A Religious Fugitive is Captured

(Author’s Note: We temporarily interrupt the “Roots of Morality” series to bring you this late-breaking news…)

A few weeks ago, I read Jon Krakauer’s book Under the Banner of Heaven, a chilling account of the persistence of fundamentalist Mormon sects in the Utah desert that still practice polygamy, often forcing girls as young as 12 or 13 to marry older men who already have dozens of wives. (As Krakauer documents, this practice was instituted by Joseph Smith himself and is still enshrined in Mormon sacred texts, despite the LDS church’s efforts to sweep it under the rug.)

A major locus of the book is the fundamentalist enclave called Colorado City, on the Utah-Arizona border, home to some 9,000 Mormon fundamentalists and a hub of polygamy. Colorado City is a virtual theocracy, and until recently was under the absolute rule of a ninety-two-year-old self-proclaimed prophet named Rulon T. Jeffs, or “Uncle Rulon” as the town’s inhabitants referred to him. In an interview with an apostate named DeLoy Bateman, Krakauer shows how this religious tyrant kept his flock under control:

Members of the religion… are forbidden to watch television or read magazines or newspapers… Uncle Rulon’s word carries the weight of law. The mayor and every other city employee answers to him, as do the entire police force and the superintendent of public schools. Even animals are subject to his whim. Two years ago a Rottweiler killed a child in town. An edict went out that dogs would no longer be allowed within the city limits. A posse of young men was dispatched to round up all the canines, after which the unsuspecting pets were taken into a dry wash and shot.

Uncle Rulon has married an estimated seventy-five women with whom he has fathered at least sixty-five children; several of his wives were given to him in marriage when they were fourteen or fifteen and he was in his eighties. His sermons frequently stress the need for total submission. “I want to tell you that the greatest freedom you can enjoy is in obedience,” he has preached.

In addition, as the book explains, Jeffs and the Mormon fundamentalist authorities own all the land in Colorado City, including the land on which the inhabitants’ homes are built. Disobedient church members can be punished by having their wives, children and homes taken away from them and reassigned to another man (echoing other cases where religious authorities have sought to create their own mini-theocracies).

Despite Jeffs’ Taliban-like authoritarianism, his followers genuinely seemed devoted to him, and some literally believed that he would live forever, due to his status as a prophet. On September 8, 2002, Rulon Jeffs died of heart failure. (Colorado City’s previous ruler, LeRoy Johnson, was also believed by the town’s inhabitants to be blessed with eternal life, or at at least he was until his death in 1986 at age ninety-eight.) However, a new theocrat rose up to take the reins: the second son of Rulon Jeffs’ fourth wife, one Warren Jeffs.

Jeffs had been running Colorado City in all but name for some time already, due to his father’s advanced age and illness. But he never inspired the love or adoration his father did. Krakauer quotes one of the new prophet’s own older brothers as saying, “Warren has no love for the people. His method for controlling them is to inspire fear and dread. My brother preaches that you must be perfect in your obedience… Warren’s a fanatic. Everything is black and white to him.”

And the book has this footnote:

During the spring and summer of 2003, Warren Jeffs came under increasing scrutiny from state authorities after evidence came to light that the FLDS prophet had committed felonies by fathering children with at least two of the underage girls he had taken as spiritual wives. In August 2003, Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff announced to the media, “I don’t mind telling Warren Jeffs that I’m coming after him.”

In response to this announcement, Jeffs fled across the border to a polygamist Mormon community in Canada, although the book notes that he has been sighted returning to Colorado City on several occasions to take additional plural wives. (Jeffs had previously banned all marriages within the community for everyone but himself so long as this “persecution” lasted.)

Imagine, then, my surprise when I saw this headline on CNN Wednesday evening:

Nevada state troopers found one of the FBI’s most wanted fugitives, along with wigs, cell phones, laptop computers and more than $54,000 in cash, on a highway north of Las Vegas, authorities said Monday.

Polygamist sect leader Warren Steed Jeffs, 50, was a passenger in a red 2007 Cadillac Escalade that was pulled over along Interstate 15 shortly after 9 p.m. (12 a.m. ET) Monday.

…Jeffs faces charges of unlawful flight to avoid prosecution in Utah and Arizona, sexual conduct with a minor, conspiracy to commit sexual conduct with a minor and rape as an accomplice, according to the FBI Web site.

