Mitt Romney's Kennedy Moment?
Last Thursday, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney gave a speech in which he argued that his Mormon religious beliefs should not prevent Americans from voting for him.
I do not define my candidacy by my religion. A person should not be elected because of his faith nor should he be rejected because of his faith.
Let me assure you that no authorities of my church, or of any other church for that matter, will ever exert influence on presidential decisions... I will put no doctrine of any church above the plain duties of the office and the sovereign authority of the law.
The main intended audience of Romney's speech was the Republican Party's base of right-wing Christians, many of whom are deeply suspicious of Mormonism and consider it a cult. In this respect, Romney faces a similar dilemma to another famous American politician who confronted skepticism about his faith - President John F. Kennedy.
The first (and still the only) Roman Catholic ever to be elected President, Kennedy likewise had to persuade the public that his religion would not cause him to impose doctrines on them which they did not share. In a famous 1960 speech, Kennedy effectively laid those doubts to rest with a resounding defense of the importance of separation of church and state:
I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute—where no Catholic prelate would tell the President (should he be Catholic) how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote—where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference—and where no man is denied public office merely because his religion differs from the President who might appoint him or the people who might elect him.
...I believe in a President whose religious views are his own private affair, neither imposed by him upon the nation or imposed by the nation upon him as a condition to holding that office.
Clearly, Romney wants to invoke the image of President Kennedy; he alluded to this speech in his own address. But Romney is in a far more difficult bind, because the audience he's trying to reach is vehemently opposed to the separation of church and state. Right-wing Christians want to force their own theological vision on the nation, and for Romney to assert that he'll keep religion apart from government would only further push them away from him. It's no surprise, therefore, that Romney's allusion to Kennedy's speech was a very brief and glancing one. He said only that "Almost 50 years ago another candidate from Massachusetts explained that he was an American running for president, not a Catholic running for president," omitting Kennedy's argument for an expansive view of separation.
Romney's own proposal was a very different one:
Freedom requires religion just as religion requires freedom....
...The founders proscribed the establishment of a state religion, but they did not countenance the elimination of religion from the public square. We are a nation 'Under God' and in God, we do indeed trust.
"We should acknowledge the Creator as did the Founders – in ceremony and word. He should remain on our currency, in our pledge, in the teaching of our history, and during the holiday season, nativity scenes and menorahs should be welcome in our public places. Our greatness would not long endure without judges who respect the foundation of faith upon which our constitution rests. I will take care to separate the affairs of government from any religion, but I will not separate us from 'the God who gave us liberty.'
This vague, ecumenical-sounding statement is, in fact, a bolt of vicious bigotry directed at atheists. This fact was noticed and pointed out by a Christian blogger, Slacktivist (who also capably dissects the other absurdities in the speech):
If freedom requires religion, then the a-religious and irreligious, the non-religious and un-religious are the enemies of freedom. Romney believes, in other words, that atheism is incompatible with freedom. Whatever it is he means by "religious liberty," he does not believe it can safely be applied to atheists.
By repeating the right-wing rhetoric about how separation of church and state is fully compatible with official sanction of belief in God and discrimination against atheists, Romney shows what his intent is. He doesn't truly want a candidate's religious beliefs to be considered irrelevant. He's just pleading for the circle of religious bigotry toward outsiders expanded slightly to include him - so that he can be on the inside, hurling barbs at those who believe differently, rather than on the outside, on the receiving end of those barbs from his fellow theocrats.
Romney's stance is remarkably like that of his fellow Mormon, Orson Scott Card, who likewise argued that America is a secular nation with no religious test and then proceeded to arrogantly dismiss all atheist Americans as unqualified for elected office. Far from pleading for a truly universal tolerance, Romney, like so many other aspiring theocrats through history, wants just enough tolerance for himself, but has no intent or desire to extend that same tolerance to others. His plight as a member of a distrusted minority has given him surprisingly little insight or empathy toward others in the same situation. Rather than abolish religious persecution, he simply aspires to be part of the majority so that he can redirect that persecution toward his chosen adversaries.
The Pretense of Superiority
Religion has always been used to sanctify inequality here on Earth, in the present no less than in the past. By teaching their followers that they are God's chosen rulers, religious authorities can accustom the flock to obedience and ascend to positions of power without the consent of the majority. The fundamentally oligarchic and anti-democratic nature of most established religions, in which the church leaders choose their own successors, testifies to this.
