Monday, January 11, 2010

When Men Become Gods (1/2)

Back in September of 2007, when I was on a two-week military leave from Afghanistan, my wife and I watched a movie called September Dawn starring Jon Voight. The film depicted the Mountain Meadow massacre of 1857, a coldly calculated mass murder involving Mormon militiamen, thinly disguised as Paiute Indians, attacking a wagon train of settlers in Utah Territory. Under the direction of John D. Lee, a friend of founder Joseph Smith, the Mormons killed 120 people—men, women and children; more controversially (but with a degree of credibility it turns out) the film suggests that Brigham Young, the first president of the Latter Day Saint Church and the founder of Salt Lake City, was complicit. This was perhaps the worst slaughter of civilians in the continental United States, until Timothy McVeigh and Al-Qaeda came on the scene. The hijacking of four planes in 2001 and the murderous rampage at Mountain Meadow both occurred on September 11. So, at about the time I saw the film, it was the sesquicentennial anniversary of the massacre and the sixth anniversary of 911. I didn’t realize then that the trial of Warren Jeffs, 51-year-old leader of a polygamist Mormon sect, was also about to get underway.

I recently finished reading a book by Stephen Singular entitled When Men Become Gods: Mormon Polygamist Warren Jeffs, His Cult of Fear, and the Women Who Fought Back (2009). The main title struck my fancy, as I have a sick fascination with psychopaths and other evil scoundrels. Jeffs, who became the de facto prophet of the Church of Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints (FLDS) after his father’s death in 2002, should rank right up there in the satanic pantheon of American cult leaders with Jim Jones and David Koresh. There is a difference, true. Authorities arrested Jeffs without incident; a highway patrol officer pulled over an SUV for an obscured license plate on I-15 just outside Las Vegas, only to find a pale, sleepy-eyed, six-foot-five phantom nervously scarfing down a fast-food salad in the backseat.  Jeffs was a fugitive on the FBI’s Top Ten Most Wanted list. The isolated Mormon community could be nasty toward outsiders, especially investigators poking their noses around, but it never took up arms. Only time would tell, however, whether they could go this route; after all, fundamentalist leaders had been offing their rivals with shotguns a couple of decades earlier. And yet Jeffs was no less evil than those more violent “men of God.”

Safely ensconced in the remote Old Testament terrain of the “Arizona Strip,” located north of the Grand Canyon, the fundamentalist sect straddles the twin towns of Hildale, Utah and Colorado City, Arizona. Ultimately we can trace their origins to 1890, when the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, also in September, renounced polygamy in an effort to achieve statehood for Utah and avoid federal seizure of property. This Mormon Manifesto was pure political expedience, but like the 1978 “Negro Doctrine” that allowed interracial marriages and men of African descent access to the priesthood, it had been sanctioned, conveniently, by a new divine revelation. Ever since, sectarian groups practicing polygamy, in thousands of congregations throughout the U.S. and Canada, have been the bête noire for the mother church in Salt Lake City.

At the risk of turning this reflection on human depravity into a book review, I do have a couple issues with Singular’s account. The author evidently thinks he can’t convey the evils of Jeffs and other sect elders unless he likens them to Islamic Jihadists. I don’t need this association with burning towers and suicide bombers to appreciate the dangers that polygamist cults pose. He also attributes Jeffs’ views to a fascination, if not admiration for, Hitler; clearly the fundamentalist (and dare I say, a fair share of mainstream) Mormons hold ugly racist views. Rulon Jeffs (pictured above), the father, once decreed that anyone who marries a black merits “death on the spot.” But the author only suggests, and does not substantiate, this connection. Is this yet another attempt to manipulate the reader? Again, there’s no need. There are plenty of wicked deeds to repulse us without any Nazi association. If anyone deserves a life sentence in prison, it’s Warren Jeffs I should think.

The story of the FLDS is a tale of control freaks enjoying absolute power not unlike, say, the North Korean regime on a microcosmic level. My reference to the East Asian communist dystopia is not an offhand reference. Images of Kim Jung-Il and his deceased father, the “Eternal President,” are as ubiquitous in the isolated country as the hunger and suffering of their oppressed subjects; similarly, on the wall or mantle of an FDLS home you’ll see a photo not of Jesus, not Gandhi, not even Brigham Young, but Warren and his pa, Rulon. From the Anabaptist zealots of Münster to crazy-eyed Marshall Applewhite in San Diego, history is replete with divinely-inspired whack jobs duping their gullible sheep with signs, wonders, and promise of a blissful future, in this life or the next. For his part, Jeffs ruled over an empire of safe houses and compounds throughout the Southwest and as God’s anointed could do whatever he wished. To quote Megadeth’s doggerel verse, “You take a mortal man, And put him in control, Watch him become a god, Watch peoples heads a’roll.”

Some of this stuff you just can’t make up. What if I were to tell you that some lanky dude, equal parts vindictive, creepy, nondescript and nerdy, ordered the extermination of all pets in the community? (Those troll-like creatures with the pitchforks will no doubt be prodding him up in line ahead of Michael Vick in the bad place.) How about banishing young men from the town to free up teenage girls for grizzled pot-bellied men, leaving the hapless youths to wander the deserts of Utah without hope, hearth, or home? What say you to women forced to wear their hair in a tight bun, pastel-colored dresses from the Victorian Age, and a constricting bodice underneath, come rain or shine? Rest assured, beyond these oddities, we get the good old-fashioned rape, sodomy, sex with minors, and isolation from media requisite for many cults. There’s nothing new under the sun; men have been engaged in such activities for millennia. But the fact that these crimes occur within the American heartland should give us pause.