The sensational and sentimental


Could there have been two more dramatically different religion stories last week than Pope Benedict XVI's first trip to the United States and the ongoing drama with the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints? It is completely understandable that almost all religion reporting resources focused on papal coverage, but I keep hoping that we'll see some really good coverage of the ins and outs at the Yearning For Zion compound ranch in West Texas. Reader FW Ken said it well:

The story in the FLDS business here in Texas needs desperately to tease out the legitimate religious angles from the cultic. The isolation and focus on the leader are classic cult behaviors. The sexual exploitation of younger girls by older men is not uncommon in cults (I'm thinking Moses David and the Children of God back in the 70s), although, to be fair, polygamy and arranged marriages between younger and older is not uncommon in history . . . But that's the sort of thing that really needs telling, because it is possible to interpret the current event as the government swooping in and stealing the children of people who's religion and way of life based on that religion aren't socially acceptable. Look, I'm a Catholic and don't approve of polygamy. But I amreally uncomfortable with government force being applied to people who believe differently then me. Again, sorting out the cult aspects from the authentically religious choices people make is crucial to protecting the legitimate interests of the kids without force feeding them standard American culture. . . .

Bottom line: I've worked for the great State of Texas most the past 40 years in one capacity or another and somehow I don't trust us to really help these children through our child welfare system. Call me cynical, but this is a job for journalism, but, unfortunately, a journalism that "gets religion" (what a concept!) and doesn't settle for the sensational and sentimental.

I finally found a few stories that weren't terribly sensational or sentimental. However, the stories didn't really help us understand, as FW Ken put it, the religious angles versus the cultic. Written by Dan Frosch and Kirk Johnson of the New York Times, their focus is on the DNA tests that members of the polygamous sect are being subjected to:

Current and former members of a deeply conservative polygamous sect whose children have been seized by the state came to a county office building here on Tuesday to donate their DNA for a genetic database that state officials said could be a step toward the reunification of parents and children.

The collections began even as the first children were sent off under a judge's order into foster care pending an investigation of under-age marriages by the sect, the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or F.L.D.S.

The parents came in ones and twos and groups on a blisteringly hot day, some resigned to the task, others simmering with resentment. Jarring juxtapositions -- old ways and new, science and faith, cynicism and hopefulness -- were everywhere. Just after lunch, a group of women in pastel prairie dresses climbed down from a late-model S.U.V. with dark-tinted windows like those used by movie stars. But for the West Texas dust, they looked straight from Hollywood central casting.

David Williams, 32, clutching a Book of Mormon and a binder with pictures of his three sons, said he drove 1,200 miles from Nevada "to give all that I have to aid in the return of the children to their parents."

Mr. Williams said that he had left the sect three years ago, but that his three sons had continued to live here at the group's compound, the Yearning for Zion ranch, with their mother. The F.L.D.S. broke off from the mainstream Mormon Church, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, more than a century ago after the Mormons abandoned their traditions of polygamy.

I like that jarring juxtapositions line -- a very efficient way to capture a great deal of context. And the imagery in the following line manages to paint quite the picture without being condescending or rude.

Perhaps discussing why Mr. Williams left the sect would be a good way to explore some of the tangled religious issues. He's carrying a Book of Mormon and he left the sect -- he seems like a good potential source.

It's also worth noting that the timeline about the FLDS is a bit off. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints did officially change its position on polygamy over a century ago but I believe the FLDS emerged in the 1930s after the LDS really began cracking down on polygamists. Kirk Johnson's follow-up story seemed to fix this problem somewhat:

The sect split off from the mainstream Mormon church, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, decades ago after the Mormons disavowed polygamy in the late 19th century.

Anyway, most stories out there continue to take either the "look at these freaks" or the "these poor, poor parents" approach to the story. A more nuanced and less extreme approach is called for as a service to readers.

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