The last few days have been filled with the sad story of the removal of over 400 children along with their mothers from a polygamous community in Texas. The group that's in trouble is the Fundamentalist Church of Latter-day Saints. You might remember them from last year's dramatic hunt for leader and prophet Warren Jeffs. He was convicted of rape charges in Utah last year.
So you have a group that is definitely on the fringe of mainstream religious thought. And you have charges of sexual and physical abuse against children. As far as groups go, this one is not going to win many accolades.
But how has the coverage been? John Morehead, a Christian writer in Utah, has some complaints, saying that the media have not been objective:
First, most media reports on this incident refer to a raid of a sect "compound." Why isn't it referred to as the group's property, community, or living quarters? The term "compound" has been used of fringe religious groups that have come to embody the worst in the popular consciousness where religious extremism is concerned, being associated with things like Jonestown in Guyana or the Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas. Is "compound" used because the assumption is made that religious groups that live on the margins of traditional society and religion are automatically suspect? Is there an unconscious connection with the use of the word to those religious groups that have come to personify the worst of religious "cults"?
Second, it is interesting that this recent frenzy on the part of the media and the general public in relation to a controversial religious sect comes with allegations of child abuse. Recall that one of the initial reasons the BATF engaged the Branch Davidians was over the same allegation. Perhaps these allegations will be proven true, perhaps not. We will have to wait for all the facts and evidence to be released in order to know for sure. But we might consider that given our culture's extreme sensitivities to child abuse that the mere allegation of abuse is enough to initiate the removal of children by authorities and their separation from their parents, and many times the allegations are never proven only to see the children and parents reunited after a long and stressful time of separation. And once an allegation of child abuse is made, it is never possible to completely remove the stigma that the mere allegation raises. (We might also consider that child abuse occurs with unfortunate regularity in both secular and mainstream religious settings as well, so we should exercise caution before throwing stones at an alleged child-abusing "cult.")
With regard to the first complaint, I'm not sure I see the word compound as a problem. The FLDS sect sets up communities where movement is limited -- both in terms of outsiders being permitted in and insiders being permitted out. They guard their cluster of homes with sophisticated defense mechanisms. CNN was one of the media outlets to use the word compound. But, they noted:
CNN's previous visits to the ranch revealed the compound was guarded by armed men equipped with night-vision gear and other high-tech surveillance tools.
I don't necessarily see compound as a negative word. And I think that ranch or community might not be the best way to describe the actual situation in which these residents live. What do you think? Is compound the wrong word to use? What would be better?
And as for the complaint about how the media treat people accused of child abuse, I couldn't agree more. Again, in the case of the FLDS, it's not like these claims are coming from nowhere. Jeffs' own family members have been coming forward in droves to report being raped as children. But, as one of the readers who passed along this story noted, the media are expected to be above the fray. Over 400 children were just seized from their parents on the basis of one individual's claim.
Now that I'm a mother, I'm even more wary of the power of the state to interfere in family matters without due process. I haven't seen any coverage of the events in West Texas that even asks whether authorities overstepped.
Part of the problem is that fundamentalist Mormons are known for avoiding the media. So the only people speaking to the matter are former members of the sect -- many of whom left to avoid the abuse they were subjected to.
So it's just a very tricky story. How should the media treat religious groups that are outside the mainstream? A few weeks ago, we had the media bending over backward to contextualize the extremist remarks of Rev. Jeremiah Wright. Is there any contextualizing of the FLDS? Should there be?