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April 21, 2008

What's So Creepy About the Polygamist Ranch?

In my first post about the renegade Mormon ranch in Texas I wrote that I'd been avoiding the story up to that point because it just plain "creeps me out." I didn't go into more detail because I wasn't quite sure why I felt that way and, more importantly, I thought I ought to be careful about letting my feelings rule my logic, especially because it's a hot button topic for many people who object to the "destruction of a religion."

But, like a loose tooth, I had to keep worrying at it until my brain caught up with my heart. This will be my last post on the topic--at least until something more explosive happens like Janet Reno hooking up with the 4th ID and blazing a trail across Texas--but we need to have a talk about what's so objectionable about the whole idea of polygamist ranches.

First, the most obvious question here is of bigamy and polygamy. Yes, I object to marriages between more than two people, but not because they are intrinsically wrong. After all, it is perfectly legal, though not always socially acceptable, for a man to have children by many different women and to financially support them all...so long as he doesn't try to formalize the arrangement by marriage. Rather, the consequences of "plural marriage" are harmful to the individuals involved, their families, and to society. The particular type of polygamy practiced at the renegade Mormon ranch only exacerbates these consequences.

And that's where the creep factor kicks in. By default, I support the decisions of consenting adults to contract or otherwise engage in whatever behaviors they choose, so long as the harm to others is minimal. But polygamy at these insular ranches is not between consenting adults and the harm is not isolated to the individuals involved. Women--girls, really--who are conditioned from birth to comply with the wishes of the authoritarian leaders of the ranch do not have the opportunity to exercise a meaningful choice about life's most important decisions. Stat rape is illegal for a reason.

In fact, the women and men in these groups cannot make meaningful choices about decisions large or small. Everything from the clothes they wear to the places they live is determined by a revered authoritarian "elder" or supervisor. Needless to say, reproductive choice isn't a consideration. The women and men claim that they have the opportunity to refuse the decisions of the leaders, but it is hard to believe that people who are raised to comply or face exile (or damnation) have the opportunity to choose. To the extent we say they have a constitutional right of religion to isolate their followers in such a manner, we are supporting the notion of constitutionally protected coercion.

Second, we can't pretend that the ranch setting is pro-family. I was excoriated in the comments earlier for saying that wife-swapping was going on at the ranch. But it's worse than that. Child-swapping is common, too, and each wife and child is instructed to refer to and defer to the "father of the household." Attachment to the child's biological father is discouraged. Such family-swaps happen when the ranch leaders determine that a man is no longer worthy of keeping his wife and kids. The men, women, and children are not given any more meaningful choice about these swaps than any other decision. (On a purely pedantic level, I must confess that I'm pathetically curious to know what their tax filings look like.)

It's not hard to see the collision of ideals. On the one hand, we want to protect their freedom to practice religion. On the other, their religious practices come perilously close to making a mockery of many other rights we hold dear. Worse, when the state tries to curtail illegal religious practices, folks come out of the woodwork to protest on behalf of freedom of religion. I don't envy law enforcement in any of the communities near to these polygamist ranches.

Third, a few emails objected to my use of the term "throwback" to refer to the ranch. I agree that was unkind, but it wasn't inaccurate. These folks embrace outdated Mormon teachings and a mid-century lifestyle. It is fair to wonder what other old behaviors lurk inside their private enclaves. And before anyone accuses me of being the Thought Police, I am talking about behaviors, not just beliefs.

My point is, these polygamist ranches would be objectionable even if polygamy were legal. But let's not pretend that this is an attack on a religion. Rather, the polygamist ranch is in trouble because of particular religious practices that are illegal. More than that, the illegal behavior has opened the door for the state to determine whether the children are being abused. That's not an argument that the ranch is likely to win. The underlying principle behind all of family law is that the judge must rule in the best interests of the child. As long as they polygamists persist in their illegal practices, the run the risk of losing their children.

Anyways, I'm obviously still chewing on this issue. Your thoughts on it will be appreciated.

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posted by Gabriel Malor at 12:46 PM

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