Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Mormons Part One: YFZ and Polygamy

“Did you ever feel you were doing something wrong?” Larry King asked.

“No sir, we have a pure life here.”

“What about your husband?”

“The interest here is the children.”

“You have no interest in your husband?”

“Our interest here is the children. We want the children out of that pavilion.”

None of the eight women seated before the camera looked up as they answered King’s questions over the satellite link that connected their Yearning for Zion meeting house to the CNN studios. Perhaps they didn’t know where to look. Given the extremity of their cloistered lives, it is possible they have never seen a television camera before.

Under the lights, the women appeared unsettled and scared. With their homespun prairie dresses and beehive hairdos, the plural wives of Zion were reminiscent of the displaced Okies in Ansel Adams’ WPA photos from the Great Depression—faces filled with agony and hopelessly out of touch with the modern world. And these were the women chosen and prepped by their lawyers to be the public face of their campaign to retain custody of their children.

It is not the first the time and likely not the last that we will be confronted with the bizarre images of American polygamy. According to Mormon scholar Carmen Hardy, about once a decade the American public turns its attention to the ongoing practice of polygamy in the United Sates. We have come to expect these stories out of Utah and remote desert settlements in surrounding states of the mountain west. The focus of the latest media scrutiny falls on the aftermath of a raid on the Yearning for Zion (YFZ) community of Mormon fundamentalists in El Dorado, Texas, a two-hour drive from San Antonio. Neighbors and local officials had long been wary of the group, who from the beginning were less than forthcoming about their settlement. They were obviously more than the hunting lodge they claimed to be. Upon receiving an anonymous call from a young woman who claims she was beaten and raped on the compound, the state had cause to move in on the YFZ. Careful to avoid another Waco, Texas authorities entered YFZ grounds and removed more than 400 children from the group’s custody.

Though the young women who called in the initial allegation has yet to be identified, evidence against the YFZ continues to mount. Initial reports claim more than half of the 52 girls aged 14 to 17 are or have been pregnant and that dozens of children were found to have had broken bones. Some social workers are now expressing concerns that young boys have also been the victims of sexual abuse.
More questions remain. To what extent were the adult women on the YFZ accomplices to the child abuse on the compound, and to what extent are they victims? In a contained community that requires several (young) women for every man, what happens to the teenage boys? And until clear evidence comes to light there remains the possibility that authorities acted on trumped up charges. America has always been susceptible to a good old-fashioned witch hunt.

Sadly the pattern of child abuse that may be emerging in the El Dorado case is consistent with similar discoveries on polygamist compounds unearthed throughout the mountain west. The YFZ community is an offshoot of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS), more commonly known as the UEP, the United Effort Plan. The UEP splintered from mainstream Mormonism after the LDS church gave up the practice of polygamy in 1890. Polygamy, known to Mormonism as celestial marriage, was a revelation received by Joseph Smith that became a central tenant of the religion. The UEP believes that Mormonism cannot be divorced from polygamy, since Smith and early church leaders considered celestial marriage the most important Mormon sacrament.

Anywhere from 30 to 100 thousand people living in the Western US are practicing “fundamentalist” Mormonism—the LDS disputes that there is such a thing as a Mormon fundamentalist—and the doctrine of polygamy. The UEP is the largest religious entity within this population.

UEP leader and prophet Warren Jeffs was convicted in 2007 as an accomplice to the rape of teenage girls whom he had married to himself or to other men in his community. The allegations against the YFZ are eerily similar the charges brought against Jeffs and to the long list of crimes committed by other UEP affiliates as documented in several recent histories of the group. The Prophets, like Jeffs, of the various branches of the FLDS routinely take girls as young as 13 and assign them to be married to the most influential figures in the communities, men who usually several times older than their teenage brides. Cases of rape, violence, and coercion against polygamist wives are so rife as to be the considered the norm in these communities. Still, prosecutors are slow to go after UEP church leaders. Of course polygamy is on the books in Utah and Arizona, where the largest UEP communities reside. Charges of polygamy are rarely pursued unless there is accompanying evidence of more serious criminal activity.

The longstanding reluctance to prosecute polygamy can be traced back to the public backlash against a raid on a polygamist town in the summer of 1953. The site of the raid was Short Creek, Arizona. A small town straddling the Utah border, Short Creek, since renamed Colorado City, (the home of Warren Jeffs) was an ideal location for a polygamist community. Separated from the rest of the state by the Grand Canyon, Short Creek was far from the eyes of state officials in Phoenix. More importantly, the community was beyond the jurisdiction of Utah. The LDS dominated government in Salt Lake City loathed polygamists for the bad reputation they lent to the official Mormon Church. So when a hundred odd fundamentalist Mormons founded Short Creek in the early 1920’s, they did so in relative obscurity.

By 1953 Short Creek had doubled and redoubled in population, and both the state of Arizona and LDS leaders became wary of the polygamist enclave. Church and state cooperated to remedy this potential embarrassment. With LDS support and financing, the Arizona police and the National Guard embarked on a pre-dawn raid that netted 122 men and women, the largest mass arrest of polygamists in US history. National headlines, including a front-page story in the NYT, plastered the raid into the American consciousness. The initial public reaction was shock and condemnation of the polygamists. Then as photos circulated, officers dragging apart families, distraught mothers and crying children, the public began to sympathize the with Short Creek, and the raid was cast as religious persecution. The fallout ruined the careers of the principals involved. Arizona Governor John Howard Pyle, who ordered the raid on the Short Creek community, lost his bid for reelection in 1954. Short Creek emerged unscathed. Elected officials have since been reluctant to go after polygamist sects for fear of another backlash.

El Dorado still has the potential to become another Short Creek. Images of mothers in pastel prairie dresses mourning the loss of their children, pleading on CNN to be let alone to lead their simple, wholesome lives, were harrowing. Authorities have not yet identified the caller who phoned in the raid. There are claims emerging that the real caller was not a 16 year old girl but 33 year old Rozita Swinton, a Colorado woman with a history of mental illness and past charges of phoning in false abuse stories. The ACLU contends that if the initial complaint is proven to have been false, the raid was unjustified since, "exposure to a religion's beliefs, however unorthodox, is not itself abuse and may not constitutionally be labeled abuse." Ok, but polygamy is a state and federal crime. Anti-polygamy legislation was passed in Congress at least in part to address the demeaning and abusive relationships documented in polygamist unions of 19th century Utah. Would that alone not be sufficient grounds

As the case against the YFZ unfolds, the allegations may or may not grow more severe. It is unclear whether a live and let live attitude will prevail.

Already the story is fading. As the 24 hour news cycle spins on, the El Dorado story jumps further and further into the back pages. Even if the YFZ is snuffed out, other polygamist communities will remain nestled in their hiding places until the next sensationalist story returns them to the spotlight. And since it can still be political suicide for local officials in Northern Arizona and other remote western locales who pursue polygamist leaders, nothing short of the sensational is likely to bring the next round of scrutiny.

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