a solution to the FLDS PR problem

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.)


I'm a college professor and, well, a professional X-Mormon. Thus, ProfXM. I love my Mormon family, but have issues with LDS Inc. And I'm not afraid to tell LDS Inc. what I really think... anonymously, of course!

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13 Responses

  1. Mike says:

    It might work. One thing I wonder is whether ‘too many’ (however many that might be) girls would leave. The FLDS need a certain imbalance in the numbers of males & females in order to sustain the practice, right? What might be the optimal imbalance? (Strange sounding concept)

  2. profxm says:

    I’m not sure what the optimal ratio is. Maybe 3 or 4 women to 1 male. But despite my belief that the FLDS would never employ this approach because so many would leave, I actually think it would solve the lost boys situation and the gender imbalance. We know women tend to be more religious than men. We also know that the young men in the group recognize greater pressure to leave the group than the women. Thus, the men could use the “leben erleben” to transition out of the community. The women would be, in my opinion, more likely to return due to their dedication and commitment to religion (though we don’t know, for certain, why women are more religious than men). So, while more young people of both sexes would leave, my belief is that more women than men would return, helping to resolve the gender imbalance. I could, of course, be wrong. Only one way to find out…

  3. chanson says:

    That sounds like a good solution. I agree with you that the problem isn’t so much the “poly” as the coersion and abuse. This solution would curb some of the problems by ensuring that those who want to leave can leave.

    It’s possible that this would caus them gender-ratio problems, but not necessarily. Probably a lot of young guys aren’t on the leadership track — and know it — hence an opportunity to establish themselves in a regular job with income might be very attractive.

    Plus, if they go to a Mormon area, they’d probably end up converting at least a few LDS to FLDS. That’s another reason to send them to secular families — sending them to LDS families would cause a lot of friction in both directions…

  4. chanson says:

    ProfXM — we kind of cross-posted there. I think you’re right that it’s more likely to help their gender ratio than hurt it, for the reasons you suggest.

  5. profxm says:

    I just read your post, too. Definite cross-post. What’s the saying, “Great minds think alike”?!?

  6. chanson says:

    They might even improve their ratio (despite a decrease in members overall). After all, the mainstream LDS church has a big problem with the gender ratio imbalance in the other direction.

    Even if the overwhelming majority of single LDS women value their autonomy, there’s probably a non-trivial number who would prefer to be one of the wives of a great, godly man rather than be shamed in the LDS community as a lifelong old maid, waiting for a reward in heaven. With the FLDS youth among them telling them their version of the teachings of JS and BY, they’d be likely to attract a few of these devout Mormon single ladies. And the FLDS are a small enough minority that they wouldn’t have to attract a very large proportion of the LDS to make a big impact on their own numbers…

  7. beegood says:

    I had to read this post several times and the comments to make sure I was reading right! Oh, lets just take LDS children at 18 and send them off to live in the outside world. Hey, I grew up in the LDS church and they have always been accused of indoctrination. Indoctrination seems to be any parent that passes on their traditions either religious or not. I left the LDS Church and joined in marriage as a plural wife over 20 years ago. Best decision I ever made. I am costantly amazed at the people that tell us we are all brainwashed and not able to make our own decisions. The fact is people just don’t like the decisions we make! I had plenty of autonomy at 34 when I made the decision. My children have been “trained” to think for themselves and weigh their options, of which they have many.
    I think everyone that thinks this is such a great idea needs to remember that we follow the fundamental teachings of the Gospel of Jesus Christ as restored by Jospeh Smith. Do you think he would say send your children out of your communities or would he support teaching your children good principles and let them govern themselves…which is what the vast majority of Fundamentalist Mormons do. Everyone seems to know what to do to the fundamentalists…maybe we should think about living the Gospel in each of our own lives instead of fixing everyone else.

  8. profxm says:

    Hi beegood. Welcome to MSP.

    I think you may have missed the point. I didn’t suggest in my post that this would be something the leadership of the FLDS or any other polygamist group would like. And, frankly, I do think many of the women who join the FLDS later in life (like you, at 34) have complete autonomy in their decision.

