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Tuesday, June 14, 2005

This Country is Not Very Homogenous

The enormous size of this nation, and particularly the vast empty spaces of the West, allows an enormous, virtually limitless heterogeneity. This vast multiplicity of experiences often expresses itself in decidedly eccentric, even disturbing, ways. One of the stranger manifestations of modern American life is the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, a topic discussed in today's LA Times:

ST. GEORGE, Utah — Abandoned by his family, faith and community, Gideon Barlow arrived here an orphan from another world.

At first, he played the tough guy, aloof and hard. But when no one was watching, he would cry.

Gideon is one of the "Lost Boys," a group of more than 400 teenagers — some as young as 13 — who authorities in Utah and Arizona say have fled or been driven out of the polygamous enclaves of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City over the last four years.

His stated offenses: wearing short-sleeved shirts, listening to CDs and having a girlfriend. Other boys say they were booted out for going to movies, watching television and staying out past curfew.

Some say they were sometimes given as little as two hours' notice before being driven to St. George or nearby Hurricane, Utah, and left like unwanted pets along the road.

Authorities say the teens aren't really being expelled for what they watch or wear, but rather to reduce competition for women in places where men can have dozens of wives.

"It's a mathematical thing. If you are marrying all these girls to one man, what do you do with all the boys?" said Utah Atty. Gen. Mark Shurtleff, who has had boys in his office crying to see their mothers. "People have said to me: 'Why don't you prosecute the parents?' But the kids don't want their parents prosecuted; they want us to get the No. 1 bad guy — Warren Jeffs. He is chiefly responsible for kicking out these boys."

The 49-year-old Jeffs is the prophet, or leader, of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The FLDS, as it is known, controls Hildale and Colorado City.

The sect, which broke from the Mormon Church more than a century ago, has between 10,000 and 15,000 members. It believes in "plural marriage," that a man must have at least three wives to reach the highest levels of heaven. The Mormon Church forbids polygamy and excommunicates those who practice it.

The Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints is a living link to the 19th century, when polygamy was part of the Mormon mainstream. The abolition of polygamy was, of course, the key to Utah being granted statehood in the 1890's. The federal government had for decades been hammering the Mormons over polygamy, driving many of the Church elders into hiding, until the point where they finally gave up and got rid of the practice (one of the main guys having handily had a prophecy about it of course). Still, small sects that chose to retain polygamy like the FCLDS have managed to survive up until today.

Needless to say, such groupings are deeply, deeply strange; a holdover from a very different period of time. Even in the context of the outer fringes of American Christianity, such cultic heresies are particularly bizarre and fascinating. Essentially, the head of the community, currently Warren Jeffs, sets himself up as a prophet and communal dictator, attempting to control virtually every aspect of his followers lives. Quite often those who defy the leader are excommunicated and exiled (usually men) while women, who primarily function as baby machines, only escape with the help of outsiders. The curious thing about this group is that I find the mindset at work to be far less comprehensible than, say, Salafists. It is so far removed from anything that I have personally experienced in my life that I literally struggle to even place myself in their position.

This is one odd country that we share.

|| RPH || 2:32 AM || |