April 20, 2008

The Handmaid's Tale

When the Texas authorities removed the children from the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS) compound in Eldorado, they lit the spotlight on the FLDS and how their communities are structured. As Sara Robinson writes, the media isn't quite sure how to deal with the story when it covers a sect that claims religious freedom when creating a fundamentalist society that is toxic to females and children. And Sara notes in a later post that Texas is doing something that has long needed to be done.

For the first time in the 60-year history of the FLDS, a state government appears to be carefully building a case that polygamy (at least, as practiced within this community) is so harmful to the women and children involved that it does not deserve First Amendment religious freedom protections. It's hard to overstate how audacious and unprecendented this is: it's the very first time anywhere in the 60 years of the FLDS that anyone has dared to say this right out loud. But it's an effort whose time has clearly come -- and it's probably no coincidence that Texas was the state to finally take it on.

We also know that the government has a responsibility to ban practices that are justified as "religious" when those practices go against the dignity of the individual that our constitution requires -- as was done in making it illegal for people to practice genital mutilation in this country.

What the FLDS shows is precisely how extreme Fundamentalism is not a religious agenda, but is a rigid patriarchal agenda that has roots pre-existing modern religions.

According to a study sponsored by the American Academy of Arts and Science, communities organized around the fundamentalist agenda have five defining characteristics:

  1. There is one set of rules and every human being must be subject to those rules. In FLDS that man is Warren Jeffs.
  2. Men are the rightful rulers and women are totally subservient to them. Women are defined as obedient wives, homemakers and mothers.
  3. Fundamentalists control education and define what will be taught because there is only one right way to think.
  4. Fundamentalists hate the modern world and aspire to a golden age, one that never existed.

    Several of the scholars observed a strong and deep resemblance between fundamentalism and fascism. Both have almost identical agendas. Men are on top, women are subservient, there is one rigid set of rules, with police and military might to enforce them, and education is tightly controlled by the state. One scholar suggested that it's helpful to understand fundamentalism as religious fascism, and fascism as political fundamentalism. The phrase “overcoming the modern” is a fascist slogan dating back to at least 1941.

  5. Finally, fundamentalists are disconnected from reality and unable to examine their own history in an objective or non-mythical manner.

Read the profile on Jeffs from the Salt Lake City Tribune, and ask yourself, what type of community is he trying to create? After reading that, it's not hard to see that as Sara notes this community is heading towards violence as the dictates of Jeffs becomes more and more extreme.

Sara also points to a series of articles by Daphne Bramham of the Vancouver Sun. Below the fold, I've pulled some excerpts from her articles that lays out some of the more telling points of what this patriarchy looks like to those who live within it and those lucky enough to escape.

It's okay to lie to outsiders.

As FLDS members, the children are taught that since the outsiders are evil, it's OK to lie to them to protect the Lord, their prophet and their fathers.

Only the most devout FLDS members are at the Yearning for Zion ranch, which was built only after Jeffs became a fugitive, charged in both Utah and Arizona for sex crimes involving the marriages of young girls in the twin towns of Hildale and Colorado City.

Apostates are treated harshly. What happens to those who are "disobendient"? And what type of courage does it take to leave?

If Jessop were to get caught, she knew that her children aged two to 15 would be taken from her. She would be shunned by the community and the local doctor -- also FLDS and loyal to the prophet -- would likely diagnose her as mentally ill, consigning her to a mental institution in Flagstaff, Ariz., where several other "rebellious" women from the community had been warehoused.

Now that Jessup escaped the community with eight children and no education, what does the world hold for her and her family?

The only safety net she has are Harrison's substantial health problems. The Utah government is bound by law to ensure that he is kept safe and that means having power, heat and a roof over his head.

Ironically, it's also Harrison's illness that helped give her the courage to escape.

Born with cancer, her son spent nearly three years in hospital. Jessop's husband and others in the community blamed her for Harrison's health problems telling her it was because she wasn't righteous. At the hospital, "outsiders" who she'd been taught to believe were evil, helped both Harrison and her to cope with his handicap.

But while she had some idea of what to expect, her children did not.

"I wanted it so bad, but for the children, they had their world ripped apart. I was an apostate and I was insane. That's what they were told. And things were very terrifying for them."

How does this destructive cycle end?

Jessop believes education is the key to ending polygamy, which she believes is a destructive and abusive way of life that demands strict obedience not just from women, but from men.

"They make claims that it is all about free choice and consenting adults. But women don't have a choice," she says. "I don't know of one woman there [in Colorado City/Hildale] who has not been pushed to the point that she would do something different if she had options. But they don't have options . . . And if the government is not going to prosecute polygamy, then at least they should make sure that women do have free choice."

And one last thing, just like in Saudi Arabia, women have no right to their own lives, they belong to the men. Here's one way that Warren Jeffs has increased his harem.

(After Rulon Jeffs died in 2002, most of Jessop's daughters were re-assigned to the new prophet, Rulon's son Warren.)

As with other fundamentalist communities, hatred of homosexuality is explicit in the teachings.

Warren Jeffs taught at an FLDS private school in Salt Lake City, while his father was the prophet. Tapes made at the time and subsequently are required daily listening for his followers, including the students at Bountiful elementary-secondary school, which is funded by B.C. taxpayers.

"The people grew so evil, the men started to marry the men and the women married the women," Jeffs says on one tape. "This is the worst evil act you can do, next to murder. It is like murder. Whenever people commit that sin, then the Lord destroys them."

