Learning the Fundamentalists’ fundamentals

DSCN0572In a story for CNN, reporter Eliott McLaughlin dove head first into a discussion of the religious views of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. The hook for the piece is the group’s decision to open up and permit some public scrutiny of its lifestyle. They’ve started a Web site and a handful of polygamous wives have been doing a ton of interviews.

The sect moved to Texas to avoid legal problems and its former prophet Warren Jeffs is in federal prison for arranging marriages between older men and underage girls. He is awaiting trial in Arizona on similar rape charges. The FLDS’ copious holdings in Utah are in control of the state pending further litigation. And now over 400 children have been taken into custody by Texas:

“Because of their history of persecution, they have what you’d call a paranoia complex,” said Dr. W. John Walsh, a Mormon studies expert who testified on behalf of FLDS parents during the custody battle. “They’ve never really reached out to outsiders.” . . .

The sect’s sudden openness appears an attempt to reunite mothers and children. However, the stakes may be higher, said Walsh, who explained that FLDS members believe polygamy and ably caring for many children are essential to reaching the highest tier of heaven.

According to FLDS beliefs, you must be free from sin — as with most Christian religions — to get to heaven. Those deemed “wicked” go to hell until they atone for their sins, said Walsh, a mainstream Mormon doing post-doctorate studies at the University of St. Thomas-Houston in Texas.

I don’t even understand the first sentence of the last paragraph. Christianity is a religion. While there are different confessions, communions, denominations, what have you, it’s just one religion. And what does that mean — that “most Christian religions” believe “you must be free from sin” to get to heaven? Lutherans would not say that. We would say Christ’s death alone saves you by grace alone. And that Christ’s work on the cross is received by faith alone. I’m pretty sure a sizable grouping of other Christians who would agree that salvation does not depend on whether people are free from sin but on God’s grace.

McLaughlin goes into great detail about the FLDS tiers of heaven. Some of it would sound familiar to those who have read the Book of Mormon or Doctrine and Covenants. But some of it doesn’t. The hard thing is that while the church is posting media-friendly information on its Web site, it’s not revealing information about its doctrines other than some pretty standard Latter Day Saints information here. So it’s hard to know if McLaughlin’s sources are right or not:

Those who aren’t deemed wicked go to the “spirit world” to await the final judgment that dictates in which of the three levels of heaven they will reside for eternity. Everyone will eventually go to one level of heaven, Walsh explained, but to ascend to the highest tier, you must first learn certain lessons — how to be a good parent and spouse among them.

“To really enjoy heaven, you have to be married and you have to have your kids with you,” Walsh said. “Everything experienced on Earth will be in its more perfected form in heaven.”

If you haven’t learned the lessons you needed to learn on Earth, “you would have to learn these lessons in the spirit world” before entering heaven, he said.

If your children are taken away, you may have to learn how to be a good parent in the spirit world, thereby postponing your passage to heaven, Walsh said.

Again, maybe Walsh is totally correct. It’s hard to say because of the lack of good scholarship on the FLDS.

The rest of the piece is remarkably cynical about the public relations efforts of the FLDS. Again using just one source, Marci Hamilton, a professor at Yeshiva University’s Cardozo School of Law who has studied polygamist sects for 10 years, the reporter says the church’s openness should not be confused with candor:
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The FLDS is only as open as it needs to be. Everything church members offer — the news conferences, the interviews, the tours of the YFZ compound, even the Web site’s name — has been scripted to elicit sympathy, [Hamilton] said.

The sect’s Web site, www.captivefldschildren.org, is rife with photos and videos of crying women and children, one boy looking fearfully into the camera during the raid, declaring, “I don’t want to go.”

The site also includes a timeline with subject lines such as “officers force their way into homes,” “sacred site desecrated,” “children’s innocence threatened” and “mothers and children torn apart.”

Other than a link to a PayPal page where visitors can send donations, there is no way to contact the FLDS. The Web site itself is anonymously registered in Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, and attempts to reach the owner via e-mail were fruitless.

As for the interviews, “the FLDS has been good at getting hand-picked wives on the airwaves,” Hamilton said. . . .

“They always put the women up front because this is a very oppressive patriarchy, and the men are not sympathetic characters,” said Hamilton, the author of “Justice Denied: What America Must Do to Protect its Children.”

The reporter says that the only way to contact the FLDS is through a link to a PayPal page. But at least by the time I checked out the site, it had an email contact.

Anyway, the thing I don’t get about all this FLDS coverage is how many reporters seem to be acting out of complete ignorance of the group. The memory of the mainstream media seems so short. It was just last September that Warren Jeffs was sentenced. It wasn’t that long before that he was on the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted list. It seems we might get more sources here than a post-graduate student and a Cardozo professor.

