There’s more good news in the saga of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, an especially nasty totalitarian religious cult that splintered off from Mormonism. The sect’s former ruler, Warren Jeffs, is serving a life sentence for facilitating rape, and his absence seems to be destabilizing them. As I wrote last year, outside observers and ex-members have noticed a greater outflow of deconverts from the FLDS than ever before.
Now the authorities are closing in from another direction. They’ve arrested eleven leaders of the sect, including two brothers of Warren Jeffs, for food-stamp fraud:
According to the indictment, from 2011 to 2013, FLDS leaders told their members who received food stamps to spend their stipends at one of two FLDS-run convenience stores… Members were instructed to drop off and donate the items they bought with their government-issued EBT card back to the storehouse, or swipe their cards without selecting any goods at all. Millions of dollars in funds from those transactions — sales at the tiny stores which surpassed numbers by Wal-Mart and Costco — were then transferred to companies acting as a front for the storehouse, according to investigators.
All this is in addition to two other federal lawsuits: one from the Department of Labor accusing the church of breaking child-labor laws by forcing children of members to work picking pecans at an FLDS-run farm (although, believe it or not, the Hobby Lobby decision may be an obstacle to prosecuting that), and another from the Department of Justice charging that church-run town boards denied water, power and sewer connections to troublesome members, seeking to dissolve the town governments and put them under federal control. (When the mayor of your town pleads the Fifth, that’s probably a bad sign.)
Predictably, the church has kept up a steady stream of cries about persecution, but their own isolation has weighed against them. Outside the borders of the cult, they have few if any allies. Senator Harry Reid, to his credit, has taken an uncompromising stance against the FLDS in his state rather than trying to court them for votes:
In 2008, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee and called upon the federal government to act upon the “welfare fraud, tax evasion, massive corruption and strong-arm tactics,” perpetrated by the FLDS, in effect calling it an organized crime syndicate.
There was also this darkly amusing line, about the seemingly endless number of would-be cult leaders waiting in the wings as the previous ones die or go to prison:
Exodus or no, at some point soon the group will run out of Jeffs to lead them.
But, again, I believe this is a good sign. However rigid their control, the church can’t maintain its iron grip forever as more and more of its leaders come under federal scrutiny. Sooner or later, the ones who are left will realize they can’t live like absolute rulers anymore. It’s also likely that repeated arrests will disrupt their order of succession and lead to power struggles that will keep them from acting as one body against dissenters – in fact, it’s already happening.
Even Willie Jessop, formerly Warren Jeffs’ bodyguard and one of the FLDS’ most privileged members, has defected and is now a government witness – “Because those sons of bitches were raping girls in Texas, and they knew it and I knew it”. Observers claim the dissension in the FLDS towns of Colorado City, Arizona, and Hildale, Utah is reaching the brink of “civil war“. The church has lost much of its property as the result of lawsuits, and current members have built walls around their homes to separate themselves from the ex-members who still, defiantly, live there.
The charges against the FLDS are a microcosm of what always happens when the wall of separation between church and state crumbles. Revelation-based religion is inherently opposed to democracy and equal rights, since it relies on the idea that some people have a privileged understanding of God’s will that’s not available to anyone else. When government is ruled by the dictates of religious leaders, it’s inevitable that the power of the state will be abused to punish dissenters and reward the chosen.
This whole story reminds me of the effort to convict Al Capone of tax evasion. In both cases, the smaller crime is a weapon in the fight against the greater crime. The root problem in the FLDS is the lack of democracy and the arrogant attitude of superiority that’s common to all cults, not surface stories about child labor or benefits fraud. But when wider society is vigilant to ensure they stay within the law and treat others equally, they can’t prosper.