He has been called a religious zealot and dangerous extremist by critics and former members of his church.

The question of polygamy raises some difficult moral issues. I am not opposed to the idea of two women and a man (or two men and a woman) living together if they are all consenting adults and freely choose such an arrangement. In any case, since the Colorado City polygamists and other fundamentalist Mormons almost never seek legal sanction for their plural marriages but are only married “in spirit” by fellow church members, it is difficult to see what laws could be passed to prevent them from doing this that would not also entail a draconian intrusion into the lives of all other private citizens.

Child sex abuse and rape, however, are two entirely different matters. Both of these practices can and should be curtailed by law, and in both of these cases a clear distinction can be drawn between illegal and legal conduct whose enforcement would not infringe on the rights of law-abiding people. And it seems all too clear that there are religious communities that are havens for this behavior on a massive scale. Krakauer cites sickening first-hand testimonies of women growing up in fundamentalist Mormon communities who suffered repeated rape, sexual abuse, and being “given” as polygamous wives to older men while they were far too young to possibly consent.

The pressing question is how to put a stop to the abuses being committed in these isolated, tightly-knit religious communities, which are invariably arrayed in cult-like opposition to the outside world. Jeffs’ arrest may help, as the community may disintegrate without the presence of an absolute ruler to keep all its members in line. (Ironically, Jeffs’ decision to flee may be the only reason he was captured; Krakauer points out that the authorities would probably have avoided coming after him if he had stayed in Colorado City, fearing another Waco-like bloodbath.) However, more likely a new tyrant will be raised up in his place and will continue to lord it over the lives of his enslaved followers. Only when society chooses to stop tolerating this behavior and takes strong steps to prevent religious cults from defying the laws enacted by democratic vote can these dens of evil be broken up for good.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Philip Thomas

    Is this stuff constitutional? I mean, seperation of Church and State is surely relevant at least tangentially.

  • chronomitch

    Is this stuff constitutional? I mean, seperation of Church and State is surely relevant at least tangentially.

    The sexual abuse aside, to prove the government setup of Colorado City unconstitional, I believe you would have to show that the religious authorities of the city have undo influence over the government of the city (mayor, police, etc), and that this influence prevented the government from doing their job.

    I don’t think it would be too hard for a good lawyer to prove this case, but I doubt many lawyers would want to take on such a can of worms.

  • kw

    “never seek legal sanction for their plural marriages but are only married “in spirit” by fellow church members, it is difficult to see what laws could be passed to prevent them from doing this that would not also entail a draconian intrusion into the lives of all other private citizens.”

    Actually, the federal government vigorously prosecuted such marriages for several decades, jailing Mormon leaders and seizing church property. These started out as plain vanilla bigamy prosecutions (since early marriages involved civil ceremonies). When church members stopped performing civili ceremonies for plural marriages, the government broke them up by enacting and enforcing a series of “unlawful cohabitation” statutes. These statutes were challenged on first-amendment grounds and led to years of litigation. Ultimately, the Supreme Court upheld the statutes in Reynolds v. United States and a series of related cases. (Probably the best resource on this is Sarah Gordon’s recent book on the polygamy prosecutions — she’s a legal historian at Penn.)

  • jeonjutarheel

    This is the community where incest is rampant too, isn’t it? And they have a ridiculously high number of kids with…oh, what is it, fumerase deficiency because of it? Glad they caught him…

    (love your blog, btw)

  • kw

    By the way, the current statute codifies the “unlawful cohabitation” angle. Utah Criminal Code 76-7-101:

    “A person is guilty of bigamy when, knowing he has a husband or wife or knowing the other person has a husband or wife, the person purports to marry another person or cohabits with another person.”

    See http://www.le.state.ut.us/~code/TITLE76/htm/76_09002.htm .

    So if you cohabit with someone who’s married, you’re a bigamist. And the statute has been upheld, post-Lawrence, just earlier this year. See http://www.utcourts.gov/opinions/supopin/Holm051606.pdf .

  • http://www.patheos.com/blog/daylightatheism/ Ebonmuse

    I thank you for bringing that to my attention, kw. I knew about Reynolds, but I wasn’t aware that statutes such as this had been upheld so recently. I still believe, however, that laws like this must either be enforced extremely selectively or else entail a horrendous governmental intrusion into the lives of every citizen. (If a married couple was living in a two-bedroom apartment and wanted to sublet the other bedroom, could I be convicted of unlawful cohabitation if I moved in? How vast would the scope of police surveillance have to be to ensure that no such behavior is taking place?) In either case, I think, there is a serious question of constitutionality regarding such laws.