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  • http://blog.kennypearce.net Kenny

    On “Christian religions” – I’m not sure this is strictly inaccurate. It depends on what dictionary you are reading. For instance, if you look on the dict.org results, WordNet’s second definition is “institution to express belief in a divine power.” On dictonary.com we get definition 2: “a specific fundamental set of beliefs and practices generally agreed upon by a number of persons or sects”. It should be clear that Christianity is not, today, a single institution for doing anything. Furthermore, if you count both Seventh-Day Adventists and the Salvation Army as Christians, then I don’t think there is a single practice left that is shared by all Christians. (I list those two groups because if you were trying to list shared practices the first things you might come up with would be baptism (not practiced by the Salvation Army), the Eucharist (also not practiced by the Salvation Army), and meeting on Sunday (not practiced by Seventh-Day Adventists), and these groups serve as counter-examples.) Of course, Christianity does meet dictonary.com’s definition 1:

    a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, esp. when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies, usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs.

    and many other definitions, since there is a shared set of answers to many of the questions traditionally addressed by religions. But it does make some sense to talk about Christianity as a family of religions rather than a single religion.

    As far as what the article says about “Christian religions,” I don’t know of a single uncontroversial example of a Christian group that teaches that “you must be free from sin … to get to heaven,” unless you take an interpretation of that phrase to mean that all your sins must be atoned for. (None of the potential examples are uncontroversial in part because a lot of Christians, especially Protestants, explicitly define Christianity in terms of a denial of “salvation by works.”)

  • http://www.vagantepriest.blogspot.com/ FrGregACCA

    Mollie, you probably have a point about the length of media memory, surely a reflection of the memory and attention span of the United States in general. At the same time, during the whole Jeffs episode, I recall seeing very little, if any, in-depth reporting on the FLDS itself. It was mostly about Jeffs, some about the underage girls, and a bit about his late father.

    As far as “Mormon fundamentalist” doctrines which are more controversial than standard Salt Lake City LDS fare, I think the one that is most relevant is the so-called “law of placing” which posits that the prophet, by relevation, is charged with arranging marriages, including plural marriages, and that the woman is bound to accept this “placement”, to include, apparently, situations in which a woman and her children are taken from one husband and reassigned to another.

    Reporters should be asking about this, and particularly when it comes to underage girls. I saw a report the other night on one of the network prime time news shows. An FLDS man, obviously a spokesman of sorts and a rather sympathetic figure, was interviewed in some depth and gave the news reporter a tour of the YFZ ranch. When asked about his marital status, he changed the subject and was let off the hook by the reporter.

  • Rathje

    Those interested in a bit of background on the evolution of marriage practices among the FLDS might be interested in this blog post this blog post

    It summarizes an article published in Dialogue (and LDS studies periodical) on the controversial marriage of Lyman Jessop’s daughter in 1948.

  • Rathje

    Sorry, didn’t quite work.

    Look for the post on “Diabolical High-Pressure Marriage.”

  • Jerry

    the thing I don’t get about all this FLDS coverage is how many reporters seem to be acting out of complete ignorance of the group. The memory of the mainstream media seems so short.

    When ratings becomes one’s “god”, the righteous path becomes sensationalism and one’s reward for “virtue” is a high salary, this is unfortunately the result.

  • http://abev.wordpress.com john f.

    Exactly. Christ’s grace alone saves us — it makes us free from sin so that we can enter heaven. Now what is your contention again with Walsh’s phrasing?

  • http://www.mikehickerson.com Mike Hickerson

    The flip side of the quick summary of “Christian religions” was the statement:

    Those deemed “wicked” go to hell until they atone for their sins.

    I’m pretty sure the scholar meant that to apply just to Mormons, not to all Christians. From what I know of Mormonism, that is accurate – hell is not an eternal destination – and it’s one of the many theological points on which Mormonism and mainstream Christianity disagree. I don’t think your average reader, though, would have picked up on that. From my experience in teaching world religions, most Christians know very little about Mormon beliefs, so I think it would be quite challenging to simultaneously educate the public about basic Mormon belief and the distinctive beliefs of the FLDS.

    (Though, between Mitt Romney, Warren Jeffs, and the FLDS, this has been a run of extemely unusual high profile media for the various Mormon churches. If some big news story erupts out of the Community of Christ, I’m going to start wondering what’s up.)

  • danr

    Exactly. Christ’s grace alone saves us — it makes us free from sin so that we can enter heaven.

    Good point john f, but the phrasing and lack of context made that rather fundamental point unnecessarily ambiguous. Perhaps at least using the past tense – “you must be freed from sin” – would properly indicate that it’s not something the sinner does, but rather something that’s done for the sinner (by Christ).

  • http://www.vagantepriest.blogspot.com/ FrGregACCA

    Well, Mike, the Community of Christ, formerly the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, has had its share of drama over the past few years, although said drama has been a lot less sexy than what has been going on with the FLDS, and it has not involved national politics, as with Romney.

