Religious Polygamy in the News

Religious extremism is in the news here in the US. Unless you've been living under a rock, you have heard that Texas authorities have taken custody of hundreds of children living at a Fundamentalist LDS compound in rural Texas. Thus far, it is not clear whether or not they have located the teen who telephoned the child protective services about sexual and physical abuse at the hand of her 50-yr-old husband. In the process of searching for her, authorities have apparently become concerned for the safety of all children there, and have begun procedures to take custody of some of the children they consider to be most endangered.

Current events such as this can be useful in teaching psychology of religion courses. For news coming from reporters who have been covering the FLDS for years, and are very familiar with the nuances of the story, I recommend the Salt Lake Tribune. The other newspaper in Utah that has covered the FLDS extensively is the Deseret Morning News, which publishes good stories but does not organize them in an ongoing, user-friendly manner.

For background, you might also like Mike Watkiss's work, which you can sample at AZ Family and KTVK channel 3 in Phoenix. You will find his work very passionate, opinionated, and interesting. Along those same lines, other resources include Banking on Heaven, a documentary made by a former member of the FLDS church.

Most of the resources you are likely to find are solidly against polygamy. If you are searching for a pro-polygamy source, go to www.principlevoices.org. There, you will find how polygamists themselves view their religious lifestyle. It is important to note that polygamy is more diverse than the typical news broadcast would suggest. Some cite only the Bible and have no connection to Joseph Smith (founder of the 'Mormon' church), and others have no religious affiliation at all. Even among polygamists under the Mormon umbrella, the version of polygamy practiced by the FLDS is different from that practiced by most. Although firm numbers are elusive, marriage between older men and teen girls, as practiced among the FLDS, is not supported by the greater number of polygamists, including most of those who broke away from the larger LDS Church when it distanced itself from polygamy a century ago.

My interest in the story stems in large part from having known polygamists many years ago. For example, in college at Southern Utah University I played tuba and sat next to a trombone player from Colorado City, Utah, the home of the FLDS church. I can't help but wonder what has happened to him and other polygamists I met during those years. By all accounts, the FLDS church has gone through tremendous changes, large enough that the town and church community that invited my college band to play a concert would not have done once Warren Jeffs became their prophet. I recall seeing Leroy Johnson (then leader of the FLDS) interviewed on the CBS News program 60 Minutes in the late 1970s or 1980s ... something that Warren Jeffs would be loathe to do.

One interesting item I ran across is found in this AP News story. The spokesperson for Texas Child Protective Services, Marleigh Meisner, indicated that she was involved in the infamous raid on the Branch Davidians in Waco. She did not elaborate, however, on the nature of her involvement in that tragedy. I have yet to meet a social scientist of religion who believes that the Waco standoff was handled well. We can only hope that the events happening now are handled better.


Michael Nielsen said...

Perhaps it is idle speculation, but I am now reading reports questioning the authenticity of the original story. People who know her point to the fact that the teen apparently misnamed her husband, and that she referred to people who are not affiliated with the FLDS church as "outsiders", when a more commonly-used term in the FLDS community would be "gentiles". These points seem to cast doubt on the early version of events.

You can read more about the questions raised here,

The original affidavit was sealed, which Texas apparently allows for a period up to 60 days. The second affidavit is available at The Smoking Gun.

A more local perspective on the investigation is found at Go San Angelo.

Michael Nielsen said...

I talked with France24 news at length yesterday about polygamy within Mormonism. You can read an excerpt of that interview at this link. The link also includes comments from a woman who sees advantages in polygamy; another who helps defend victims of abuse that occurs in polygamy; and an excerpt from the film Banking on Heaven which documents problems in the FLDS community.