FDLS 1, Texas, 0
Eugene V. Gallagher.
An isolated millennialist sect in rural Texas. Extraordinary demands from a
prophetic leader. Unconventional family arrangements. Sex with under-aged
girls. Accusations of child abuse. Intervention by the Texas Child
Protective Services (CPS). A dramatic raid by law enforcement.
Many observers in the press and more than a few participants in the events
were quick to catch the similarities between the April 3, 2008 raid on the
Yearning for Zion (YFZ) Ranch of the polygamist Fundamentalist Latter Day
Saints (FLDS) and the February 28, 1993 raid on the Mount Carmel Center of
the Branch Davidian Adventist group. They also breathed a collective sigh of
relief when the YFZ raid appeared to go off without a hitch. On April 9, for
example, Ken Broadnax of the Odessa American praised the local Texas
authorities for taking “a more measured approach to this compound….There was
no carnage this time.”
The raid on the YFZ ranch resolved into cumbersome and slow-moving legal
wrangling as a hastily assembled flock of lawyers and judges tried to sort
out the charges against members of the group. At the same time, a social
welfare system strained beyond its limits scrambled to provide temporary
homes for the more than 450 children eventually removed from the ranch.
The story garnered national attention, but the most extensive and detailed
reporting came from local Texas media and from the two Salt Lake City
Early news reports, especially from Texas, faithfully reproduced the
rationale of Texas Child Protective Services for the raid. On April 5, Paul
Anthony and Matt Phinney of the San Angelo Standard-Times quoted
Texas CPS spokeswoman Marleigh Meissner as saying, “[W]e’ve just handled it
like any other incident. It’s just on a grander scale.” Initial reports
also focused on the growing number of children who had been removed from the
ranch, until their number passed 460, and the strangely quaint dresses of
the female FLDS members.
As the scale of the operation increased, however, questions began to be
voiced. On April 20, Jenny Jarvie of the Los Angeles Times
summarized the most troubling points: “Was it fair to lump all these
children in a mass hearing? Did boys and babies carry the same risk of
sexual abuse as pregnant teenagers and young mothers? Did there not have to
be greater evidence of abuse before so many children were taken from their
parents? Were the children being unfairly targeted because of their
CPS’s wholesale approach also had its local critics. On May 31, Miguel
Bustillo and Nicholas Riccardi of the Los Angeles Times captured the
backlash in a comment from Schleicher County resident Curtis Phillips, who
said of the FLDS, “I absolutely don’t agree with what they do. But blowing
in that ranch like cowboys and taking all those kids—that was just stupid.
That’s why people like me don’t trust the government.”
In an April 30 letter to the editor of the San Angelo Standard-Times,
Rebecca Matthews worried about selective enforcement of the law, asking, “I
wonder how their actions compare with everyone else’s town/compound. Within
our own city we have some of the same situations. They may not be happening
in a fenced compound, but they are happening within the closed environment
of our neighbor’s homes.”
As the maneuverings in court dragged on, more critical voices appeared in
the press coverage. And the general portrait of events became more
complicated. Early characterizations of the FLDS community as suffering
under generations of “Taliban-like rule,” as an April 19 Houston
Chronicle editorial had it, were countered by statements from FLDS
members themselves. In a May 9 op-ed in the Salt Lake City Tribune,
Maggie Jessop simply asserted: “I am just a normal person. I have eyes and
ears, not to mention a big mouth, and I have a heart to feel my way through
life, and I have a brain to reason and choose.”
Blanket assertions that the YFZ ranch was nothing but a pedophile ring, as
Ellen Goodman put it in a May 16 column in the Boston Globe, were
balanced by expressions of concern about the damage done by the wholesale
removal of children from their families, as in Linda F. Smith’s May 9 column
in the Salt Lake Tribune. As the case against the YFZ community
unraveled the key question (posed, for example, by Michelle Roberts in the
Deseret Morning News June 1) became: What went wrong?
The answer to that question cannot only be sought in the details of the YFZ
raid and the decisions made by the Texas CPS. It is also part of a much
larger story having to do with the history of unconventional religious
groups in the U.S.—and the nature of religion itself.
Because religions generate a compelling image of the way the world is, the
way it ought to be, and what their adherents ought to do in order to bring
the two into closer alignment, they prescribe specific types of behavior.
Their prescriptions are generally backed by the highest form of authority
they can summon. Whether or not the behavior is stipulated by laws, it is
less a choice than a duty. Religious people risk divine displeasure—or
worse—when they fail to fulfill their duty.
They also risk conflict when their religiously sanctioned behavior runs
afoul of secular laws. The gospels report that such potential clashes became
a lively topic during the ministry of Jesus. One of his most famous
statements on the subject, “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s,
and to God the things that are God’s” (Matthew 22:21) is actually much more
a challenging conundrum than a straightforward prescription for action. What
exactly is due to the political authorities? What exactly is due to God?
Every religious person and every religious group has to wrestle with such
troubling questions at one time or another. When God’s and Caesar’s demands
are perceived to be at odds, conflict can erupt. Sometimes the stakes can be
very high. That is the dilemma that the members of the FLDS continue to
face. “Caesar,” in the form of Texas law enforcement, has intervened in
their lives with specific demands and threats. They must decide what is
So whether they know it or not, the parties involved with the controversy at
the YFZ ranch are the inheritors of a history of controversy in American
religion. Dissenting religious groups have always been the objects of
suspicion, derision, condemnation, and sometimes antagonistic action.
Renowned now primarily for their beautiful furniture, unadorned hymns, and
dwindling numbers, the Shakers, formally known as the United Society of
Believers at Christ’s Second Appearing, were attacked in the late 18th
century as a spreading menace that all reasonable citizens should combat.
Similarly, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was the object of
hostile words as well as vigilante violence that propelled the early Mormons
from New York State to Ohio, Missouri, Illinois, and finally to the Salt
Lake basin in the West.
More recently, the Rev. Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church was frequently
accused of brainwashing its recruits in the 1970s. In 1978, the idea of the
dangerous “cult” was cemented in the public mind by the horrific
murder-suicides of more than 900 members of Peoples Temple at Jonestown in
the jungle of Guyana. The conflagration at the Branch Davidian compound in
Waco 15 years later seemed to confirm the danger that unconventional
religious groups can pose to individual and public safety.
It seems clear that Texas law enforcement officials definitely wanted to
avoid “another Waco” as they confronted the FLDS members at the Yearning for
Zion ranch. But the broader contours of the raid parallel the assault on the
Branch Davidians as well as other skirmishes between unconventional
religious groups and the government.
Comments by locals in the Eldorado area indicate that from the time the FLDS
started developing the YFZ property in 2004 it had been target of
opposition. Although some neighbors maintained a posture of tolerant
disagreement, the local state representative, Harvey Hilderbran,
acknowledged to Kirk Johnson of the New York Times April 12 that the
authorities had been looking for ways to fight against the FLDS since they
bought the property.
Organized opposition by former members and their sympathizers seems to have
played a significant role in provoking government action. There is a network
of anti-FLDS activists that keeps up a steady stream of criticism through
websites like “Tapestry Against Polygamy” (www.polygamy.org/) and print
publications like Stolen Innocence, Elissa Wall’s story of having
been married at 14 to her 19-year-old cousin. The former members and their
supporters are eager and voluble sources for the press.
The role of the anti-FLDS network came to light in the press’s investigation
of the phone calls that apparently instigated the raid. The calls, now
widely regarded as a hoax, were made on March 29 and 30 by someone
identifying herself as an underage bride and victim of abuse named Sarah. On
April 18, Ben Winslow of the Deseret News reported that the caller
had also contacted Flora Jessop, an anti-polygamy activist, and Joni Holm, a
woman who helped children who had left the FLDS.
In the same article, Winslow reported that Rozita Swinton, the 33-year-old
woman who authorities believe was the most likely caller, had a history of
making such calls and identifying herself as a young victim of sexual abuse.
It is clear that her ruse gained traction because of the widespread sense of
suspicion about those at the YFZ ranch. As one neighbor, rancher Mary Leigh
Dunagan, told Pamela Manson of the Salt Lake City Tribune in an April
4 story, “[W]hen anything is a mystery, you get apprehensive.” The anti-FLDS
activists gave that vague apprehension a face and a rationale.
On the other side were the members of the FLDS themselves. They hold fast to
the traumatic memory of a 1953 raid against a polygamous community in the
Short Creek area on the Arizona-Utah border as a symbol of their beleaguered
status. They have committed themselves to following the increasingly
restrictive prophetic pronouncements of their leader, Warren Jeffs, now in
prison after being convicted last year of two counts of rape as an
accomplice. Jeffs’s tightening of his authority over his FLDS community and
increasing its isolation may have cost him a few followers, but it enhanced
his hold over those remaining.
Wary of outsiders, FLDS members were much slower than their opponents to
make their case to the press. By the time that they did, they had to fight
against already entrenched understandings of themselves as brainwashed
“zombies,” as the mayor of Eldorado, Texas, described those who were taken
from the YFZ ranch, according to Mary Zeiss Stange writing in USA Today
The most controversial decision by the Texas Child Protection Services was
to take all the children from the ranch into protective custody. Part of the
agency’s argument was that the polygamist ideology of the group put all
children, regardless of age and gender, into an abusive situation. Such
sweeping charges, however, could not meet basic standards of evidence, as
determined in the Third Court of Appeals ruling on May 22 and upheld by the
Texas Supreme Court on May 29.
The CPS charges of abuse quickly faltered on the facts and were undone by
the agency’s own exaggerations. Given the complex set of biological
interrelationships at the ranch, the plaintiffs had a difficult time
identifying both specific victims and specific perpetrators of abuse. The
agency’s only fallback was the blanket assertion about a generally abusive
situation. Its credibility was substantially damaged when it turned out that
of the 31 pregnant females taken out of the ranch who were asserted to be
underage, only four or five proved actually to be so, as Ben Winslow
reported in the Deseret Morning News June 2.
But even before the rulings by the Texas Court of Appeals and Supreme Court,
there was a growing perception in the press that the YFZ raid had been
ill-conceived. Two weeks after the raid, the Houston Chronicle
asserted that “the state needs to plan now how to minimize further trauma to
the sect’s children.”
In the May 9 Salt Lake Tribune, Linda F. Smith observed that “it is
difficult to imagine that the court needed to remove pre-teen children from
their homes in order to protect them from sexual exploitation as teens.”
Acknowledging the difficult situation that the CPS faced, on June 6 the
Washington Post nonetheless concluded that “it is clear they overstepped
the bounds of Texas law.” In the June 8 Waco Tribune-Herald, Art
Young, while comparing the raid favorably to the Branch Davidian disaster,
agreed that it had been “a certifiable overreach.”
The identification of four or five young girls who apparently did suffer
sexual abuse still cried out for justice and, under our laws, could in no
way be excused on religious grounds. And towards the end of August, there
was increasing evidence of a much more carefully targeted approach by CPS.
For example, Brooke Adams of the Salt Lake Tribune reported on August
20 that that a 14-year-old girl allegedly married to Warren Jeffs had been
taken back into state custody. Adams also reported that several other
families had agreed to stringent court oversight, including physical exams
and pregnancy tests. Speaking for the FLDS, however, Willie Jessop claimed
that the CPS was simply trying to save face in light of the widespread
criticism of its initial actions.
If the CPS’s original overreaching condemnation of the entire YFZ community
undermines the search for, arrest, and trial of specific abusers, it will
only have compounded the tragedy. Just as the YFZ community has been forced
by its skirmish with the law to examine its practices, part of the CPS’s
self-examination will be to consider how much its strategies were shaped by
a generalized suspicion of, and distaste for, an unconventional religion.
Throughout U.S. history, generalizations about new or unconventional
religions have been the enemy of the truth. By erasing any marks of a
group’s particularity in the quest to inflate the threatening image of the
religious other, they have done much more harm than good. By exaggerating
the contrast between the dangerous evil that unconventional groups seem to
represent and the implicit and inherent goodness of the dominant social
order, they have doubly blinded outside observers.
Observers who have accepted the grotesque characterizations of groups like
the Shakers, Mormons, Moonies, and the FLDS as pervasively and inherently
evil have been blinded to the variations that exist within any group, the
potential of individuals within any group for moral insight and courage, and
the real abuses of power, trust, and faith that may occur within particular
Observers have also been blinded to aspects of the dominant society and
dominant religious groups that are eminently worthy of criticism and
concerted opposition. To the extent that the exaggerated contrasts strive to
identify unvarying essences, they have been blinded to the recuperative
possibilities of change as well.
Kelsie Hahn of the Waco Tribune-Herald reported that late on June 2
Willie Jessop, one of the elders of the YFZ community, announced that from
then on, the FLDS would no longer promote or sanction the marriages of
underage girls. That change would bring the FLDS into line with the other
polygamist groups that claim a Mormon lineage and that count more than
35,000 adherents. At least one of those groups, the Apostolic United
Brethren, had already distanced itself from the FLDS over the particular
issue of underage arranged marriages, as Winslow noted in the Deseret
Morning News May 28.
If the FLDS community enacts those changes in practice and abides by them,
it will remove one of the most emotionally charged elements of its identity
and potentially reduce some of the tension with its neighbors and law
enforcement. The practice of polygamy, of course, would remain a touchstone
of difference and a blatantly illegal activity. But, whether due more to
their own isolation or to governmental indifference, polygamous communities
have survived since the 1890 Manifesto announcing the cessation of plural
marriages in the LDS church and the 1904 “Second Manifesto” that threatened
to excommunicate those engaged in what Mormons have always referred to as
The pressure on unconventional religious groups to conform is substantial,
coming as it does from disillusioned former members, law enforcement,
government agencies, neighbors, and the media. Many religious groups have
crumbled under the pressure and conformed or vanished. Some have maintained
a precarious and dynamic balance between faithfulness to their distinctive
religious vision and accommodation to their social context.
The FLDS community thus faces a dilemma in the period after the raid. Public
and governmental scrutiny of its practices are unlikely to diminish in the
near future. At least some of the families who were taken off the ranch have
apparently decided not to go back. Their prophet remains in prison but still
appears to exercise influence. A spokesman, whose claim to authority remains
uncertain, has announced a new policy that promises to reduce tension
between the group and those outside it, perhaps significantly.
As riveting as the two months from the raid to the return of the children
were, the real story for the FLDS will now be whether and how the church can
remake itself in response to the harsh scrutiny it has received. For Texas
and Arizona and Utah, the ongoing story will be whether and how those states
will attempt to limit or eradicate the practice of polygamy among those
legally old enough to marry.
More than 100 years ago, the church from which the FLDS split off faced a
similar turning point. When Mormon President William Woodruff received the
revelation that sanctioned the cessation of plural marriage, it paved the
way for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to become a thriving
world religion with more than 13 million adherents. It also paved the way
for Utah’s acceptance into the United States.
Now, the FLDS community must seek the same kind of guidance, divine or
otherwise. It needs to discern whether its yearning for Zion, the millennial
kingdom, can be tempered at least somewhat by a yearning for conformity—at
least enough to allow the community to survive in tense coexistence with its
The YFZ community has the opportunity to reinforce and extend the impression
held by neighbors like Jerry Swift, who on April 12 told Kirk Johnson of the
New York Times that when they came to Eldorado, FLDS folks behaved
“not any differently than us.”