I’m not sure why, but an idea has been floating around in my mind the last couple of weeks. I’m not usually in the mood to help a religious group survive, but I figured this thought was worth putting into the public domain for criticism at the very least.
The FLDS have a pretty serious public relations problem. In my opinion, the problem is not about multiple wives. While most Americans aren’t going to sign up for polygamy, given the serial monogamy and rampant extramarital sex in the US today (up to 25% of men and about 15% of women engage in extramarital sexual relations), I don’t think most Americans would care if people decided to live in committed polygamous relationships. But the catch is that most Americans aren’t sure that the women who sign up for polygamy are willing and know what they are getting themselves into.
So, the PR problem comes into focus: People find the FLDS practice of marrying young women off at very young ages (before 18 is usually the sticking point) to be objectionable. We simply don’t think that women under the age of 18 are knowledgeable enough about life and the world to make a decision like that. Thus, the general perception of outsiders when looking at the FLDS is that the women are in these marriages not because they want to be but because they were indoctrinated into believing they should be and were almost forced (not physically, but certainly a great deal of psychological pressure was applied). Thus, this is an issue of autonomy: Do the women in these marriages have the autonomy to make their own decisions? As one of the most individualistic countries on the planet, Americans value autonomy. When it appears to have been taken away, we object.
The FLDS post the 2008 raid stated clearly that they were no longer going to allow underage marriages. Kudos to them for making this effort. But they haven’t solved the problem. Here’s why: If you keep a girl locked into a community where she is repeatedly indoctrinated to believe that her sole purpose in life is to be a plural wife to a man and have lots of kids, it doesn’t matter if she is 14 or 18 when she marries, she will still feel a psychological need to marry and will not have the full autonomy that Americans think she should have.
My solution: An FLDS version of Rumspringa. The Amish encourage their youth to leave the Amish community for a period to experience life outside the community (among the rest of us) before deciding whether or not they want to be baptized and join the community. Those who return to the community and are baptized are expected to be lifelong members. But the key is: Who criticizes the Amish on autonomy grounds? I don’t recall ever hearing anyone criticize the Amish, the men in particular, for forcing the women to marry against their will. Why? Because the Amish don’t force people into marriages against their will (I’m speaking in generalities here; there are, I’m sure, exceptions).
So, here’s what I propose: The FLDS send their kids outside the community to live with secular families for one year at the age of 18. While living with the host family, the kids can either go to school or work.
Why secular families? Well, they are more tolerant than religious families. They would be less likely to criticize the kids if they decided to willingly return to the FLDS community after the year, so long as they knew they were making the decision on their own, without any undue pressure from the leadership of the FLDS or their families. They also wouldn’t try to convert them to a different religion, though they may make them think critically about their own beliefs.
The kids, of course, are given the freedom to choose whether to return to the community at the end of the year or not. As a result, the only people who return to the community are going to be those who want to be there and choose to be there as adults. Criticism of women being unable to choose their future would be sharply curtailed. What’s more, this would substantially improve the relations of the FLDS community with the outside world as pretty much every host family would have a chance to become familiar with members of the community. Greater familiarity with members of the community substantially reduces prejudice (I can send you a publication on this if you’re interested).
I even did a little work to come up with a name for it: “leben erleben”, which is German for “experiencing life”. (Hellmut can correct my German if I got this way off here; blame Google Translate.)
Now for the major problem: Would the leadership of the FLDS agree to this? My sense is that they would not precisely because they know this would mean a rapid decline in their membership. Why? Indoctrination into a religion (a.k.a. socialization, in less harsh terms) is a highly successful means of keeping people in a community. Still today, the single best predictor of adult religiosity is childhood religiosity. If the FLDS were to allow their children to leave and see that the outside world is not a bad place run by Satan and his minions, the number of kids who would return would be very low. The FLDS would lose followers quickly, though they would probably survive. Those who do return would be committed members, but they would also probably have a higher self-esteem and be less willing to subjugate their personal wants and desires for those of the leadership of the community. It would definitely cause problems initially, but may result in a stronger FLDS community in the end.
So, what do you think? Would this solve the FLDS PR problem?
(Of course, I didn’t address the issue of The Lost Boys nor the concentration of power, abuse of power, and strict hierarchy that all exist among the FLDS and have also been criticized. However, I do think this solution would address most of those issues at the same time. Also note that this would be a good solution for any other heavily criticized polygamist group, though the others do tend to be a little more open – not all of them, but the larger ones, like the AUB.)