These anti-democratic beliefs are all too readily exploited to justify the most horrendous abuses of power. One of the most obnoxious and sickening tendencies of fundamentalist religion is the way in which its leaders use their supposedly God-given status to claim the pretense of moral superiority over their followers, even when they are the ones in the wrong. Two recent criminal cases bear witness to this phenomenon.
First, take Warren Jeffs, the fugitive Mormon cult leader who was captured last year and whose trial has now begun. Jeffs was the patriarch of a polygamist Mormon enclave in the deserts of Utah, and from all accounts ruled with an iron fist. Women in this community live like prisoners, indoctrinated into absolute obedience from a very early age, and are usually "given" in marriage to far older men who already have many wives before they are old enough to give consent. It is this practice that has led Jeffs to be charged as an accomplice to rape. A witness for the prosecution, a former member of Jeffs' cult who, at the age of 14, was married to an older male cousin without her consent and then raped, gave horrifying testimony of the ordeal she endured:
"I can't do this, please don't," she said she told her husband. "I was sobbing. My whole entire body was shaking I was so scared. He didn't stop. He just laid me onto the bed and had sex."
Afterward, the woman said she felt dirty and took two bottles of painkillers. "I just wanted to die. I didn't want to deal with (my husband) anymore. I didn't want to deal with Warren, or the prophet, or my mother... I was so hurt by them," she said.
When she sought out Jeffs, the only authority she knew, and pleaded for help, he harshly rebuked her and sent her back to her abusive marriage:
"I told him (Jeffs) I was sorry I had failed so severely... He told me that I needed to repent, that I was not living up to my vows, I was not being obedient, I was not being submissive and that was what my problem was," she recounted.
Jeffs told her to go home "and give myself mind, body, and soul" to her husband.
Thankfully, this woman later escaped Jeffs' cult, but there are doubtless many young women who still suffer in its clutches. Criminal considerations aside, Jeffs' awful reaction to this woman's cry for help - telling her to go back and submit to her rapist husband, and blaming her for not being submissive to his wishes, rather than giving her shelter and seeking legal help as a good person would have done - shows clearly that he totally lacks empathy and human feeling. Religious authorities, who see human beings as pawns to be moved around at whim, too often take such a stance.
On another note, there are further developments in the story of Thomas Weeks, the megachurch leader accused of savagely beating his estranged wife in a parking lot. In his first statement since his arrest, Weeks asked his fellow believers not to pass judgment and then, in an act of supreme arrogance, announced that he forgave his wife. For what? He should be begging her forgiveness, not acting as if she did something wrong and he was graciously choosing to pardon her!
Fortunately, we live in a society that has separation of church and state, and a civil justice system that does not recognize any accused person's delusions about being the anointed servant of God's will. Still, even when facing lengthy prison terms, it's incredible that these religious leaders continue to act as if their alleged victims, not they, are the ones who have done something wrong. As both these stories show, women especially suffer the results of this, since they are most often on the receiving end of theological justifications for inequality.
LATE-BREAKING UPDATE (9/25): Warren Jeffs has been convicted and faces up to life in prison.
The Eisenhower Test
The campaign of Mitt Romney, a Mormon, for the Republican presidential nomination has caused rifts within the party's base, as evangelical Christians agonize over whether they could support a candidate who believes slightly different things about God than they do. The latest spat in this conflict comes in a post by Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, who argues that Mormons are not Christians. Sci-fi writer Orson Scott Card, himself a Mormon, fires back. (Via.)
I have little interest in watching angels dance on pinheads, so I don't intend to take sides in that debate. However, some of Card's offhand remarks are worthy of a much more in-depth response.
Card makes some trenchant remarks about how America was founded with a look back at the bloody religious wars of medieval Europe, and how our founders sought to distance themselves from faith-based slaughter by creating a republic where church and state would be kept separate. He perceptively notes that Mitt Romney is not running for "Pope of America", which made me laugh.
Then his essay starts to go off the rails:
That's something that I would look for about any candidate, from any religious tradition. Does he live by what his religion teaches? Or is he a member in name only?
[Romney's] profession of membership in a Church gives us a way to find out about the standards of good and evil, of right and wrong, that his religion teaches. Where I would be worried is when we have a candidate who does not profess any religion, or does not live up to the standards of the religion he professes.
Yes, folks: apparently, as far as Orson Scott Card is concerned, atheists are unfit to be president. And yet, just a few paragraphs later, he says this:
We are as legitimate, as citizens and therefore as potential officeholders, as anybody else in America. Because there is no religious test for holding office in America.