    Granted, there is a precedent on the books, but I note that Reynolds is a very old case. To my knowledge, the Supreme Court hasn’t revisited it in decades, and given the recent Lawrence v. Texas ruling striking down laws that criminalize the private sexual conduct of consenting adults, I wonder what the result might be if such a case were to be revisited today. The Utah State Supreme Court may not consider Lawrence to be overriding here, but the federal Supreme Court might.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blog/daylightatheism/ Ebonmuse

    Incidentally, reading the Utah Supreme Court opinion, I note with interest that it comes very close to endorsing the theory that two people are legally married if they go through a commitment ceremony and regard themselves as such (background, section 4). I wonder what precedent this sets for gay people who seek to be married…

  • Philip Thomas

    And, does it have to be two people? Can three people be legally married if they go through a commitment ceremony and regard thesmelves as such? Possily bypassing the bigamy law because, as it was the same ceremony, they are all part of the same marriage…

  • Alex Weaver

    Speaking as the father of a young girl…

    I’m very glad the bastard’s behind bars. *hisses*

    Unfortunately, I don’t feel less dirty, for having thoughtlessly put some of my pocket change in the collection plate on those occasions when Trish dragged me to church, in light of this.

  • Shawn Smith

    For someone who supposedly ruled Colorado City and Hilldale with an iron fist, Jeffs sure looked contrite, quiet, and almost pathetic in the hearing where he announced he wasn’t going to fight the extradition order to Utah. I wonder if he’s just a simple bully who finally had to deal with someone bigger and more powerful than he.

  • http://thegreenbelt.blogspot.com The Ridger

    And never forget the flip side of this: given the sex ratio of humans at birth, there are a lot of boys in those cults who never get wives. What happens to them? I think I remember reading that some of these classic North American polygamous cults kick their boychildren outside the community, but historically these extra young men became the army – striving to win enough prestige points to qualify for a wife. It’s dangerous on top of anything else.

  • Philip Thomas

    Well, uncle rulon must be nearing a hundred by now, so he could be pretty weak for fairly natural reasons.

  • Archi Medez

    Here’s a bit more background, including what’s happened in this case (with Jeffs, et al) in the Canadian location (lots of polygamy going on there too). Winston Blackmore had set himself up as a rival to Jeffs over a dispute, resulting a sectarian split and division in the community in the town of Bountiful, British Columbia.

    http://www.cbc.ca/fifth/bustupinbountiful/

  • Shawn Smith

    Philip Thomas,

    Well, uncle rulon must be nearing a hundred by now, so he could be pretty weak for fairly natural reasons.

    Did you miss this part of the original post? (6th paragraph)

    On September 8, 2002, Rulon Jeffs died of heart failure.

    Or perhaps you meant that dead is, “pretty weak.” :-)

  • Philip Thomas

    Yes, I missed it, whoops. I just skim-read and assumed the guy who was arrested was the same as the guy it was tallking about earlier.

  • Oz

    Could people please just stop using the word polygamy to describe plural marriages forced on prepubescent girls by adult males? It strikes me as being a bit like using the word homosexuality to describe child rape that happens to be within one gender.

  • Alex Weaver

    What would you suggest as a succinct alternative? “Concubinism” might carry the proper emotional charge, I suppose…

  • Oz

    Perhaps “serial pedophilia.”

  • Alex Weaver

    “Serial” isn’t the right word, since they abuse a number of children at once and continue to do so; the right word would be “series-parallel.” “Pedophilia” fails on two counts. It’s a psychiatric term which properly refers specifically to the psychological trait of an adult being primarily attracted to prepubescent children, despite the media’s habit of using it as a synonym for “child molester”, when used correctly does not necessarily imply any sexual conduct towards minors. Sexually abusing a child does not necessarily imply a person to be a pedophile in the technical sense (I’ve seen the figure that about 10% of abuse instances are by people who are normally primarily attracted to children), ESPECIALLY if the “child” in question is older than 10-12ish (attraction to teenagers is ephebophilia, not pedophilia).

    I think some variant of “concubine” might get the point across better.

