The sensational and sentimental

childcustodyCould there have been two more dramatically different religion stories last week than Pope Benedict XVI’s first trip to the United States and the ongoing drama with the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints? It is completely understandable that almost all religion reporting resources focused on papal coverage, but I keep hoping that we’ll see some really good coverage of the ins and outs at the Yearning For Zion compound ranch in West Texas.

Reader FW Ken said it well:

The story in the FLDS business here in Texas needs desperately to tease out the legitimate religious angles from the cultic. The isolation and focus on the leader are classic cult behaviors. The sexual exploitation of younger girls by older men is not uncommon in cults (I’m thinking Moses David and the Children of God back in the 70s), although, to be fair, polygamy and arranged marriages between younger and older is not uncommon in history . . . But that’s the sort of thing that really needs telling, because it is possible to interpret the current event as the government swooping in and stealing the children of people who’s religion and way of life based on that religion aren’t socially acceptable. Look, I’m a Catholic and don’t approve of polygamy. But I amreally uncomfortable with government force being applied to people who believe differently then me. Again, sorting out the cult aspects from the authentically religious choices people make is crucial to protecting the legitimate interests of the kids without force feeding them standard American culture. . . .

Bottom line: I’ve worked for the great State of Texas most the past 40 years in one capacity or another and somehow I don’t trust us to really help these children through our child welfare system. Call me cynical, but this is a job for journalism, but, unfortunately, a journalism that “gets religion” (what a concept!) and doesn’t settle for the sensational and sentimental.

I finally found a few stories that weren’t terribly sensational or sentimental. However, the stories didn’t really help us understand, as FW Ken put it, the religious angles versus the cultic. Written by Dan Frosch and Kirk Johnson of the New York Times, their focus is on the DNA tests that members of the polygamous sect are being subjected to:

Current and former members of a deeply conservative polygamous sect whose children have been seized by the state came to a county office building here on Tuesday to donate their DNA for a genetic database that state officials said could be a step toward the reunification of parents and children.

The collections began even as the first children were sent off under a judge’s order into foster care pending an investigation of under-age marriages by the sect, the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or F.L.D.S.

The parents came in ones and twos and groups on a blisteringly hot day, some resigned to the task, others simmering with resentment. Jarring juxtapositions — old ways and new, science and faith, cynicism and hopefulness — were everywhere. Just after lunch, a group of women in pastel prairie dresses climbed down from a late-model S.U.V. with dark-tinted windows like those used by movie stars. But for the West Texas dust, they looked straight from Hollywood central casting.

David Williams, 32, clutching a Book of Mormon and a binder with pictures of his three sons, said he drove 1,200 miles from Nevada “to give all that I have to aid in the return of the children to their parents.”

Mr. Williams said that he had left the sect three years ago, but that his three sons had continued to live here at the group’s compound, the Yearning for Zion ranch, with their mother. The F.L.D.S. broke off from the mainstream Mormon Church, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, more than a century ago after the Mormons abandoned their traditions of polygamy.

I like that jarring juxtapositions line — a very efficient way to capture a great deal of context. And the imagery in the following line manages to paint quite the picture without being condescending or rude.

Perhaps discussing why Mr. Williams left the sect would be a good way to explore some of the tangled religious issues. He’s carrying a Book of Mormon and he left the sect — he seems like a good potential source.

It’s also worth noting that the timeline about the FLDS is a bit off. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints did officially change its position on polygamy over a century ago but I believe the FLDS emerged in the 1930s after the LDS really began cracking down on polygamists. Kirk Johnson’s follow-up story seemed to fix this problem somewhat:

The sect split off from the mainstream Mormon church, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, decades ago after the Mormons disavowed polygamy in the late 19th century.

Anyway, most stories out there continue to take either the “look at these freaks” or the “these poor, poor parents” approach to the story. A more nuanced and less extreme approach is called for as a service to readers.

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  • http://Getreligion.org S. Buck

    I appreciate your sympathy for FLDS children and their mothers. It seems to me that the state of Texas has not kept the laws of Texas and a free democracy in mind when they hauled in children (in Baptist buses no less) without more due process. On information from a spurious caller they bolded into the compound with guns drawn on innocent children. Can you imagine the out cry if some one had called in and said officials at a Catholic Church school were molesting children and instead of trying to find the guilty party they put the children in a Baptist owned bus and removed them all to foster homes. Or say a disgruntled neighbor disliked all the persons on his block and said they were selling narcotics to local school children. I don’t think the laws of Texas would be supportable under such conditions nor would they allow for such sweeping blanket confiscations of children and sending them off to foster home for children. Surely if there are children being impregnated by disgusting old men something needs to done at once but a phony phone call like this and the ensuing action could lead to over reaction any time someone thinks this is the was the problem it to be solved. There must be a better more constitutional way to serve justice.
    SBuck
    Burley Idaho.

