I’ve got to give the government credit: they’ve been doing an excellent job cracking down on criminals who try to hide behind religion. Between Kent Hovind, Warren Jeffs, and now a new conviction, federal prosecutors have been diligently enforcing the law against creeps, con men, and petty tyrants who claim that the law of God gives them license to break the laws of society.
This month’s creep is Tony Alamo, former head of Tony Alamo Christian Ministries. On Friday, Alamo was convicted on ten counts of taking girls as young as 9 across state lines for sex between 1994 and 2005.
If you’re not familiar with Tony Alamo, this report by the Southern Poverty Law Center gives plenty of sordid details. The high points include intense hatred for Catholics (including Jack Chick-esque pamphlets denouncing the Vatican as a demonic conspiracy), a past conviction and prison sentence for tax evasion, and daily radio broadcasts by Alamo defending polygamy and underage marriage. Based on the SPLC report, the Alamo compound was run with the vicious, authoritarian attitude standard for all cults:
The following year, the Alamos purchased the property in Saugus and built sex-segregated dormitories for their California followers, who today number in the hundreds. Members collected spoiled food from supermarkets and Dumpsters to prepare communal meals. Living conditions were squalid. Punishment for stepping out of line ranged from fasting to beatings to being kicked out of the group and losing your spouse and children, many ex-members say.
And what would a good cult be without a heaping helping of hypocrisy and greed among the leadership?
…[Members] toiled as field hands on farms in nearby Bakersfield, turning their entire paychecks over to their cult leaders. The Alamos directed their followers to build them a large, lavish home on a nearby hilltop and drove a fleet of black Cadillac sedans (today, Tony Alamo favors a black Escalade). Ex-members report that Susan Alamo spent thousands of dollars on fur coats, fake eyelashes, plastic surgery and wigs. Tony wore turtle-leather platform boots, diamond pinky rings and a bearskin coat with bear claw epaulettes.
At its peak, Alamo’s ministry was taking in millions of dollars per year. But his career took a bizarre turn when his first wife, Susan, died in April 1982. For months, he kept her embalmed body and ordered his followers to pray around the clock for her resurrection. The failure of this effort may have been what snapped Alamo’s already tenuous grip on reality, and soon afterward, according to ex-members, he began taking multiple wives, some barely into their teens, some even younger. Repeated complaints to the police by former members who’d escaped finally spurred prosecutors to take action.
Just in case you had any residual sympathy for Alamo, permit me to wipe it out with this report of his behavior at trial:
He blurted out a reference to the Branch Davidian raid at Waco, Texas, muttered expletives during testimony and fell asleep even while alleged victims were testifying.
…”I’m just another one of the prophets that went to jail for the Gospel,” Alamo called to reporters afterward as he was escorted to a waiting U.S. marshal’s vehicle.
Why do I bring this up? It’s not just to exult in Alamo’s downfall (although there’s more than enough reason to do that). It’s because this case is another object lesson on two important, interrelated points.
First: Being religious does not make you a good person. If anything, it worked in the opposite direction. Alamo’s extreme religiosity allowed him to justify, to his followers and himself, why he should wield unlimited power over them, and their faith in him is what permitted this sex abuse to go on as long as it did. And, it must be said, the Bible does support polygamy, and says nothing about age of consent. A morality based on reason, not on blind faith and obedience, would not have led to this.
Second: This is why atheists criticize religion. Too many people who should know better persist in believing that religion is beneficial and harmless – even when confronted with stories like this one. We speak out because we want to tear down this facade, tear down the societal illusion that anything with “faith” in the name automatically deserves respect. That’s the belief that allowed Alamo’s cult to flourish. We want to instill the attitude that claims require evidence, that it’s worth being skeptical when a two-bit hustler claims to be a prophet of the one true God. If more people thought this way, there’s a much better chance that future Tony Alamos might be prevented.