When homosexuality was mentioned while former cult member Debbie Palmer was growing up in Bountiful, she says: "It was with a lot of disgust and horror. It was something that had horrible consequences and was mentioned in the [biblical] burning of Sodom and Gomorrah."


The role of women is tightly constrained.

The young woman's testimony included an explanation of FLDS teachings. She said girls in the polygamous cult are taught that their only link to God is through men -- their fathers, then their husbands and ultimately, the prophet, who is the embodiment of God on Earth.

They are taught that when they marry, they must submit unquestioningly to their husbands' will. If men make bad decisions, it is because their wives are not praying hard enough or aren't pure enough.

They aren't taught anything about sex. Even a month after her marriage in April 2001, the 14-year-old had no idea how babies were made.

The dehumanization of females leads to some ugly side effects for the less well connected men.

Utah's witness had no options. Her father had been kicked out of the FLDS two years earlier. The witness, her mother and her younger siblings were uprooted from their Salt Lake City home and reassigned to 88-year-old Fred Jessop, who already had 15 wives and dozens of children living in his 40-bedroom house.

They were told to treat their excommunicated father as if he were dead.

(In addition to the women, HOPE estimates there could be as many as 1,000 boys living in the St. George area, who have been kicked out or encouraged to leave so that older men can have multiple wives.)

What happens to the men that leave?

Zitting says he was totally unprepared for the outside world. He'd been taught -- as all FLDS are -- that they are the chosen people who will survive the coming apocalypse. Anyone outside the group is evil because they are either apostates (for having renounced FLDS beliefs) or gentiles.

"When I first came out, I thought I would go to hell. I thought 'I'm worthless. I'm basically toast.' I had a few friends who had left earlier, but I was pretty scared.

"I chose to leave. But by leaving my family behind, I haven't been able to talk to them since.... The first six months was the hardest trying to accept that I couldn't talk to them. But they just wouldn't talk to me."

Now, perhaps ABC can reconsider whether the women who are the property of the patriarchs in Eldorado are really free to make their own decisions and so not brainwashed? It would be nice if the reporters could at least get some grounding in the characteristics of cults before passing on their inane conclusions.

* Here's a summary of Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale on which the post title is based.

BTW: I don't know if Natasha plans to cross post her story from last week on OpenLeft that discusses her fundamentalist upbringing and how family and patriarchs used the same tactics to enforce adherence to unquestioning obedience. Unfortunately for them, Natasha has a propensity for asking the wrong questions, something that I'm certainly grateful to see. It's definitely worth the read.

Posted by Mary at April 20, 2008 06:29 PM | Human Rights | Technorati links |
Comments

Rice discovers circumstances that come out of an action

Posted by: ccoaler at April 21, 2008 12:02 AM

Great post--thanks for all the links to more information too :)

Posted by: Meg at April 21, 2008 10:18 AM

Haven't found answer to this question anywhere: is the cult being supported by welfare checks?

Posted by: AM at April 21, 2008 10:19 AM

Fantastic post, Mary, I've been following this story and it's just amazing that this kind of thing can still go on in the US. I've watched the videos of the women tearfully worrying about their children - even the older ones sound and act like little kids. Can that kind of damage ever be fixed?

Posted by: iamcoyote at April 21, 2008 10:47 AM
Haven't found answer to this question anywhere: is the cult being supported by welfare checks?

In a way. From the Dallas/Ft Worth Star-Telegram:

Two North Texas lawmakers are joining a bipartisan call to investigate the awarding of federal contracts to a firm controlled by members of the polygamist sect under investigation in West Texas.

Records show that the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, or FLDS, depends on contributions from members and money from the businesses it controls. Some of those businesses held contracts with the Defense Department and obtained loans guaranteed by the Small Business Administration, a Star-Telegram review shows.

Several of the scholars observed a strong and deep resemblance between fundamentalism and fascism.

Both right-wing religious fundamentalism and fascism are right-wing authoritarian in their world view.

Robert Altemeyer's The Authoritarians provides an excellent overview

Posted by: "Fair and Balanced" Dave at April 21, 2008 11:29 AM

If the government "has a responsibility to ban practices that are justified as "religious" when those practices go against the dignity of the individual that our constitution requires -- as was done in making it illegal for people to practice genital mutilation in this country."

Then why is infant male circumcision still legal? I find the situation in Texas disturbing to say the least, but why is so little attention paid to this other gross miscarriage of justice?

Indeed, very little attention has been paid to the missing boys at the ranch. Likely they were either killed after birth, or sent out of the community as young as 13 years old, alone.

Posted by: Jessy at April 21, 2008 01:00 PM

If the government "has a responsibility to ban practices that are justified as "religious" when those practices go against the dignity of the individual that our constitution requires -- as was done in making it illegal for people to practice genital mutilation in this country."

Then why is infant male circumcision still legal? I find the situation in Texas disturbing to say the least, but why is so little attention paid to this other gross miscarriage of justice?

Indeed, very little attention has been paid to the missing boys at the ranch. Likely they were either killed after birth, or sent out of the community as young as 13 years old, alone.

Posted by: Jessy at April 21, 2008 01:01 PM

One mainstream canard you'll always hear on the subject of survivalist offshoots from the polygamous patriarchal root of Mormonism is that these miserable compound-dwellers are "phoney" Mormons. I would think that they're probably more authentic to the original spirit of Mormonism than the televised, scrutinized and sanitized folks down in the Tabernacle in Salt Lake City.

Posted by: PhilK at April 25, 2008 06:59 PM