My first reaction on hearing about the Texas raid was “Finally, the authorities have stopped ignoring the abuses committed by the polygamists!” Yet the more I hear about this story, the more reservations I have about it.
The state took several hundred children away from their parents and put them in foster care on the strength of one anonymous phone call? Now I know you’re thinking “Chanson, everybody knows these guys are forcing underage girls to marry creepy old geezers.” True, but “everybody knows” isn’t evidence. Michael Carr makes the following point:
Now you tell me, if you took a two block area in a rough area of an inner city, wouldn’t you find that the children living in that area would probably be suffering all sorts of abuse, addictions, and neglect? Yet you couldn’t simply take them away en masse and distribute them to foster care. You’d have to make this decision on a case by case basis and the mass raid itself would be illegal. How is that different than this case?
Taking children away from their families is a very serious matter, not to be taken lightly. Individual evidence should be present for every family affected. Granting the state (and, in fact, a competing religion) the license to round up all of the children of a given community — based on the parents’ ideology — is scary enough that it should give you pause even if you’re horrified by the polygamists’ practices.
Recall this famous quote attributed to H. L. Mencken:
The trouble with fighting for human freedom is that one spends most of one’s time defending scoundrels. For it is against scoundrels that oppressive laws are first aimed, and oppression must be stopped at the beginning if it is to be stopped at all.
And in this case, if you’d like to see the scoundrels brought to justice, that’s all the more reason not to screw it up. This mess may well help the fundamentalists attract converts from within the mainstream LDS community. Remember Mormons thrive on “persecution” especially if they can reasonably claim it’s unfair or unjustified. All we need is for one television program to show a sweet FLDS mom pining for her kids and then cut to a shot of the same kids being taken by their new foster parents to a fiery “Joseph Smith was a fraud” sermon at a Baptist church, and a good portion of Utah will start thinking “Maybe these guys are the real true church after all…”
Already some voices in the Bloggernacle are tentatively starting to sympathize with them (see here, among other places). As bad as they are, there’s some legitimate claim of unfair treatment. Take a recent case in Wisconsin where a child died of a curable disease because the parents decided to pray instead of taking the child to a doctor. The only reason the parents might avoid a charge of criminal neglect is because the law has an exemption for the case where the neglect was (supposedly) obedience to God’s will. And the authorities didn’t remove the other three children from the house because they saw “no abuse or signs of abuse.”
So a child who is dead of criminal neglect isn’t sufficient evidence to take three kids into custody (if the perps are fundy Christians), but one anonymous phone call is enough to take a few hundred (if the perps are fundy Mormons…).
So what to do about the FLDS and other fundamentalist Mormon groups? Obviously we can’t just let them keep forcing teenage girls into marriages with their uncles.
I kind of lean towards improving public education (instead of scrapping and trashing the public education system further and further). This would give the kids some exposure to alternate ideas and give them the skills to make up their minds about what they’re being taught and to leave if they so choose. Additionally, legal recognition of polygamy might help since regulating it could curb abuses (especially underage marriages). And if taking another spouse were considered legal grounds for divorce (so one spouse automatically has the right to alimony, child support, and custody if the other chooses to take a new spouse), then we could test the FLDS claim that the women are there of their own free will. Those who would like to leave would be able to leave without forcing an alternate ideology on those that don’t.