And if you try to impose one, by saying that all persons belonging to this or that religion should never be elected president, then who is it who is rejecting the U.S. Constitution? Who is it who is saying that people with certain beliefs are second-class citizens, for no other reason than their religion?
The aroma of hypocrisy lingers thickly over this piece. Card says that we are voting for a president, not for a head rabbi or chief minister: in other words, the office of president is a secular position, not a religious one. So far, so good. He also says that there is no religious test for office, should be no religious test for office, and anyone who says otherwise is un-American. Again, I cannot disagree with that. But sandwiched in between those two sensible assertions is a careless, dismissive slap at atheists, saying that an atheist, regardless of experience or qualifications, is unfit to serve in national office. How can he overlook the glaring contradiction that rips through the heart of his own words? For someone who is so sensitive to prejudice directed to his own religion, he seems far too ready to dispense it to others.
Card's sole explanation for this ugly prejudice is that he doesn't think he can tell what an atheist thinks and believes, since they do not belong to churches or profess creeds that lay this all out for onlookers:
How then would we find out what he really believes? What his standards are? How well he keeps his commitments?
I have a simple suggestion, Mr. Card: if you want to know what an atheist believes, ask him. Is that such an outlandish suggestion that it has somehow escaped you? If you want to know whether an atheist keeps their commitments, research their background and their history. If you want to know what an atheist's moral standards are, just ask. I'm sure there are plenty of us who'd be happy to tell you.
In any case, evaluating a candidate as an individual is the only option for a voter who cares about making the right choice, regardless of that candidate's religion or lack thereof. People are not herd animals whose distinguishing characteristics can be completely summed up by the religious brands stamped on their foreheads. Simply because a person professes a creed is no guarantee that they believe it or will follow it; simply because a person belongs to a religion is no guarantee of how they will interpret it or act on it.
Card himself notes this, yet inexplicably fails to draw the obvious conclusion from it. Like far too many religious people, he seemingly has no qualms about dismissing atheists as a class without making any serious effort to understand them. In fact, he suggests that all religious believers should join together to suppress atheism, rather than fighting over theology with each other. He even throws in the by-now standard, utterly fictitious, claim that atheists want to "exclude" religious people from public life, which is ironically hypocritical considering his own essay expresses that very desire directed at atheists.
This is the sort of bigotry that atheists must routinely confront. In truth, Card's sentiments are probably shared by a great number of Americans, people who feel a vague discomfort about atheism and feel more confident voting for a candidate who believes in some religion, any religion. It's reminiscent of the remark attributed to President Eisenhower: "Our government makes no sense unless it is founded on a deeply held religious belief — and I don't care what it is."
In spite of its widespread adoption, this claim is terminally incoherent. It makes no sense to say that any religious person, regardless of their beliefs, is morally superior to any atheist, regardless of their beliefs. I have dealt with this fallacy before. If this prejudice is widely held, that is only all the more reason to attack it and show it to be false.
Religion's Harm to Women
In our society, it is still widely considered rude to criticize opinions and practices that arise from religious belief, no matter how evil or abhorrent they are. Even when it comes to the murderous fanatics who kill in the name of Islam, politicians and other public figures who criticize them often take pains to label their actions as arising from a twisted or self-serving interpretation, as though it would be impossible for a legitimate and sincere interpretation of any religion to inspire believers to commit evil acts.
However, the reality is that sincere religious beliefs and legitimate interpretations of scripture can, and very often do, cause immense evil and harm. And when a more enlightened future age arrives to tote up the harms done by religion, I am certain that the systematic oppression and denial of basic rights to one-half of the human race will rank near the top. Back in March, I wrote "That Monstrous Regiment" about the extreme denigration of women in the Christian tradition, but there is more to be said. This net can be cast wider, and it is time to do so.
Every major world religion - without exception - is intensely patriarchal. Every one of them engages in the systematic devaluation of women, in the systematic exclusion of women from positions of authority, and in the systematic oppression and even enslavement of women. I have yet to find a single major religion that bucks this trend. Considering how little many of these religions have in common otherwise, this is a truly remarkable pattern. A few denominations, influenced by the feminist movement and other moral advances, are only now beginning to redress this glaring inequity, but for the most part progress has been extremely slow and the vast majority of religions still treat women as less than human.
Despite its having been housebroken by the Enlightenment, Christianity is one of the worst offenders. Although some Christian denominations have taken faltering steps towards women's equality, all those denominations still believe in and endorse the Bible, which is without a doubt one of the most misogynistic books in existence.
