Are polygamous Mormons part of Western narrative? The High Country News thinks so

The High Country News (HCN), a 30,000-circ. environmental journal based in western Colorado, usually reports on investigations within the National Park Service, wind energy projects in Montana, fish die-offs in Colorado and similar regional stories, but rarely anything to do with religion. I managed to find one piece in there last fall about wild wolves and morality but that was about it.

But the magazine does have a villain -- the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which occupies land on the Utah-Arizona border smack in the middle of the high desert country that HCN calls its backyard. And whenever HCN goes after them, they wade into a mix of police and religion reporting.

Thus, see their latest on how corruption among city officials in that region has stymied the FBI from catching FLDS leaders who were raping children in the name of their religion.

This is a long passage, but, in a way, it points to one of the journalistic challenges linked to these reports.

In January 2006, more than 3,000 members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (FLDS), a polygamist offshoot of the Mormon Church, gathered inside their huge white meetinghouse in Colorado City, Arizona, for a regular Saturday work project service. Outside, unknown to the congregants, a handful of FBI agents were quietly approaching. They wanted to question 31 people about the whereabouts of Warren Jeffs, the church’s former “president and prophet,” who was on the run for performing a wedding involving an underage girl.
Within five minutes, just as a FLDS member named Jim Allred began the first prayer, FBI agents entered the building.
But the church’s private security force was ready, carefully trained by local law enforcement to obstruct the FBI without violence. They repeatedly stepped in front of the agents to block their entry into the assembly hall where one of the wanted men, Lyle Jeffs (Warren’s brother), sat near the front.
The strategy worked. By the time FBI agents had forced their way in Jeffs had managed to flee to the church basement, where escape ATVs -- kept there for this very purpose -- were waiting for him. There, Jeffs and one of his assistants donned hooded masks to obscure their faces, started the ATVs, roared up a ramp out a side exit and disappeared. Most of the people in the assembly hall had no idea that Lyle Jeffs had just slipped out the back door.
The FBI lingered for 45 minutes, trying to get the local police to help them locate the other people who had been subpoenaed. Instead, the police helped the fugitives, tipping them off on the whereabouts of their pursuers. That day, all but 4 of the 31 people eluded the FBI, promptly going into hiding to avoid testifying against their leader.

And now the hook for the update:

Dowayne Barlow, a large man with close-cropped brown hair, played an instrumental role in the escape, supplying the camouflage hoods worn by Jeffs and his accomplice. But this past January, Barlow, who served as Lyle Jeffs' aide for years, took the witness stand inside a Phoenix courtroom, hoping his testimony would help expose how his small rural community had fallen under the spell of a power-hungry, seemingly deranged criminal.

One problem about writing about the FLDS is that one must include so much back story about its prophet, Warren Jeffs, who –- although in solitary confinement in a Texas prison -– continues to control his flock from afar. Then you have to describe how non-FLDS residents feel overwhelmed by the majority religion in those parts and how they’ve helped the government file two lawsuits against Short Creek city officials. This article is about the trial that came out of the second lawsuit that alleges food stamp fraud and money laundering.

Near the end, it explains how Barlow has left the area to rebuild his life while attending a mainstream Mormon church. I wish the reporter had fit in an explanation of why he decided to remain LDS and what his current church has to say about his former life.

The High Country News team went more into the religious content of FLDS life in this 2012 story and if you have the time, do read it. The second, third and fourth paragraphs are horrifying and tells what Jeffs’ rape of a 12-year-old sounded like via a tape recording played in a courtroom.

The story also trashes 2009 and 2010 stories in People magazine and National Geographic, for showing romanticized portraits of FLDS polygamy. A key paragraph explains why we should care about this phenomenon:

… most authorities in Utah, the state with the longest relationship with the sect, have responded with tolerance rather than prosecutions. Arizona's stance is only slightly tougher. Neither state is anywhere near as aggressive as Texas, whose lawmen took on the FLDS bigtime.
The questions are impossible to avoid: How has Utah and Arizona's cultural acceptance of the illegal practice of polygamy created a habitat for the much more serious crimes of the most extreme polygamists? And will it ever be possible to dismantle this sect, or any others like it that might arise in its wake, unless those two states finally crack down?

Notice the word "cultural acceptance" and think about what has changed under that banner during our lifetimes. It’s not impossible that polygamy could re-invent itself in our culture. Chief Justice John Roberts’ dissent on Obergefell vs. Hodges last year warned as much.  Yes, it’s true a federal appeals court has restored Utah’s polygamy ban recently but don’t expect this issue to disappear.

I do appreciate it when regional or special-interest publications venture into the religion beat, especially when a large majority of the American population believes in God. Now, if HCN would take on some of the more normative religious practices in its own region, such as the many summer revivals occurring on Navajo and other reservations, that would balance out some of its crime reporting.

Still, in an era when investigative reporting is underfunded, especially when it comes to religion, it's gratifying to see one publication assign good reporters to follow a dense, complicated story that may not go away.

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