    What I was suggesting is that it would solve their problem – the public relations problem. The PR problem is that people outside the FLDS don’t think the girls raised by the group have autonomy. By sending them away for a year the leadership of the FLDS would illustrate that the girls do, in fact, have autonomy because they would come back of their own accord. They would clearly be given a choice and then choose polygamy.

    In my post, I was suggesting that the critics of the FLDS accuse the parents and leaders of indoctrination and/or brainwashing. I don’t think the FLDS indoctrinate their children any more or less than any other religious group.

    As a parent, I’m sure you believe you are doing the best for your kids. And, frankly, I’m sure you are doing exactly what you think is best for your kids. Whether or not I agree with that, I respect your right to raise your kids how you would like. If, as you say, you “train” your kids to think for themselves, excellent. I wish every parent would do the same.

    Lastly, at no point did I say children should be taken from their parents. I think every parent should send their child away willingly to experience a different culture at some point. It helps children understand that there are a lot of different cultures and different doesn’t mean better or worse, just different. Do you disagree with the idea of letting your children experience a different culture? If so, maybe you don’t give them as much autonomy as you claim…

  9. Hellmut says:

    Good to meet you, Beegood. It seems to me that Profxm, at least, has no trouble believing that there are some women who like to be polygamous wives.

    In light of the fact that human beings tend to be jealous, it will only be a tiny minority of women who can honestly say that they prefer polygamy over monogamy.

    That is why polygamous cultures have to rely coercion to sustain their way of life. Coercion will be useful to reduce the number of males while retaining females.

    When state and society support, protect, and promote family arrangements, the latter should at least be free and equal.

    Personally, I would not mind polygamy as long as it is voluntary and humane. It would have to be demonstrated that the women are actually independent, which means that they need to be adults and should have a college degree or a vocational certificate that is relevant in the labor market.

    Polygamous relationships will not be equal unless husbands who have multiple wives also accept that their wives may choose several husbands.

    It is only fair.

  10. chanson says:

    I agree on principle that out of fairness the non-monogamy should be reciprocal, and I also agree that female empowerment (legal and economic) tends to increase the proportion of monogamy in a society (at the expense of top-ranking males monopolizing multiple females). I discussed this in polygamy and the armchair primatologist.

    However, even when women have lots of options open to them in society, it seems that the polygynous-type family structure doesn’t generally decrease all the way down to a negligible or zero percent of families. Some women voluntarily choose to be the mistress of a wealthy or important man (or to be the new “trophy” wife, after the rich man has divorced the wife he raised a family with).

    As a feminist, my #1 priority is to increase women’s options. I’m not out to force women out of polygamy if that’s what they want. I’m far more concerned about seeing that the option to leave exists. My impression is that in polygamist societies, the biggest problem is that the women who might want to leave don’t have the support system (economic scaffolding) to be able to leave with their children if they so choose.

    ProfXM’s suggestion would go a long way towards allievating that problem. If women like Beegood voluntarily choose this lifestyle as an adult, I really don’t have a problem with that.

  11. chanson says:

    p.s. It seems obvious that polygamy is more attractive for men than for women, but that’s only true if you look only at the most visible men, the top dogs. The average guy is actually better off in a monogamous society, in terms of likelihood of finding a desirable wife and successfully raising a family.

    My guess is that if the FLDS followed this plan, their overall retention would decrease dramatically (at first), but their gender ratio would improve, especially if they stack the deck by sending the girls out for the senior year of H.S. (17 to 18) but sent the guys out to work at around 19.

  12. To be honest, I think this goes beyond a PR problem. The FLDS community has been forced into isolation by outlawing consensual adult relationships. That’s regrettable because all indications that I have—as an outsider—tell me the community has become deeply dysfunctional.

    I can’t pretend to see it some other way, beegood. You may be part of a community (voluntarily) that exiles its youth, undereducated and unprepared for life in the outside world. Given this, I have a hard time taking seriously claims that children are taught to think and be independent. Maybe in some cases, but it doesn’t appear to be the case generally.

    Part of the blame for this lies at our doorstep for outlawing polygamy. The other part of the blame lies with adult members of the FLDS community.

  13. Hellmut says:

    I am not sure, Jonathan, if consensual relationships are even possible in patriarchal societies.

    Their purpose is to subjugate women, which means to limit their choices.

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