In the book of Genesis, for example, the very existence of women is depicted as a divine afterthought, and the fall of the human race out of original Paradise into a world of toil and death is unambiguously depicted as a woman's fault. The text makes it clear from the very first that women are expected to be obedient and submissive to men:
Unto the woman he said, I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children; and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee.
The Ten Commandments proclaim wives to be their husband's property, listing them together with livestock and servants as "thing[s] that [are] thy neighbor's" (Exodus 20:17). The Torah states that women who give birth to daughters are "unclean" for twice as long as women who give birth to sons (Leviticus 12) and values women's lives at half the value of men's lives (Leviticus 27:3-7). It rules that women who are raped in cities and do not cry out are to be stoned to death (Deuteronomy 22:22-24), while those are raped in the countryside are merely required to marry their rapists (Deuteronomy 22:28-29).
The New Testament joins in the denigration of women as well. It endorses the Old Testament's subjugation of them to men, saying that "the head of the woman is the man" (1 Corinthians 11:3). It also commands women to remain silent in church, saying that it is "a shame" for women to speak in church (1 Corinthians 14:34-35), and adds that women must "learn in silence with all subjection" and must never be allowed to teach or hold authority over men (1 Timothy 2:11-15).
And then there is one of the most subtly and pervasively sexist ideas in Christian thinking: the Trinity. The early Christians had three gods to choose from and made every one of them male. I often wondered, when I was a child, why the set of three contained Father, Son and Holy Ghost and not Father, Son and Mother. That seemed like the logical arrangement to me, but I did not grasp then, as I do now, that this doctrine was invented by an exclusively male and misogynist church hierarchy that sought to deny the female gender any role in creation or in the divine. (Indeed, a recent Harris poll found that over one-third of Jews and Christians believe God is male, while only 1% believe God is female. What would it even mean for God to have a gender?)
Many modern denominations have followed these anti-woman verses to the letter. The Catholic church, one of the worst offenders in this regard, still denies women the ability to join the priesthood, even despite a crippling lack of trained clergy to fill many available posts. The Southern Baptists have likewise declared that women should be submissive and obedient to their husbands, as though it was exclusively the man's job to command and a woman's job to follow. The Russian Orthodox church has stepped into the act as well, with a prominent bishop's recent claim that the idea of equality between the sexes is "destructive" to families (source). It is astonishing to me that Christians who claim to be "pro-family" go out of their way to disparage the gender that makes the existence of families possible.
The offshoots of Christianity have followed a similar path. Most notable is the Mormon church, which from its beginning endorsed polygamous marriage - for men only, of course; it was considered an unspeakable sin for a woman to attempt to take multiple husbands. The institution of polygamy in Mormonism reduced women to little more than property, intimidating them into being obedient and submissive lest their husband decide to take additional wives as punishment, or worse, lest they be damned, for Mormon doctrine originally held that women who opposed the doctrine of polygamy would be condemned to Hell. Mormon belief also holds that a woman cannot access Heaven alone, and that only through marriage can a woman be saved - by her husband, who will "pull her through" to the other side upon her death (source). (One wonders what happens to women who die before their husbands.) Though the Mormons were forced by external pressure to disavow polygamy, many of their other sexist beliefs and practices remain in effect.
These abstract beliefs have had a concrete and devastating effect on women's rights in the real world. As Jon Krakauer writes in Under the Banner of Heaven:
...perhaps the greatest rift between Mormon general authorities and advocates for women's rights occurred when the LDS Church actively and very effectively mobilized Mormons to vote as a bloc against ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment (despite a fact that a poll published in the church-owned Deseret News in 1974 showed that 63 percent of Utahans approved of the ERA). Most political analysts believe that had the LDS Church not taken such an aggressive position against the ERA, it would easily have been ratified by the required thirty-eight states, and would now be part of the U.S. Constitution.
Religious sexism occurs in Judaism as well, especially the conservative sects. Orthodox (male) Jews are taught to pray to God in thankfulness every day that they were not born as women, and some ultra-Orthodox sects refuse to send their children to school when the school buses are driven by women. In accordance with Biblical law, Orthodox women having their menstrual periods or who have recently given birth are considered unclean and forbidden to have any physical contact with a man. Orthodox women are often strongly discouraged from taking any public role in a position of leadership, or from acquiring an education beyond the most basic aspects of religious observance and homemaking.
