Saturday, April 19, 2008

The Secret Lives of Saints

-- by Sara

For most watchers of the religious right, the definitive book on fundamentalist Mormonism has been Jon Krakauer's 2003 bestseller, Under the Banner of Heaven. That book centered on the murder of a woman, along with her child, who dared to defy her husband's involvement with that polygamous sect. It also introduced America to Warren Jeffs, long before he became a fugitive and eventually a convicted felon; and put Colorado City, AZ and Hildale, UT on America's cultural map.

A lot has gone down in the FLDS world in five years since the book came out -- and much of it has occurred in locations far afield from those dusty twin cities straddling a southwestern state line. The FLDS has dealt with the increased scrutiny by diffusing its 40,000 or so members (some counts put the number as high as 100,000) across North America. The sect has always been strategic in using state and national borders to shield both its money and any "persons of interest" in their midst, which is why they built compounds in British Columbia and Mexico as far back as the late 1940s.

But that strategy has gone into overdrive in the past decade, as governments have grown increasingly interested and the group's population has continued to explode (as tends to happen wherever women average seven to ten kids apiece). The compound at Eldorado is only one of these expansion efforts: others are afoot in Idaho, South Dakota, and suburban Las Vegas. Beware of Mormons claiming to build "hunting lodges for wealthy businessmen." That seems to be the usual cover story whenever they go land shopping.

One of the most perceptive and tenacious reporters covering these developments as been Daphne Bramham of the Vancouver Sun. (A collection of her reporting on the FLDS over the past several years can be found online here.) Bramham's focus has been on the remote 2500-member Bountiful compound just outside Creston, BC, which was founded in 1947 by Roy Blackmore and a group from one of Canada's largest historical Mormon settlements in Cardston, AB. Roy's son Winston Blackmore inherited the role of patriarch for the community until Warren Jeffs cheated him out of control in 2002.

Bramham's take on the story has been different -- and in some ways, both broader and deeper -- than Krakauer's. For one thing, she's spent a lot more time with the women of the community, and has become good friends with several of the better-known escapees like Debbie Palmer and Carole Jessup. That friendship gives her an insider's sensitivity to the emotional and social dynamics of these families -- the interior lives of the women as they deal with their husbands, their children, each other, and the outside world.

For another, while Krakauer's book focused tightly on Colorado City/Hildale, Bramham's northern perch gives her a much broader view of the far-flung geography of the FLDS nation -- and a much keener sense of the way the sect has used that geography to escape government interference to date.

Over the past four years, I've been fortunate to be able to follow the vagaries of the international FLDS through Bramham's articles in my local paper. And now I'm delighted to be able to recommend her new book, The Secret Lives of Saints, released in Canada just a few weeks ago -- barely ahead of the Texas raid. (Amazon will be filling US pre-orders starting in May.)

The book provides the best available backstory and context for anyone trying to make sense out of what's happening now in Eldorado. It also fills in the details of the past five years, picking up where Under the Banner of Heaven left off and bringing us up to date. Most importantly, it explains precisely why this group has been left to go on as it has for as long as it has -- even when local and state-level authorities were well aware that laws were being violated.

Ghosts in the Machine
The problem, as Bramham portrays it, comes down to one issue. Nobody -- not in Utah, nor Arizona, nor British Columbia -- has yet dared to challenge the FLDS on the basic legality of polygamy itself. Where prosecutions have succeeded, they've been on other charges: Brenda Lafferty's murder, Warren Jeffs' role in facilitating statutory rape, and the more general economic exploitation of the church's members. These efforts have done much to undermine the church's functioning (especially the latter one, which I'll get to in an upcoming post). But they've all been criminal and financial assaults that dance around the deepest question at the heart of this church's existence: Is polygamy acceptable in modern North American culture?

That's a debate that can be had all kinds of ways -- and will be had in the months ahead. (Bramham, personally, thinks the answer is a firm "no"). So it's striking to realize just how far out of their way prosecutors from BC to AZ have gone through the decades to avoid putting polygamy itself on trial. And the reasons for this have to do with the ghosts that seem to haunt the political machines everywhere the FLDS has sunk roots.

In BC, they've shied away because Canada's religious freedom laws have only been in place since 1982. They're still new enough that the country hasn't really had enough time to establish the conditions under which they shouldn't apply -- and prosecutors are terrified that if they bring a challenge, Canada's supreme court will rule all existing anti-polygamy laws unconsitutional. It's a Catch-22: there are laws on the books that nobody dares to enforce, because they're afraid that if they do, the courts will void those laws entirely. Which means, of course, that they might as well not exist at all.

Bramham points out, however, that the BC attorneys may be misreading the mood of the justices in Ottawa. Immigration Canada routinely rejects Muslim immigrants with plural wives. Ontario courts have also recently decided that allowing Muslims to deal with divorce using Sharia law is a violation of Muslim women's civil rights, thus establishing the principle that religious freedom does not apply when the religion in question is depriving people of their basic liberties. These two precedents suggest that Canada's Supreme Court might well rule that polygamy doesn't merit religious freedom protection -- and BC now has a new AG who seems a bit more inclined to push the issue.

Similar ghosts haunt both Utah and Arizona. In Arizona, the state government still cringes at the memory of the 1953 Short Creek raid -- an earlier attempt to disband the FLDS community that backfired badly on every politician involved. (The memory of Short Creek is everywhere in this story, and I'll come back to it later, too.) In Utah, prosecution is hobbled by the fact that many of the state officials involved are themselves descendants of polygamous Mormon pioneers. They want very much to get rid of the FLDS, which they regard as a PR blight on their faith, But at the same time, it feels much too much like they're prosecuting Grandpa and Grandma. The ghosts of their own ancestors stay their hand.

What's remarkable about Eldorado is that the Texas authorities have had no such qualms. 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.

Don't Mess With Texas
In choosing Eldorado, Jeffs may have, at long last, picked the wrong place to hide. Texas doesn't harbor the ghosts of Mormon pioneers or FLDS martyrs. Any liberal Texan will tell you that the Lone Star State is not cursed, as BC is, with an overbroad sense of religious freedom. What does lurk in its memetic closet is the memory of Waco -- another closed, secretive, sexually abusive cult that was left to fester unattended too long, with horrific consequences. Many of the people who are dealing with the FLDS had enough of an up-close-and-personal view of the 1993 disaster with the Branch Davidians to know what they're dealing with here.

There's no shortage of people in the media trying to make this a debate about religious freedom, which is fair enough. But the question they're not asking -- and the one that is central to that debate, in my mind -- is how we can reasonably and justly incorporate America's historical ideas about religious freedom with what we know now about how to identify and chart the prognosis of dangerous cults. As I've written before, governments in both Canada and the US are well aware of the signs that indicate a community headed toward violence. The FLDS exhibits almost all of those signs. As a society, it's time to figure out where the line gets crossed, and when government intervention becomes justified.

In an upcoming post, I'll discuss the specific ways the FLDS is following that well-understood path -- and how current events could conspire to either pull them back from that fate, or push them farther toward it. In the meantime, go over and put in your pre-order for Daphne Bramham's The Secret Lives of Saints. It's essential for anyone seeking a broader context and a deeper understanding of the events of the past two weeks.

No comments: