Watching the polygamists in West Texas come into the sunlight of the 21st century has been jarring, making you feel like a voyeur of some weird historical episode.
You see these 1870 Stepford wives with the braided buns and long dresses, these men with their low monotones and pious, seeming disregard for the law on child sex — and wonder: who opened the time capsule?
But when Texas authorities removed 437 children earlier this month from the compound of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints they did more than give Larry King something to talk about between anorexia stories of the stars. They gave us all a glimpse into what a religion was like before it took on the patina of time — with the statues, murals and polished narratives.
Religion has always been about faith and a certain degree of mythology. It’s pointless to argue whether the Red Sea actually parted, or if Jesus turned water into wine to keep a wedding party going, or if the freezing of the Mississippi River was one of the miracles that allowed early Mormons to flee persecution and build a theocracy in the desert.
Faith is a moving thing; witness the throng in Yankee Stadium who came away in a fever of fellowship after listening to the Pope last weekend, or the 55,000 moved to practice random acts of compassion by the Dalai Lama at Qwest Field in Seattle two weeks ago.
But religion can also be used as an excuse for awful behavior – from the torture of the Roman Catholic Inquisition, to beheadings by Jihadist killers, to the sexual manipulation of children by early Mormons and their latter-day sects.
Mormonism is the most homegrown of American religions, and the fastest-growing in the Western Hemisphere. There are more Mormons in the United States than Presbyterians. The church has been vocal about denouncing the renegade Mormons in Texas, and quick to point out that it abandoned polygamy in 1890, as a condition of Utah’s statehood.
For a long time, though, the church was at odds with basic American ideals, and not just because old guys sanctioned marital sex with dozens of teenage girls. What you see in Texas — in small part — is a look back at some of the behavior of Mormonism’s founding fathers.
When Mitt Romney, in his December speech about his religion, said, “My faith is the faith of my fathers — I will be true to them and to my beliefs,” he was taking on a load of historical baggage.
His faith was founded in 1830 by Joseph Smith Jr., an itinerant treasure-seeker from upstate New York who used a set of magic glasses to translate a lost scripture from God. His personality was infectious, the religion very approachable.
It would have been just another Christian faith had not Smith let his libido lead him into trouble. Before he died at the hands of a mob, he married at least 33 women and girls; the youngest was 14, and was told she had to become Smith’s bedmate or risk eternal damnation.
Smith was fortunate to find a religious cover for his desire. His polygamy “revelation” was put into The Doctrine and Covenants, one of three sacred texts of Mormonism. It’s still there – the word of God. And that’s why, to the people in the compound at Eldorado, the real heretics are in Salt Lake City.
As his biographer, Fawn Brodie, wrote, Joseph Smith “could not rest until he had redefined the nature of sin and erected a stupendous theological edifice to support his new theories on marriage.”
Smith was also a commander-in-chief of his own militia, and a candidate for President, running on a platform of “bringing the dominion of the Kingdom of God” over the United States. His successor, Brigham Young, married 57 women – a harem that attracted curious libertines like Sir Richard Burton to study the American social experiment.
And when the church set up a huge polygamous theocracy in the West, President James Buchanan was forced in the 1850s to send an army of 2,500 – nearly one-sixth of American forces – to uphold the law.
The church did not give up its sexual practices without a long fight. As late as 1880, as Jon Krakauer notes in his book “Under the Banner of Heaven,” Mormon leaders preached that polygamy was above the laws of the land. The church’s then-supreme leader, John Taylor, said that polygamy “has been handed down directly from God. The United States cannot abolish it.”
Fast forward to this century, when the polygamist group makes the same argument at their West Texas compound and at their earlier one in Colorado City, on the Utah-Arizona border. I was at that Colorado City compound, twice in the last four years. It spooked me: the gnarly old men and their child brides, the creepy guards in their pickup trucks, the sing-songy women tending to a dozen children in houses the size of a Motel 6. They were ripping off the state, living on welfare and food stamps, even as they defied civil authorities.
In Colorado City, I spent time with DeLoy Bateman, a high school science teacher, who told of losing his daughter after church authorities ordered her to leave her husband and marry her father-in-law – a man twice her age.
And despite the best efforts of the wealthy, modern Mormon church to leave a big part of its past behind, some Mormons still support the defiance of modern-day polygamist leaders, judging by the comments of Saints who are appalled by the breakup of the compound in Texas.
“Back then, we were the ones in the compound,” wrote Guy Murray, a Mormon lawyer who writes a blog on his faith. He should be applauded for his honesty. But I’m not sure I’d want to be holding that baton of belief, passed through years. Sometimes, the faith of our fathers is better left to the revisionists.
* New York Times