  • Dave

    I imagine the cops had had an eye on the YFZ campus for some time, suspected sexual conduct between adult men and under-age girls, and took advantage of a tip to move in. Even if a tip turns out to be false, we can’t expect the cops to ignore it.

    The foregoing is general law enforcement theory. That being said, I get very itchy when Mollie and FW Ken talk about separating the cultic from the authenically religious. In my experience the meaning of “cultic” boils down to “someone else’s religion that I don’t approve of,” so “authentic” boils down to “approved.” I think I know what you’re referring to, but the vocabulary you’re using gets in the way.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    I know that some people use the term cultic to mean just what you say, Dave, but I do agree with FW Ken that there are some legitimate “cult” issues in play. I mean, the reason why the group’s previous prophet is in prison is relevant to these issues..

  • Jerry

    The foregoing is general law enforcement theory. That being said, I get very itchy when Mollie and FW Ken talk about separating the cultic from the authenically religious.

    This is one of those areas that make thoughtful people itchy especially because of the 1st amendment and how one feels about one’s own religious affiliation. That also includes the rights of the majority, including the right to pass laws, versus the rights of minorities. It is also involves what constitutes a marriage which is also controversial (gays).

    I also have to wonder how many on the right want the group left alone to avoid infringement on religion in spite of their ideas of marriage and how many on the left disapprove of women in old-style dresses in spite of thinking that gay marriage is just fine. In other words, how important is one’s ideas about what constitutes marriage in the judgement one makes about this group?

    I personally like to use one definition I found in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cult to decide if a group should be left alone or not:

    “A cult is a group or movement exhibiting a great or excessive devotion or dedication to some person, idea or thing and employing unethically manipulative techniques of persuasion and control (e.g. isolation from former friends and family, debilitation, use of special methods to heighten suggestibility and subservience, powerful group pressures, information management, suspension of individuality or critical judgment, promotion of total dependency on the group and fear of [consequences of] leaving it, etc) designed to advance the goals of the group’s leaders to the actual or possible detriment of members, their families, or the community.”

    The key part of that definition for me is of course not the part about great devotion but “unethically manipulative techniques” and “detriment of members…”.

  • http://www.therevealer.org Jeff Sharlet

    I’m not in the camp that trades the term “cult” in for “new religious movements,” but I certainly do believe people are entitled to join cults. The deciding factor on government intervention shouldn’t be whether a group is a cult; it should be whether INDIVIDUALS are breaking a law. That’s the apparent problem in Texas; the entire group is being targeted. Take another example: Welfare fraud is, unfortunately, fairly common in some sectors of the hasidic Jewish community in Brooklyn. Would that justify legal action against all members of a particular shul? Of course not.

    As for the definition of cult, it’s a bit lacking. The above describes to a T my experience of the Fellowship, or The Family — the folks who produce the National Prayer Breakfast — and the experience described by many former members. But that doesn’t make them a cult. Because you CAN leave. The term evangelical scholar Ron Enroth of Westmont College uses, for The Family and other groups, is “spiritual abuse.” That seems a lot more nuanced and accurate. The definition above falls apart because “unethically manipulative techniques” are in the eye of the beholder, many traditional religious communities use special methods to heighten suggestibility (and thus, by extension, subservience), powerful group pressures are usually at play in any community, everybody manages information, many traditional religious groups oppose individuality, and tell me about the high committment religious group that doesn’t provoke fear of leaving. AS to the detriment of others, that, too, is in the eye of the beholder.

  • Jerry

    Jeff, “spiritual abuse.” may be more accurate but that too is also in the eye of the beholder because who’s going to judge that?

  • Susan

    I thought Father Hollywood had an interesting take on this subject that you might find of interest. Not sentimental nor sensational.

    http://fatherhollywood.blogspot.com/2008/04/few-more-thoughts-on-texas.html

  • Julia

    “Cult” wasn’t always a pejorative. Like many other words its meaning has drifted over the years.

