Warren Jeffs, ‘prophet’ of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS) is currently finishing his time in a Texas courtroom, where he is charged with sexual offences related to his alleged abuse of two girls, one aged 14 at the time he allegedly impregnated her, and the other aged just 12 at the time he allegedly made an audio recording of a sex session with her. One of the best reports from the trial so far is here, though it doesn’t include all the detail about Jeffs sacking of a long line of defence attorneys, his threats of various kinds of God’s judgement to fall on anyone associated with the trial, or the background of the case.
The FLDS interpret early Mormon teaching in such a way that their property is held in common, through a Trust controlled by the church (the inspiration for the UEB in Big Love’, with Jeffs as the ‘Alby Grant’ figure). They also follow their prophet as God’s representative on earth, believing he can give new revelations from God. Hence, the sect has total control over the lives of its members, and the prophet is able to reassign wives and family away from anyone who questions whether everything in their faith is how it should be. One day you could be married, respected, with a home, a job, and children, but ask the wrong questions and the next day you could be divorced, homeless, unemployed, and cut off from your family, with no prospects for it being fixed.
This concentration of power sounds like a recipe for despotism, and it is when added to the state’s prohibition of polygamy. As Lisa Loughead has argued, polygamy has been used by various groups as a ‘boundary marker’ to define themselves as different from other groups. This is equally true of groups who have used it to set monogamy as a norm, and polygamy as behaviour justifying persecution, as it is of groups like the early Mormons, who used polygamy as one of the things that made them different and special (a role now fulfilled less dramatically by mainstream Mormons through the avoidance of tea and coffee).
The state’s treatment of polygamy as a crime, particularly in those few areas that go beyond ‘bigamy’ offences for multiple official wedding ceremonies and go on to criminalise the lifestyle, marks out the FLDS and other groups as different, and makes it very difficult for sect members to flee abuse as that often means admitting to complicity in conduct which is formally counted as criminal, with consequent risks for their entire family. It also has allowed Jeffs to ignore the allegations of child abuse, or indeed any allegations against him personally, and to point out that his people are being persecuted for their religious beliefs. And Texas is especially vulnerable to this accusation, as the Jeffs trial is conducted by Barbara Walther, the same judge whose decision to separate over 400 FLDS children from their parents three years ago was so poor it had to be set aside by the appeal court within weeks.
Just as the FLDS have made a mistake concentrating so much power in the hands of one man, so also those States that have decided to prosecute people for polygamy have also made a mistake, erecting a boundary over which the victims of despotism find difficult to clamber, while simultaneously providing abusive men with a reasoned basis for portraying their prosecution as persecution. As cases like the Browns’ show, polygamy does not inevitably cause the abuses that are steretypically associated with it. Instead those abuses may flow from the state banning a lifestyle choice, and in so doing condemning whole communities to live in the shadows where the real criminals hide.