Islam, too, is one of the worst offenders when it comes to women's rights. Consider the following verses from the Qur'an, which, like the Bible, considers women as less valuable than and inferior to men. It states that men are to control women, while good women are obedient to men, and it explicitly gives men permission to beat disobedient women:
"Men are in charge of women, because Allah hath made the one of them to excel the other... So good women are the obedient, guarding in secret that which Allah hath guarded. As for those from whom ye fear rebellion, admonish them and banish them to beds apart, and scourge them."
The Qur'an also states that a woman's testimony is worth only half as much as a man's, and her inheritance likewise is only half that of a man:
"And call two witness from among your men, two witnesses. And if two men be not at hand, then a man and two women..."
"Allah chargeth you concerning (the provision for) your children: to the male the equivalent of the portion of two females..."
And when fundamentalist Muslims gain political power, the repercussions are far too obvious. Despite the overthrow of the Taliban, there are still many Islamic countries that implement the evil and barbaric law code known as sharia, which has many cruel effects on men as well but degrades women by far the most, reducing them to slaves and nonpersons. The sharia code denies women their right to an education, to medical care, or to go out in public unaccompanied by a male relative, in addition to many other inhumanities, and punishes transgressions with barbaric acts such as flogging and stoning. In many Muslim countries, the practice of "honor killing" - murdering female relatives who have been raped, as a way to cleanse the shame they have brought on their family by being the victim of such a crime - still occurs. And then there is the best-known manifestation of Islam's inhumanity to women: the suffocating shrouds of black cloth designed to strip them of their individuality and to make them faceless, invisible and less than human.
Even the supposedly more enlightened Eastern religions are not much better when it comes to treating women as equals and as human beings. In Hinduism, the most infamous example is probably the practice of sati, in which widowed women were expected to burn themselves to death on their husband's funeral pyre. Although this was allegedly a voluntary act, in practice it was often involuntary, with women drugged, bound or otherwise restrained before being committed alive to the flames. As recently as 2002, incidents of this nature have been reported in India (source). Other Hindu traditions, less violent but still terrible, enforce seclusion and isolation on widows in the belief that some sin of the woman caused her husband's death, and expect her to atone by spending the rest of her life in silence and destitution. This rule, which I mentioned in a post from June titled "Why Do We Care?" and dramatized by the filmmaker Deepa Mehta in her 2005 film Water, was applied even if the widow was a young child in an arranged marriage who had not even met her husband prior to his death.
Buddhism, as well, despite its reputation as a socially progressive faith, has its share of discriminatory teachings about the role of women. In one passage from the Theravada Buddhist tradition, the Buddha's own aunt, Prajapati, shaves her hair and walks barefoot for many miles to meet with the Buddha and entreat him to permit women to join the sangha, the Buddhist monastic community. The Buddha at first refuses her plea outright, and only relents when his disciple Ananda persuades him to change his mind; however, he imposes a set of eight rules upon nuns that are stricter than those demanded of monks, and in some variants, warns that the sangha will only last for five hundred years due to the presence of women, when it would otherwise have lasted for a thousand. (See here, here and here for some retellings of this story.) In modern Buddhism, Thailand in particular has shown strong patriarchal tendencies, refusing to allow women to be ordained.
It is tragic, but understandable, why so many men throughout history have supported these sexist and patriarchal belief systems. More incredible is how many women have willingly taken part in their own subjugation by joining and participating in religions that have done their utmost to deny them the full equality and equal rights which they deserve. Many, perhaps, have fallen prey to the ancient and transparently obvious deceit that by doing so, they will gain access to an eternity in Heaven. (Although, given that most religions straightforwardly extend their earthly conceptions of hierarchy to the afterlife and picture Heaven as an eternity of male dominance and female submission, one wonders just how appealing that promise could be.)
Not all women have been taken in by this con, however, and there have been and are many women who work for reform and equality within their own religious tradition while continuing to believe in it. This is a noble effort, but I believe it is ultimately misguided. Religion in general, especially the large, institutional, male-run churches like Catholicism, is too dogmatic and too oligarchical for any progress to be made soon enough to help the millions of women who are still suffering under sexist yokes. And as long as people continue to believe in books and traditions that contain these sexist injunctions, the seed of bigotry will always lie dormant, waiting to be rediscovered and reborn. There is only one realistic way to end religion's harm to women, and that is to cut it off at the source: every feminist should be an atheist.
A Religious Fugitive is Captured
(Author's Note: We temporarily interrupt the "Roots of Morality" series to bring you this late-breaking news...)
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.