The 19th and early 20th century Shaker sect successfully followed their vow of abstinence, leaving behind a legacy of beautiful furniture and empty dormitories. But to a religious sect, that must be considered a success. They stayed true to their beliefs, right into eternity. The Amish and the Mennonites, with their sincere beliefs, should be admired; it's easy to profess a love of God but getting up at five A.M. to do back-breaking physical labor because you love God calls for a very strong commitment.
We, living on the outside of these communities, can see only the visible and cannot see or understand the dynamics behind the closed doors. So, what then distinguishes a cult from a religion, other than media scrutiny? David Koresh and his followers were called a cult, but anytime the ATF and FBI shoot up the place, they will call you something. The Branch Davidian’s were affiliated with the Seventh Day Adventists, hardly considered a cult. But the family of God, unlike our own families, has escape clauses and the Adventists disowned the Davidians. “Hey Dave, isn’t that your crazy cousin Eddy?” Well, no, not any more, he wasn’t following our family teachings.
Due to the fear of outsiders meddling in their internal affairs, many sects become more secretive. They claim outsiders won’t and can’t understand their practices and the indulgences granted by God. Be it secular or spiritual, it is impossible to deny that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. The secret societies tend to become more secretive and isolated in a self-perpetuating cycle. So I guess it could be said that a sect welcomes outsiders while a cult shuns them.
Many sects display what would be called a normal church hierarchy, but as in many small towns, they become dysfunctional. I once lived in a small town where the police would dispatch a car to take the mayor home from the country club when he was too drunk to drive. Two officers were sent to assist, one to drive and one to follow in the mayor’s car, a service not offered others in the community. So, the point is, what are the limits to church authority?
Living in the southern United States, I have seen department store managers arrested for violating state blue laws. Blatant, obviously unconstitutional laws, setting up church-proscribed limits on when merchants can do business and civil authorities kowtowing to them. Even today, in Atlanta, liquor store sales are illegal on Sunday because of Church-inspired teachings. However, the bars and restaurants can serve them up. “You drive safely goin' home now, ya hear?” Good theology and bad government, or is it the other way around?
In the '80’s, the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh bought a 64,000 acre ranch in Oregon. Within three years the religious group developed into a town of 7,000 people, complete with fire department, water reservoir and air strip. Friends of Oregon, an environmental group, maintained that the followers of the Bhagwan were violating environmental laws. The state's Attorney General ruled that the city was essentially an arm of a religious organization and that its incorporation thus violated the principle of Separation of Church and State.
The followers of the Bhagwan maintained religious persecution and the truth lies somewhere in between. For a cult or religious group to set up camp on the edge of a small town and to import thousands of followers who then become voters and upset the status quo in the county, is that religious freedom? Or is it religious intolerance, and if so, on whose side? The early Mormon settlements faced exactly the same issues in Missouri and in Illinois. The Mormons were run off by angry locals claiming the Mormons were attempting to take over their communities; the Mormons maintained it was simply religious intolerance.
The Mormons arrived in Utah and founded a community without competition and have built not only a city, but also a state and some would say an empire. Had the Bhagwan arrived in Utah one hundred and fifty years ago, perhaps the NBA would now have the Bhagwan Jazz. The state's laws mirror Mormon beliefs just as the Southern Baptists influence Georgia’s. But then the question becomes difficult and murky and dark. Is Mormonism a Christian sect, or a separatist cult? While they welcome converts, the higher levels are unobtainable except to those born into the religion.
The United States Federal Government and the State of Utah have a history of prolonged litigation where the state of Utah acts as a shield for the church. The church was intentionally founded on territory outside the borders of government control and when Congress claimed the territory of Utah, Brigham Young was named its first territorial Governor. The Church was the State and the federal government was almost powerless to do anything about it. Federal officials appointed from Washington were ignored, judges couldn’t get warrants served or orders enforced. At one point 3,000 Federal troops were dispatched to obtain Federal sovereignty.
But Young’s message was clear: we are in charge here; we tolerate you, you don’t tolerate us. When Congress passed a federal law outlawing polygamy, Brigham Young went out and married 25 more wives. In 1857, a wagon train passing through Utah stopped to rest and refit in Salt Lake City, as was common practice. But a small group of disaffected Mormons asked to join the train, seeking the protection of its numbers. As the wagon train continued on its westward journey, it was attacked by Mormons dressed as Indians and a siege developed. After five days, Mormons in native garb offered to intercede with the alleged-Indian raiding war party. After a parlay they returned and said the Indians had agreed to let them live if they would march out of the wagon train, leaving behind all their worldly goods. Their 800 cattle, their personal belongings, even their guns were forfeited. The settlers agreed and walked out under a Mormon white flag of truce. After they had gone about a mile, the Mormon guard opened fire upon them, killing 120 immigrants.
They chased two men, who had escaped, 150 miles into the desert before murdering them. They spared only 17 children, age seven and under, and placed them with good Mormon families. When the issue came before a court, the Mormon juries failed to indict. Eventually one man was executed for the crime while others with immigrant cattle in their pens were exonerated. Even today it is hard to say that Federal sovereignty won out.
The recent raid on the Texas compound draws that into sharp contrast, while PBS broadcasts a flattering mini series entitled, “The Mormons.” The media refers to the Texas Compound as “The Polygamist Sect,” only the so-called experts refer to them as LDS members, which is factually true but the group name as they call themselves is Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. The community around the camp knew of their polygamist beliefs and ignored them with a civil libertarian view of live and let live. To a point, that’s commendable but the US Supreme Court ruled that the law of the land overrules religious practices.
Polygamy is out, Native Americans using peyote as they have for thousands of years, is out. Serving sacramental wine in a dry county is technically forbidden but conveniently overlooked. That’s part of the problem with religious freedom, we don’t want to interfere as long as no one is getting hurt. We want to give each other our space, we exempt church schools from some of the rules secular schools must follow, and as this case points out, it is only when the issue is forced upon the government that they will act.
The raid on the Texas compound was prompted by a sixteen-year-old female who called family services claiming that she was being physically and sexually abused by her husband. Federal agents, along with Texas Rangers, raided the compound but failed to find the 16-year-old complainant. Capt. Barry Caver of the Rangers complained that during the search, residents moved between houses in what Caver described as an "eggshell game. We had issues with that." Police believe that they might already have the young girl in custody, but I doubt it. No witness, no crime, and everything goes back the way it was. The indictments fall flat. There are few secrets for the unhappy in such a world. As the Salt Lake Tribune described it, “FLDS men wept and prayed as investigators moved to search Texas temple.”
“The first priority for law enforcement was serving a search warrant," County Sherriff Doran said. While officers also have a search warrant for 50-year-old Dale Evans Barlow, the man accused by the girl. He has so far remained free in Arizona and denies knowing the girl. But Doran said Barlow "is still a suspect," and, "we are working on that (part of the investigation) right now."
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