    There is the condition of “disparity of cult” in the Catholic system. It means two people don’t share the same manner of worship – one is CAtholic and the other is not or is not really a believing CAtholic. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/05037b.htm

    Here’s a definition of “cult” as a Latin derivative from Princeton:
    cult: a system of religious beliefs and rituals; “devoted to the cultus of the Blessed Virgin” wordnet.princeton.edu/perl/webwn

    I don’t recall any other definition until the Hare Krishnas came along in the late 60s. Amish and the Brethren are stand-offish and wear funny clothes, too.

    So I’m very wary of trying to tease out the “cult” part of somebody’s religious beliefs.

    On the otherhand, child abuse is wrong no matter what somebody’s religion says it is.

  • George Wisecup


    TIME TO CALL IN THE FEDS…?

    Evidence is showing…

    They knew the warrant was invalid before they invaded.

    State officials conspired to deny and entire communities civil liberties.

    State sponsored Terrorism in America. Kidnapping at gunpoint.

    Shame.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    A number of the stories I have read have had zero historical or cultural awareness. These people are written of as if they MUST be pedophiles, child rapists, or perverts of some sort–then when you read the bottom line in the story the journalist is getting hysterical over the possibility of arranged marriages being the norm or young women being married at a year or so below what state law allows. Yet for millenia the norm for marriage in most cultures has been whether the young woman is physically ready to bear children–not some arbitrary age chosen by state dictate (that it is arbitrary can be seen in the different ages young people are allowed to marry in different states).
    As for arranged marriages, they were at one time acceptable in many Christian cultures and are still the norm in what today may be a majority of the world’s nations.
    When are those who run the MSM going to start insisting their journalists take in-depth courses and get degrees in history, religion, culture, etc. instead of spending so much time getting degrees on media mechanics (where they wind up very professionally and skillfully headlining their narrow-mindedness or their ignorance of what they are reporting on.)
    That Father Hollywood article Susan linked to was excellent.
    I was an adult (21 yrs. old) when I married my wife who at the time was still legally a juvenile (18) in Mass. and we could not even put her name on the deed for the house we bought. We have 7 grandchildren and have been happily married for almost 44 years. (And we are Catholic, not members of some cult).

  • http://knapsack.blogspot.com Jeff

    Hello, people — polygamy is against the law. Sorry, religious minorities that practice polygamy, but it is against the law.

    No one from YFZ Ranch will confirm who are the parents of which children, likely because such data would confirm that polygamy is practiced there. Non-responsiveness to reasonable requests like “who are your children” or “who are your parents” combined with the likelihood that not answering is in aid of covering up felonious behavior is grounds for . . . pretty much what happened in Texas.

    I work for a juvenile court and alongside of children’s protective services in a different state. Would i, in the abstract or in any particular case, trust “the system” to handle 400+ fosterage cases well? Heck no. That is not the point.

    If folks had answered reasonable questions as to which child belongs to which parent, this would have either gone away entirely or been focused on the one report. But since they are behaving exactly as you would to cover up polygamy, WHICH IS ILLEGAL, they’re seeing the blunter edge of the law at work.

    What does any of this have to do with religious minorities or sensitivity to faith traditions?

    What’s a reverse ghost here is that mainstream journalism has suddenly realized that defending the FLDS helps the case for “whatever consenting adults do on their own property should be no one’s business than their own,” and have found room in their coverage to make this a civil liberties case, which it ain’t. Even if every bride was over 16 (and it sure doesn’t sound like that’s the case, either), if they have intentional pairings of multiple women with a single man, and are drawing state/federal support as single women, they are not only covering up polygamy (did i mention that’s against the law?), but defrauding the state for welfare benefits, which they really do pursue regularly, and adds yet another level of “this is just a bunch of willful lawbreakers” to the untold story at YFZ Ranch.

    Brave dissenters, they ain’t. They want to break the law, and they want you to pay for it, and they want the ACLU to defend them in the bargain. Don’t buy it.

  • FW Ken

    Mollie – thank you for pulling that comment from the end of a dead thread, not because I wrote it, but because the discussion going on in these comments is one that needs to be had.

    Of course, the difference between cults and religions-of-which-I-disapprove is the whole point. Surely we can agree that cults do exist and can be identified: Jonestown, Heaven’s Gate, and the Branch Davidians (a more complex case, to be sure) come to mind. How we respond to cults is the other part of the problem. I generally agree with Jeff Sharlett’s focus on broken laws, but we do well to remember that children died at Jonestown and Waco.

