The raid in Texas is interesting (and differs from AZ and UT prosecutorial efforts) in that polygamy is being attacked directly. So, will this shift in approach result in the end of polygamy (again)?
The underlying assumption in taking 400 children out of their homes is that the lifestyle itself is harmful; invading the temple is a direct challenge to the FLDS religion’s legitimacy. The total absence of ACLU intervention further indicates that there is no legal basis for protection and that national sympathy is lacking due to illegal polygamous behavior. If the FLDS women are viewed as victims, it is as complicit victims. As Alice Walker put it Possessing the Secret of Joy (her book about female genital mutilation), “One tree said to another: I have seen the axe, and the handle is one of us.”
The responses to the raid have varied greatly. There are articles praising TX for its bold action to safeguard women and children from a dangerous patriarchal and insular cult. There are sympathetic posts by LDS who view this action as the Extermination Order II. There are critics of the LDS who condemn any lack of sympathy on our part as being hypocritical. There are women of the FLDS baffled as to why they are being persecuted for their religious beliefs, their children taken from them, and their rights stripped. I would like to explore the shift in approach TX has made, the legal and pragmatic implications of that, and the possible outcomes.
Growing up in the northeast (raised LDS), I had no idea that polygamy was still being practiced by anyone in the US. I had assured my inquisitive high school friends that it had been done away with almost a hundred years ago. I was truly shocked to find otherwise when I attended BYU. My parents are converts, so we have no polygamous ancestry. The first time I heard the term “polyg,” I thought it was an architectural style (“polyg houses”). During my first temple recommend interview I had to ask what a “splinter group” was because I had no idea that (aside from the RLDS) there were other groups that had split from LDS. The idea that anyone would voluntarily practice polygamy if there was any way out of it (e.g. the Official Declaration and it being made illegal) was beyond my comprehension. My own teenage contemplation of polygamy really went no farther than to wonder whether it was something I could have lived if asked like some of those early church women, a safe enough exercise at a distance of a hundred years. It was unpalatable, but as theoretical as other unpalatable things like eating a live cockroach or breast feeding.
Although I was initially outraged and chagrined that UT did not more actively prosecute polygamists who are clearly flouting the law, I gained a lot of respect over time for the pragmatic approach UT and AZ have taken. Texas’ action, while bold, seems excessive; taking over 400 children from their mothers over one anonymous complaint of abuse is overreaching. As a contrast, there are recurring complaints of domestic abuse in some urban low income communities, but they don’t come in and take away all the children in all the neighboring apartments. And they would probably find a lot more abuse if they did. It seems that people’s rights have been trampled and the innocent are being treated without much concern in a “guilty until proven innocent” approach. The incident in Texas has been handled differently for several reasons:
- Texas’ experience with polygamous sects is limited and recent whereas AZ and UT have had long-standing experience with polygamous sects.
- One word: Waco.
- Everything’s bigger in Texas.
- Some have suggested that Baptist sentiment is a force in this raid (at least at whipping everyone into a frenzy).
- Some have suggested that an evangelical political plot is at play by casting the FLDS into the media at critical points in Mitt Romney’s political bid (either for POTUS or VP) to discredit him by a continual reminder that he descends from polygamists and is therefore too weird to hold such high office.
Having said all that, I would not shed a single tear if the end of polygamy is the outcome of this action. I am thrilled polygamy was ended by the LDS in 1890. And a religion (like FLDS) that encourages illegal behavior is inherently harmful if for no other reason than it creates a society of isolation and secrecy. This type of secrecy can be directly harmful (creating an environment in which lying supersedes the truth), but secrecy is also indirectly harmful in that abuse can flourish in an isolated environment.
I acknowledge that there are issues wih prosecuting polygamy that make it difficult because consensual polygamous marriages are not legal; therefore, being in a polygamous marriage is not illegal because you’re only married to one person legally. It’s not illegal in this country to have consensual unmarried sex and children with many partners. It’s called “hooking up,” and it’s quite popular (throw in a tramp stamp and a hairdo, and these women would not be getting hauled off in Baptist school buses). So, prosecution usually focuses on:
1 – statutory rape
2 – abuse
3 – welfare fraud
Obviously, statutory rape and abuse usually require a complainant, difficult to obtain in most cases, but even moreso in a secretive group already wary of outsiders where patriarchal authority is unquestioned. Welfare fraud feels a bit like nabbing Al Capone for postal fraud. And it may fall into the “bigger fish to fry” category for pragmatic reasons.
So, what can be done? If I were running the world, here are a few radical changes I would suggest (speaking of overreaching):
1 – raise the legal marriage age to 18 nationally, no exceptions. 18 is still too young if you ask me. If I had to live with choices I made at 18 . . . well, I’m just glad I do not.
2 – eliminate home schooling or severely restrict it (e.g. limit to one consecutive year and insist on some additional oversight and socialization).
And lastly, if this does mean the end of polygamy (because it is being attacked directly for the first time), take the following steps:
1 – grant the mothers custody on condition they agree not to return to or enter into any more polygamous relationships. This requires ongoing monitoring, but if you’re going to take down polygamy, it’s the only way. Otherwise, TX has to follow the AZ and UT lead and only prosecute what can be prosecuted directly. Placing all the children into foster care seems unduly harsh; if the mothers were given a way to retain their children, even if it meant giving up their (sort of) illegal religious practice, many would comply.
2 – research and prosecute for every instance of abuse, statutory rape, and welfare fraud. Go after these things with a vengeance until they are completely eliminated.
So, do you believe Texas has overreached? And will Texas take it to the mattresses or not? Does this mean the end of polygamy (again, once and for all)? Or will TX back off and follow the lead of AZ & UT, only prosecuting what is feasible? Will the ACLU ever intervene? And if the end of polygamy occurs, can we “re-patriate” this splinter group into mainstream America? Will they ultimately renounce Jeffs as a false prophet, leave the FLDS, and join the LDS? Would they choose their children over their lifestyle if presented with that alternative?