Tapati (tapati) wrote,

Fundamentalism and Women in the Mormon Faith

I've been reading about the FLDS (fundy mormon sect) in two books, Under The Banner Of Heaven by Jon Krakauer and Escape, by Carolyn Jessop.

It is pretty clear that while it was always a very strict environment where women's lives were very controlled, once Warren Jeffs gained power (as his father became ill and then died) it took a turn into full blown dysfunctional cult-hood. It makes it a lot clearer to me where the line is drawn between an alternative religious movement with some restrictive rules and literalist scriptural interpretation and an oppressive and dangerous cult. Carolyn Jessop writes from her view on the inside for many years, bearing and raising her 8 children before she engineered her escape. Krakauer writes from outside but using many interviews with those who were on the inside and those who were very close to the group or whose paths crossed some of the people he portrayed.

In turn it caused me to look back and compare some of the practices to those in the Hare Krsna Movement. While the FLDS even in its better days was more repressive, there are surprising similarities in the way women's lives were viewed and rules they lived by. (The book Fascinating Womanhood  by Helen Andelin was even mentioned--what a blast from the past.) During Warrn Jeffs' reign, women and children lost most of their contact with the outside world, women were forbidden to get a college education, children were removed from public schools, obedience to the husband at all costs was required, medical care was discouraged, and domestic violence increased dramatically--and was condoned for disobedience.

Jeffs is clearly a sociopath and if he could operate on a national scale it's clear he would be a Hitler-like figure. It was his idea, of course, to create the YFZ compound where women and children could be even more isolated from the outside world and their lives more tightly controlled. When Carolyn saw the changes and heard about the plans for a compound, the talk of Armageddon, and her own children's well being was threatened, she knew she had to escape. (Interestingly, a brave group of women operated secret get-togethers over coffee and talked about these frightening changes. The women even used the phrase "she drank the punch" to describe those who seemed like they were falling for this new order in a brainwashed sort of way.)

Being immersed in these stories is really making me think of the thread running through these fundamentalist and restrictive groups in terms of controlling women and children, discouraging education and contact with the outside, forbidding access to media and entertainment, and demonization of people outside the group. If you are going to control a group and make them all think the same way, for good or ill, these are tactics that you must make use of.

In these polygamous marriages, suddenly a young girl anywhere from 14 (now) or 18-21 (before Jeffs) will be told that the prophet has received a revelation that she should be married to Mr. X. Mr. X might be just 30 years older than she, or might be 50-60 years older. He might be so old, if he's the prophet himself, that he can't even consummate the union. It is a status symbol to get your daughter married off to the prophet, and confers more power on you (the father). When the old husband dies, the wife is reassigned to a new husband, because of course women can't be alone and unprotected. In Carolyn's story we hear how numb and resigned she was to her marriage at 18 to the 50 year old Merril Jessop (now Jeffs' right hand man, running the YFZ compound). In just two days from being told that she was to marry, she was torn from her family home, married off, and living in a whole new family with dysfunctional dynamics, power struggles among the wives, and forced to lose her virginity in the most loveless description of sexual intercourse that I have ever read. It was like waking up in a nightmare that never ends. We are forced to marvel that her spirit survived this ordeal.

Under Jeffs, in order to consolidate his power base, he exiled certain men for various sins and reassigned their wives and children to other men. Some women were reassigned more than once and had no way to object or refuse. He also increased the number of young men who were thrown out for such activities as listening to CDs or watching movies. Part of the government's case against him involved charges of sexually abusing young boys.

Also under Jeffs, adultery or even refusing to have sex with your husband could cause you to face "blood atonement." Under blood atonement your throat is split ear to ear. He added the rule that one could only have sex for procreation, once a month--a rule familiar to members of the Hare Krishna movement. He decided that breaking this rule counted as adultery too.

Carolyn Jessop started out a true believer and went through various phases as she moved away from her religion. First she saw that the original doctrines were being subverted by Warren Jeffs and her own husband had never really followed them perfectly anyway. Then she began to have more contact with the outside, and she had received a college degree so she could teach in the local school, so she began to question the basis for her beliefs. She also concluded that if she was going to go to hell if her husband didn't think she'd been a good wife in this lifetime, and she was already living in hell with him during this lifetime, then she might as well leave and have a decent life while she was still alive, and give her children a better life too.

I began to have fantasies of loading up a bus with women who want to get away from these men, though few would have the courage to leave their whole society behind and get on board. Carolyn Jessop had amazing courage to leave the only world she ever knew and go forth into the unknown. She makes the point that people in other cults came from mainstream society and at least know what it is like if they want to leave. She had no map for living on her own in a world with completely different rules and social norms.

Krakauer writes about how the official Mormon church compares to the FLDS and other splinter groups like them. He also points out that Mormonism is the fastest growing religion in the world. The fundamentalist groups number somewhere between 30,000 and 100,000.

The main church currently has 11 million followers throughout the world. At any given moment the church has more than 60,000 missionaries out in the field, converting people at an average rate of two per year (each). Sociologist Rodney Stark estimated in 1984 that there would be 265 million Mormons by 2080 A.D. In 1998, he used current numbers to raise that estimate to 300 million by the final decades of this century. Some think that if the growth continues at its current pace, within 60 years the Mormons will have a major impact on U.S. policies and elections.

However, the more effort the Mormon church puts into gaining mainstream respectability, the more it feeds into the idealism of the FLDS groups who maintain that they are the pure adherents of Joseph Smith's vision--and thus they win more converts as well, from the ranks of the church. They preach that the main church lost its way and they are the only pure ones who will be taken to heaven when Armageddon comes. Of course there are verses in the Book of Mormon to back them up, and they are in fact living closer to what Joseph Smith preached, which is hard for the official church to argue against, though it tries to warn people away from the FLDS and other such groups.

I found these numbers alarming as I read more and more about these various Mormon groups. It seems clear, following a Mormon candidacy for president, that the main church won't just be a quiet group practicing a live and let live philosophy. They are frankly proselytizing and grasping for power. I'm not so sure I want them to get it.

Given the rise in numbers of both branches of Mormonism, I recommend reading both of these books for a full picture of what may be in store as they gain power.

Tags: culture wars, domestic violence, fundamentalism, sexism

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