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.