Learning the Fundamentalists' fundamentals

DSCN0572In a story for CNN, reporter Eliott McLaughlin dove head first into a discussion of the religious views of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. The hook for the piece is the group's decision to open up and permit some public scrutiny of its lifestyle. They've started a Web site and a handful of polygamous wives have been doing a ton of interviews. The sect moved to Texas to avoid legal problems and its former prophet Warren Jeffs is in federal prison for arranging marriages between older men and underage girls. He is awaiting trial in Arizona on similar rape charges. The FLDS' copious holdings in Utah are in control of the state pending further litigation. And now over 400 children have been taken into custody by Texas:

"Because of their history of persecution, they have what you'd call a paranoia complex," said Dr. W. John Walsh, a Mormon studies expert who testified on behalf of FLDS parents during the custody battle. "They've never really reached out to outsiders." . . .

The sect's sudden openness appears an attempt to reunite mothers and children. However, the stakes may be higher, said Walsh, who explained that FLDS members believe polygamy and ably caring for many children are essential to reaching the highest tier of heaven.

According to FLDS beliefs, you must be free from sin -- as with most Christian religions -- to get to heaven. Those deemed "wicked" go to hell until they atone for their sins, said Walsh, a mainstream Mormon doing post-doctorate studies at the University of St. Thomas-Houston in Texas.

I don't even understand the first sentence of the last paragraph. Christianity is a religion. While there are different confessions, communions, denominations, what have you, it's just one religion. And what does that mean -- that "most Christian religions" believe "you must be free from sin" to get to heaven? Lutherans would not say that. We would say Christ's death alone saves you by grace alone. And that Christ's work on the cross is received by faith alone. I'm pretty sure a sizable grouping of other Christians who would agree that salvation does not depend on whether people are free from sin but on God's grace.

McLaughlin goes into great detail about the FLDS tiers of heaven. Some of it would sound familiar to those who have read the Book of Mormon or Doctrine and Covenants. But some of it doesn't. The hard thing is that while the church is posting media-friendly information on its Web site, it's not revealing information about its doctrines other than some pretty standard Latter Day Saints information here. So it's hard to know if McLaughlin's sources are right or not:

Those who aren't deemed wicked go to the "spirit world" to await the final judgment that dictates in which of the three levels of heaven they will reside for eternity. Everyone will eventually go to one level of heaven, Walsh explained, but to ascend to the highest tier, you must first learn certain lessons -- how to be a good parent and spouse among them.

"To really enjoy heaven, you have to be married and you have to have your kids with you," Walsh said. "Everything experienced on Earth will be in its more perfected form in heaven."

If you haven't learned the lessons you needed to learn on Earth, "you would have to learn these lessons in the spirit world" before entering heaven, he said.

If your children are taken away, you may have to learn how to be a good parent in the spirit world, thereby postponing your passage to heaven, Walsh said.

Again, maybe Walsh is totally correct. It's hard to say because of the lack of good scholarship on the FLDS.

The rest of the piece is remarkably cynical about the public relations efforts of the FLDS. Again using just one source, Marci Hamilton, a professor at Yeshiva University's Cardozo School of Law who has studied polygamist sects for 10 years, the reporter says the church's openness should not be confused with candor: IMG 0264

The FLDS is only as open as it needs to be. Everything church members offer -- the news conferences, the interviews, the tours of the YFZ compound, even the Web site's name -- has been scripted to elicit sympathy, [Hamilton] said.

The sect's Web site, www.captivefldschildren.org, is rife with photos and videos of crying women and children, one boy looking fearfully into the camera during the raid, declaring, "I don't want to go."

The site also includes a timeline with subject lines such as "officers force their way into homes," "sacred site desecrated," "children's innocence threatened" and "mothers and children torn apart."

Other than a link to a PayPal page where visitors can send donations, there is no way to contact the FLDS. The Web site itself is anonymously registered in Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, and attempts to reach the owner via e-mail were fruitless.

As for the interviews, "the FLDS has been good at getting hand-picked wives on the airwaves," Hamilton said. . . .

"They always put the women up front because this is a very oppressive patriarchy, and the men are not sympathetic characters," said Hamilton, the author of "Justice Denied: What America Must Do to Protect its Children."

The reporter says that the only way to contact the FLDS is through a link to a PayPal page. But at least by the time I checked out the site, it had an email contact.

Anyway, the thing I don't get about all this FLDS coverage is how many reporters seem to be acting out of complete ignorance of the group. The memory of the mainstream media seems so short. It was just last September that Warren Jeffs was sentenced. It wasn't that long before that he was on the FBI's 10 Most Wanted list. It seems we might get more sources here than a post-graduate student and a Cardozo professor.

Please respect our Commenting Policy