  • Julia

    “Cult” was not always a bad word. It used to mean a particular way of worshipping God and other religious ceremonies that go with that. Check it out. “Cult” took on a pejorative aura when it was used to villify Hare Krishnas in the 1960s.

    Trying to tease out what is cultish and what is really religious about somebody else’s religion, that’s kind of dangerous. The Amish and the Brethren wear funny clothes and have odd customs, too. I think handling snakes is weird, but a lot of you probably think crowning statues of Mary with flowers in May is weird. I can understand separating out religious requirements from cultural practices, but I think the label “cult” is in the eye of the beholder.

    On the other hand, child abuse is wrong no matter what excuse is given. However, courts don’t want to be in a position of deciding which girls are mature enough for marriage and which aren’t, so a bright-line statute is passed. A lot of the press is getting just as hysterical about 15 year olds being married as they would if the girl was 7. Jesus was probably born to a 15 yr old mother. [In my book it's the coersion of vulnerable people that is the problem.]

    Another point – juvenile law regarding protection of minors doesn’t work on the same basis as regular civil or criminal court – especially evidentiary rules. Nobody in the press seems to understand that.

    Polygamy is illegal if one man has more than one woman to whom he is civilly married at the same time. Having sex with multiple women on a regular basis is not against the law; otherwise, there are folks all over the US who would be subject to arrest. These FLDS people only have one civil marriage per family and the rest are “religious” or “spiritual” marriages – that’s not illegal. We did away with laws against fornication and adultery a long time ago.

    Maybe Texas still has common law marriages, I don’t know.

  • Julia

    “Cult” was not always a bad word. It used to mean a particular way of worshipping God and other religious ceremonies that go with that. Check it out. “Cult” took on a pejorative aura when it was used to villify Hare Krishnas in the 1960s.

    Trying to tease out what is cultish and what is really religious about somebody else’s religion, that’s kind of dangerous. The Amish and the Brethren wear funny clothes and have odd customs, too. I think handling snakes is weird, but a lot of you probably think crowning statues of Mary with flowers in May is weird. I can understand separating out religious requirements from cultural practices, but I think the label “cult” is in the eye of the beholder.

    On the other hand, child abuse is wrong no matter what excuse is given. However, courts don’t want to be in a position of deciding which girls are mature enough for marriage and which aren’t, so a bright-line statute is passed. A lot of the press is getting just as hysterical about 15 year olds being married as they would if the girl was 7. Jesus was probably born to a 15 yr old mother. [In my book it's the coersion of vulnerable people that is the problem.]

    Another point – juvenile law regarding protection of minors doesn’t work on the same basis as regular civil or criminal court – especially evidentiary rules. Nobody in the press seems to understand that.

    Polygamy is illegal if one man has more than one woman to whom he is civilly married at the same time. Having sex with multiple women on a regular basis is not against the law; otherwise, there are folks all over the US who would be subject to arrest. These FLDS people only have one civil marriage per family and the rest are “religious” or “spiritual” marriages – that’s not illegal. We did away with laws against fornication and adultery a long time ago.

    Maybe Texas still has common law marriages, I don’t know.

  • Rathje

    Jeff,

    Polygamy laws are basically unenforceable because there is no law against a guy sleeping with more than one woman. If that were true, you’d have to arrest 80% of the University of Texas student body.

    The only thing anti-polygamy laws prohibit is a guy going behind his wife’s back and getting a marriage license with another woman.

    Since none of these people probably got said marriage licenses, there was probably no violation of polygamy laws. That part was legal.

    End of story there.

    Abuse and rape and welfare fraud and all that is a different matter of course.

  • http://uk.youtube.com/user/HiveRadical HiveRadical

    Here’s my two cents on this whole thing–

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ReQce5n5zY8

  • Michael

    It’s hard to fathom that if this were a Muslim sect living on a Texas compound where apparently young girls were forced into polygamous marriages with men two or three time their age, we’ve be hearing so much apologizing and contextualizing. If the women wore headscarfs or burqas instead of prairie dresses, you can be assured the case would be viewed differently.

    The meta story behind how people talk about this case and what happened is possibly more interesting than the actual story.

  • MJBubba

    Michael, that is exactly the reason I am reading the chatter here at GetReligion.org.


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