    The Community of Christ has moved from being a “Mormon Lite” organization to being, basically, a liberal Protestant denomination with some Mormon distinctives. Along the way, it changed its name, dropped the requirement that its President be a descendant of Joseph Smith, began ordaining women to its priesthood, had a President (not a Smith) abruptly resign for unspecified reasons, became more open to practicing homosexuals, and, as a result, has experienced a fair amount of schism as well as defections to other churches, including the Salt Lake LDS.

  • Bot

    I haven’t met anyone in favor of 14-year-olds being impregnated by older men. But when are the Texas Rangers going to raid the Dallas inner-city homes of pregnant 14-year-olds and cart off the other children, who might be subject to similar abuse? And when will they shutter the Planned Parenthood locations which refuse to report statutory rape of 14-year-olds by men in their twenties? Why isn’t there equal treatment under Texas’ law?

    The locals in Eldorado were worried about the FLDS taking over the county, so State Rep. Harvey Hilderbran sponsored a bill in 2005 that raised the legal age of consent to marry in Texas from 14 to 16. This was specifically targeted against the FLDS. When the FLDS moved to Texas the legal age was 14.

    Note how the Texas Child Protective Service implies that 18 is the legal age. The CPS can’t be trusted and can’t be trusted with foster children. Two-thirds of their foster children are on mind-altering drugs. Wouldn’t the FLDS children be better off if they were returned to their mothers. Prosecute the men who fathered children with “wives” 15 or less and let the others alone.

    I believe the diabolical outcome of Lawrence v Texas by the U.S. Supreme Court ensures that polygamy will be found legal – so polygamy cannot be legally outlawed. Despite the wishes of Texas Baptists, the Old and New Testament (Mark 12: 18-27) approve of polygamy, but strongly condemn the behavior addressed in Lawrence v Texas. Despite what the Texa

  • MercyProf

    Several things bother me about the FLDS.
    First, sexual attraction is understandable at any age-lust knows no boundaries. But what kind of man would carry out his lustful desires and/or even want to marry a fourteen year old girl? Adults are supposed to be able to control their natural desires. That’s what makes us adults.

    Second, what kind of mother would think this situation would be ok under any circumstances? I don’t care what the law says in any state. It’s just wrong. These are little girls-they have no common sense. The mothers and fathers are supposed to protect them and the FLDS parents aren’t.

    Thirdly, today on NPR, one of the CPS workers was interviewed. The mothers are telling the children to give the CPS workers the wrong name, the wrong ages, they are calling all of the mothers, mother. No one knows which child belongs to which parent, and the young girls who have babies are not being identified because the entire group is lying to CPS. In addition, the children have rubbed out the information that was on the plastic identification bands that were attached to their wrists initially. So none of the state workers can tell who anyone is.

    In my opinion, the parents and children are not cooperating at all. I believe CPS should just tell them all, if you don’t cooperate, you’ll never go back home.

    As far as the commenter who said what about the inner city pregnant fourteen year olds and Planned Parenthood shielding the rapists. All it takes is someone willing to step out and be a witness. If one has evidence or is a witness, tell it. Tell it until someone begins to listen and believe.

  • http://jettboy.blogspot.com Jettboy

    The idea that all Christians believe “Faith Only” is a farce. If that is true, then why all the worry about sin at all? Why is Christianity so worried about ethics and morality if all it takes is a belief in Jesus to save? Why send people to Hell for their actions? Does “un-Chrisitan behavior” have any meaning?

    Don’t get me wrong. I have heard the answer to this question, but the answer hasn’t impressed me. What it ends up as is theological symantics, often at the expense of others.

  • http://jettboy.blogspot.com Jettboy

    . . . continued because of other thoughts:

    With “Faith Only” what should be made of the Ten Commandments and the Beatitudes? Are they good suggestions or nice thoughts? Then there are the Puritans. Were they actually some sub-set of Islam or paganism; maybe a whole other religion? To quote C.S. Lewis:

    You see, we are now trying to understand, and to seperate into water-tight compartments, what exactly God does and what man does when God and man are working together . . . He is inside you as well as outside: even if we could understand who did what, I do not think human language could properly express it. In the attempt to express it different Churches say different things. But you will find that even those who insist most strongy on the importance of good actions tell you you need Faith; and even those who insist most strongly on Faith tell you to do good actions.

    With all due respect, the reporter is looking at the reality of modern Christianity and coming up with a fair belief about Christian belief. On the other hand, I don’t think the reporter is wrong. I think those who believe Faith Only is the ultimate definition of Christianity should give it a rest; others aren’t buying it. Otherwise, Christians would come to the logical conclusion and leave “morality,” behaviorism, and judgementalism out of religion.