When the government sticks its finger into private religious worlds, the results are always bizarre and often evoke bigger questions about ultimate authority. The story of this weekend’s raid of a polygamist Mormon sect’s ranch in West Texas are worth watching and thinking about.
By last night, more than 200 women and children had been taken away on buses from the compound in Eldorado called “Yearning for Zion,” where close to 600 members of the Fundamentalist Church of Latter Day Saints (FLDS) have encamped for the last few years. The evacuation was peaceful — putting to rest fears by locals of “another Waco,” where a 1993 FBI/ATF seige of the Branch Davidian sect’s compound ended with 82 deaths.
It remains to be seen whether the raid will be remembered as another Short Creek, the 1953 government action in Southern Utah/Northern Arizona that ended up bolstering the power of FLDS leaders like Warren Jeffs, who used their community’s fear of the outside world to control them.
The raid in West Texas and the investigation leading to it were spurred, according to news reports, by a phone call from the compound last week by a 16-year-old girl who said she’d been sexually abused by an older man.
Although there was an initial stand-off over the polygamists allowing officials access to their temple, the events were ultimately peaceful. I spoke Sunday with a friend, J.D. Doyle, who lives in Eldorado.
The fear of another Waco has been looming since 2004, Doyle said, when the Fundamentalist Church bought the ranch clandestinely for $700,000 in the name of a Nevada business man. Since then, church members have been at work constructing numerous structures, as well as a large white temple. Doyle, whose father is the justice of peace for Eldorado, said the sense was that a larger and more brutal confrontation was avoided because the governing bodies were local, as opposed to federal.
Members of the Fundamentalist Church are without a doubt reading significance into this raid, but it’s hard to know how they see it. But my guess is they’re thinking about another raid that happened half a century ago in Southern Utah/Northern Arizona, where state authorities showed up at a polygamist Mormon community in the middle of the night in the summer of 1953, imprisoned many men, and bused off the women and children for more than a year to live in state institutions. The Short Creek raid has been called the largest mass arrest of men and women in America, and was later viewed as a disaster that further isolated polygamist Mormons from American society. That isolation, I would say, bolstered the power of future FLDS leaders like Warren Jeffs, who used the community’s fear of the outside world to control them.
No matter the circumstances, sexual abuse can’t be tolerated. But I wonder about the degree to which authorities reacted in Eldorado with this massive community evacuation. It’s hard to know exactly what is going on down there, but questions of intrusion and authority should be asked, no matter how marginal the beliefs of the FLDS.