This is America, and people have the right to believe whatever they wish, to wear prairie frocks and think Sephora is Satan, or to follow some kook who calls himself the messiah. But when such groups wind up hurting others, then they’ve crossed the threshold of getting to operate with impunity and without prying eyes.
So with that acknowledgment, can we stop calling the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints an “alternative lifestyle” already?
In today’s anything-goes culture, the term “cult” is shunned for the innocuous “new religious movements,” lest we get into the bothersome habit of actually calling a spade a spade. When mind control and fear are employed to dehumanize members and make them bend to the will of a powerful one or few, that is a cult — whether they’re drinking the Kool-Aid, holing up for Armageddon, or marrying assigned strangers 30,000 at a time. When turning men and women into vacuous, unquestioning shells of who they once were, members and children get hurt.
And we shouldn’t be afraid to call a cult as it is.
“They’re all the same, really, these groups — they prey on the most lonely, vulnerable people they can find, cage you with your own mind through guilt and fear, cut you off from everyone you knew before, and when they’re done doing that, they don’t need armed guards to keep you,” the late Nobel-nominated psychologist Margaret Singer, who wrote Cults in Our Midst, once told the San Francisco Chronicle. “You’re afraid that if you leave, your parents will die, you will die, your life will be ruined.
“…A real religion is truthful, you can come or go from it if you wish,” she added. “And most importantly, there is no one leader claiming he is a god. Big, big difference.”
Amen to that.
And when a child is being raised in this environment, being told that betraying the group is a guaranteed ticket to Hell, how many chances do you think he or she will get to cry out for help?
“It is crucial to understand that behavior is the issue and not belief,” Rick Ross, a cult expert and exit counselor, explains on his extensive Web database. “When those concerned about someone’s group involvement find clearly destructive behavior, this is an issue for legitimate concern.”
Those condemning the raid and seizure of the Eldorado compound’s children into protective custody may be pleased to remember that there is powerful precedent for Texas authorities to have believed the “hoax” call: the conviction of FLDS “President and Prophet, Seer and Revelator” Warren Jeffs for marrying a 14-year-old girl to her 19-year-old cousin (the girl was brave enough to testify; the husband is now facing rape charges for allegedly forcing her to have sex). Three of Jeffs’ nephews have claimed they were sexually abused, one saying that Jeffs sodomized him when he was only 5 or 6 years old. Jeffs faces more charges in Arizona of forcing underage girls to marry older men.
And on Thursday, Texas authorities showed up to that Arizona jail where Jeffs is awaiting trial to take DNA samples in connection with allegations that Jeffs had “spiritual marriages” to four girls from ages 12 to 15. This after a disturbing “anniversary” photo was entered into evidence by Texas officials — in a separate case, one stemming from the ranch raid — showing Jeffs kissing a girl alleged to be about 12.
Texas would have been blind to not recognize there was an established pattern of abuse within this sect, and had the responsibility to exert the greatest of care in protecting the kids during their investigation.
Consider the cases of the “Lost Boys,” hundreds of teens as young as 13, according to a 2005 Boston Globe story quoting authorities in Utah and Arizona, pushed out of the FLDS to fend for themselves — and to reduce competition for the older men seeking a multitude of young wives. Parents aren’t allowed contact with the boys, and many willingly, completely disown the cast-outs.
One teen thrown out on the street at age 15 told the Globe that he tried to appeal his expulsion to Jeffs: “He told me I wasn’t welcome. And on the way out he said: ‘Just to let you know, when the final devastation comes, you will be destroyed.’ I believed it completely. If you are told your whole life the Earth is flat, what else would you believe?” Another turned-away teen told of being spurned by his mom when he tried to visit her on Mother’s Day.
In the compound raid case, one only had to turn on the television to witness the carefully scripted appeals from the FLDS parents for the state to release the children, the parroted responses and the slick attorneys hired to raise the specter of religious persecution over and over, while the youngest and most vulnerable members are condemned to silence.
When dealing with groups believing in the righteousness of “heavenly deception” — as former followers of Sun Myung Moon have termed his doctrine on lies being acceptable to achieve his ends — to trick followers into giving up their meager fortunes and their families, protecting the vulnerable becomes all that more difficult. Likewise, The Family International — first the Children of God, then The Family, a cult beset by allegations of abuse, even by the late River Phoenix — reportedly believes in the “deceivers yet true” doctrine whereby it’s OK to lie to an “unbeliever” to meet God’s (read: the group leader’s) goals.
Sending kids back into the same situation — while giving the cult a sense of empowerment that God is indeed on their side, no matter what they do to their children — is both frightening and irresponsible, but it seems that Texas courts think they’re just looking at the “alternative lifestyle” of a “new religious movement.”
It’s easy to point the finger at Child Protective Services for separating FLDS kids from parents, but pause to consider those who wish that, as children, someone had taken enough notice to remove them from an abusive home — before conducting the investigation that would just incite fury in a guilty parent, causing a painful backlash.
And when a closely guarded compound operates on a non-negotiable system of cultic groupthink, you’d better protect all those kids until you know the full story.
Consider the FLDS mothers who didn’t want their boys anymore — just because the leader told them so.