  • Oz

    Dunno, “concubine” has a pretty neutral connotation to me. It doesn’t express the idea that child abuse is going on. It’s true that pedophilia has a psychiatric definition, but because of its wider unofficial use I think it makes a good candidate. Using “ephbophilia” would just confuse most people, I think. The important thing is to separate the broad concept of polygamy from this despicable subset (just like homosexuality should be separated from the subset of NAMBLA members).

  • http://www.johnnysstew.com/cool/coolwet J

    The question of polygamy raises some difficult moral issues. I am not opposed to the idea of two women and a man (or two men and a woman) living together if they are all consenting adults and freely choose such an arrangement. In any case, since the Colorado City polygamists and other fundamentalist Mormons almost never seek legal sanction for their plural marriages but are only married “in spirit” by fellow church members, it is difficult to see what laws could be passed to prevent them from doing this that would not also entail a draconian intrusion into the lives of all other private citizens.

    There is one serious problem with polygamy: Male infanticide.

    In anthropological terms, polygamy only “works” if there is a continuous removal of men–particularly young men–from the community, usually through war or the hunting of large and dangerous animals. Otherwise you end up with a lot of “spare” young men idling around without any women to marry, which does not make for a stable society.

    I’m surprised Krakauer doesn’t mention it at all in Under the Banner of Heaven but the mortality rate among the male children of polygamous communities (to the degree that childbirths are reported to the authorities at all in, say, Colorado City or Bountiful, British Columbia) is suspiciously high. Like, 20%.

  • Philip Thomas

    Homosexuality is the obvious solution there…
    Or just allow polyandry as well.

  • Alex Weaver

    That’s a problem with polygamy as a cultural institution though, rather than as a voluntary arrangement on a per-household basis, isn’t it?

  • Amy

    It looks like Jeffs is looking at more charges. This time by 5 boys who were thrown out of their community by Jeffs.

    http://www.boston.com/news/nation/articles/2005/06/19/polygamys_lost_boys_expelled_from_only_life_they_knew/

  • Oz

    Polygamy is gender neutral. What is traditionally practiced is actually polygyny, literally “many women.”

  • Alex Weaver

    “Stableism” might work better, with the implicit connection with other forms of organized misogyny and sex abuse (organized criminal prostitution). But then you’d have to explain it to almost everyone who heard it.

  • http://www.johnnysstew.com/cool/coolwet J

    Three more bits:

    1.) Additional dark-horse “enablers” for polygamy: Widespread castration of young males (i.e. court culture in China or Islamic societies) or widespread imprisonment of young men.

    2.) Terrific sci-fi/philosophical-fictional treatment of a bi-mutual/directional gender apartheid: The Gate to Women’s Country by Sherri S. Tepper.

    3.) And thanks for the post, Amy. That article sums it up perfectly:

    Gideon is one of the ”Lost Boys,” a group of more than 400 teenagers — some as young as 13 — who authorities in Utah and Arizona say have fled or been driven out of the polygamous enclaves of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City over the last four years.

    His stated offenses: wearing short-sleeved shirts, listening to compact discs, and having a girlfriend. . . Authorities say the teenagers aren’t really being expelled for what they watch or wear, but rather to reduce competition for women in places where men can have dozens of wives.

    That part about “having a girlfriend” is especially important.

  • http://profiles.yahoo.com/curiousgemini25 George Arndt

    The Taliban wing of the State Of Utah.

  • c

    As to the percentage of males versus females, in modern, developed societies, the survival of infants is about equal. However, without modern medicine, more male fetuses and babies die naturally, as they are more likely to be born prematurely and are weaker as infants. That is part of the reason that old school tribal polygamy (such as that practiced by some native american groups) often leans towards more women. The problems in many modern polygamous groups in the US is the misogyny, child abuse, and religious fanaticism. As far as the legal issues go, it is a violation of people’s civil rights to interfere with private, consensual, adult relationships. Instead, there should be a crackdown on child abuse and rape. There should also be more venues and services to help protect the rights of children.

  • Tom

    Prosecuting on the basis of the immorality of polygamy itself, whether consensual or not, was just stupid – you could never seriously use that as the sole basis of making it illegal and expect the laws created to be tenable. It is, as has been remarked above, only the forced marriages and the coercion of children too young to give informed consent, that are the dangerous, dehumanising, utterly unconstitutional elements that should have been the basis of prosecution from the very beginning.


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