Thursday, April 24, 2008

Subsidizing Polygamy

The reason given for the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 was that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. We all remember the oft-invoked image of the “mushroom cloud.” After a few months it became quite obvious that there were no WMDs to be found. That’s when the story started to change. One of the later justifications for the invasion was “liberating the women of Iraq.” There were a few speeches where George and Laura got all choked up talking about what those poor burka clad women had endured, and how wonderful the US was to liberate them. We all felt warm and fuzzy, bringing democracy to these women from a culture that was alien to us.

A pity we’ve never had the same concern for women in our own country. For over 7 decades we’ve turned a blind eye to the polygamist sects that flourish in the western part of the US. Polygamy is against the law, but the law is seldom enforced. The revelations of sexual abuse by clergy within the Catholic Church shocked the nation. When this came out into the light, suddenly we began to have a national dialogue about pedophiles. This paved the way for some small concern to develop for the children of polygamy. It’s been slow to build, and given that the victims are only women and children, it may be short lived.

The Church of the Latter Day Saints officially renounced polygamy in 1890. Prior to that, plural marriage had been sanctioned, and begun, by Mormon founder Joseph Smith, who married at least 33 women. The joys of plural marriage were saved as a reward for especially saintly men within the church. The practice continued after Joseph Smith was killed. Brigham Young had 55 wives. Plural marriage became an accepted practice, in fact, it was neccessary, the Mormons said, to gain entrance to heaven. In 1890, when faced with the possibility of being kicked out of Utah, the Mormons decided polygamy might not have been a mandate from God, after all.

This change in doctrine was not accepted by everyone within the LDS. Some groups of polygamists splintered off to continue the practice. They were excommunicated by the LDS - and became what we now call the FLDS, the fundamentalist offshoot of the LDS. These are the folks who were living on the compound that was recently raided, in Eldorado, Texas. Their prophet, Warren Jeffs, is in prison for his role in arranging marriages between his adult male followers and teenaged girls. Teen girls are married to men old enough to be their fathers. They are raped by the old men, and begin their new lives as incubators and drudges in a home of many wives and children, all of this done in the name of God. Heaven forfend we should interfere with the religious freedoms of rapists and abusers.

Not only have we ignored polygamy - we’ve subsidized it. The US taxpayers are helping to keep those giant families afloat. Since polygamy is against the law, the men of the FLDS marry one woman legally, and the subsequent “spiritual” wives can apply for welfare benefits and food stamps. The 3 major outposts for this particular FLDS sect are the YFZ compound in Texas, and the towns of Hilldale, Utah, and Colorado City, Arizona. In Colorado City, approximately 33% of the residents are on food stamps. Only 6.7% of the population uses food stamps in the rest of Arizona. They may also receive state child care provider benefits, so that one wife can be paid for taking care of another’s children. This is the FLDS strategy known as “bleeding the beast,” a Norquistian way of saying they will take advantage of the government and taxpayers whom they despise. This is a very wealthy sect, and one that wields considerable power. Don’t let the sobbing women in the granny dresses fool you - they are kept deliberately uneducated about the real world, but the men of the FLDS are building a huge financial empire, and with that comes clout. Federal pork visits the polygamist communities (where few non FLDS members live). Colorado City was the beneficiary of $2.8 million for an airport that serves only FLDS members.

The leaders of this FLDS sect have been paid at least $1.5 million in defense contracts by the Pentagon. The polygamists own three companies that make airplane parts, and other components for the military. The money earned through these business dealings was used to help build the compound in Texas. It is unknown if Warren Jeffs’ name was on any of these contracts. The Pentagon says it does not consider religious affiliation when selecting vendors. This is code for “we don’t research who we do business with.”

Over 400 children were removed from the compound in Texas. There is controversy over whether children should be separated from their mothers. We’ve seen the tearful women tell TV cameras in monotone voices that they are free to leave any time. Don’t believe it. Women are not allowed to leave, and if they are do, they are frequently chased down and brought back. Former FLDS member Carolyn Jessop tells her life’s story in the book, “Escape.” She was brought up in a polygamist family and at age 18, when she wanted to go to medical school, she was married to a 50 year old man, and became his fourth wife. Jealousy was deliberately fostered within the family, that led to constant jockeying for position among the wives and children. Just before her daughter turned 14 (and met the same fate) Carolyn took her 8 kids and ran away from Colorado City in the middle of the night. The women and children are kept deliberately ignorant of life in the outside world, and told that people on the outside are agents of Satan, who want to hurt them. It’s no wonder the investigators in Texas aren’t getting a lot of cooperation. They are trained from birth to be obedient to the prophet and the men of FLDS. It’s all they know. They don’t regard being married to an old man as a crime - it’s simply the way things are.

The problem of balancing the marital needs of the elders with the population of girls is ongoing. To trim the male herd, and keep the post-pubescent girls for the old men, some teenaged boys are kicked out of the cult. They’ve lived their whole lives in a FLDS town, but they are taken to a city and dumped - with no education, no ability to fend for themselves, and no money. They’re called the “lost boys” of the FLDS.

We condemn the Taliban. We condemn fundamentalist Muslims. We have no problem condemning religious practices we object to in other countries - but we’ve turned our backs on these women and children for over 70 years, while we’ve helped to fund their abuse. I wish I didn’t believe that the authorities will eventually try to sweep this under a rug - but they probably will. This time, perhaps the genie will be too big to stuff back into the bottle.

“We should never permit ourselves to do anything that we are not willing to see our children do.” Brigham Young

Read “Escape” by Carolyn Jessop, and “Under the Banner of Heaven” by Jon Krakauer to learn more about the ugly realities of polygamy.

The picture is of Mormon founder Joseph Smith and his family.

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