be utterly unsustainable without government subsidies, as well as the passive support that polygamists receive from the Mormon-dominated political culture in Utah, as well as the heavily Mormon political class in Arizona.

In an interview with the Los Angeles Times about a decade ago, Gordon B. Hinckley, Prophet of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), which could be considered the "Mother Church" of the dozens of polygamous Mormon offshoots, seemed to allude to those disavowed kindred sects when asked about the anniversary of the Waco holocaust.

After duly invoking the concept of religious freedom, Hinckley observed: "Now we get these fringe groups, we know, Waco or the [Jim] Jones group in Guyana. We don’t get involved with them. If the law chooses to take care of them, that’s the law's basic right. We simply plow our own furrow and go forward." (Emphasis added.) It's doubtful that Hinckley and his associates would be unduly troubled were the "law" -- meaning the State -- to "take care" of the FLDS "problem" in a suitably violent fashion.

The "law" -- meaning the State -- has helped cultivate the FLDS tragedy. But so has the mainstream Mormon Church, which piously insists that Mormon polygamists who read the same scriptures (the Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants, and Pearl of Great Price), practice the same rituals, and trace their pedigree to the same founder, Joseph Smith, aren't "really" Mormons.

"There is no such thing as a Mormon fundamentalist," sniffs the LDS Church's public affairs department, displaying the reflexive dishonesty that is the PR industry's stock in trade. Perhaps the official Mormon view is that the FLDS and other polygamist groups are the product of spontaneous generation, rather than functioning as control groups of pre-1890 Mormonism before the religion began to alter its practices and professed beliefs in order to be more palatable to a "Gentile" world the church had once abhorred.

Deprived of its political support and welfare subsidies, the FLDS movement would quickly dissipate, although the sub rosa practice of polygamy would continue throughout Utah and the "Mormon Corridor" (the Rocky Mountain region also known as the "Jello Belt"). This wouldn't reverse the tragedy that has been visited to generations raised in the FLDS cult, of course. Breaking up the financial power base of Warren Jeffs and his co-conspirators would liberate those now suffering beneath that regime without leading to a sanguinary federal assault that would easily eclipse Waco.

But for any progress to be made, the mainstream Mormon leadership is going to have to own up to its history and doctrine (polygamy is still enshrined in Mormon scriptures as God's true order of marriage) and use its considerable influence to support the peaceful emancipation of those living in Hildale/Colorado City. I am not optimistic.


GOA said...

Fascinating blog. I'm so glad a friend forwarded it to me. All of your articles are thought provoking.

Anonymous said...

Apparently "wrad" believes that one person a part of the FLDS church speaks for all FLDS members and by association, wrad speaks for all LDS members. Thanks for setting the record strait, wrad.