This is a guest post by Rick Snedeker. He writes at the Godzooks blog.
Everyone, but most especially true believers, should watch two deeply disturbing documentaries that aired recently on A&E. Both films terrifyingly illustrate the inherent danger in religious ideology and faith: how unquestioned spiritual fealty can imperceptibly lead from piety to depravity — and even death.
The docs are Warren Jeffs: Prophet of Evil, about the atrocities committed by the now-convicted, statutory-rapist leader of the Fundamentalist Church of the Latter-Day Saints (FLDS), a polygamous Mormon fringe group in Utah; and Waco: Madman or Messiah, about the doomed apocalyptic Christian cult led by megalomaniacal Texas preacher David Koresh, who fancied himself a reincarnation of Jesus Christ.
If that’s not enough to unsettle your unflinching faith in devout humankind, you might also read the transcript of a May 10, 2006 CNN documentary about the Jeffs-led cult, Hiding in Plain Sight: Polygamy, hosted by Anderson Cooper. In the CNN piece, Brent Jeffs calls out the lie on his uncle:
He puts on a front like he’s a very nice man, a very giving man, very happy. But underneath all that, he’s very dark and very evil.
Quotes from the community’s women matter-of-factly justifying, even glorifying, their status as sexual chattel to the sect’s men are surreal in their utter cluelessness. Few women escaped, but Carolyn Jessup was one of them:
I think that one of the things that the outside world doesn’t understand about the world that I come from, is that they see the polygamous lifestyle as an issue about religious freedom, religious rights. But what I’ve experienced is its basically about human rights issues. You’re not supposed to think. You’re supposed to be willing to be perfectly obedient. To me, I see it as a life of slavery.
As with all such cults, a rigorous premium was placed on isolation from mainstream society, secrecy and severe punishments to enforce absolute obedience.
Elissa Wall, now 32, apprehensively recalls her time as a 14-year-old in Jeffs’ cult being illegally forced to marry her 19-year-old cousin. She had no say in the matter.
The married mother of three and a self-exile from the FLDS community says now that, even as a young teen, she sensed something strange about the environment:
We led a very secret lifestyle… We didn’t interact with the outside world. We didn’t go to public school. We were educated, cultivated and bred to be products of the church and the religion.
I have this one vivid memory being at a beach in northern Utah. I was watching this family play about 500 yards away from us. They looked loving, kind and caring. The mother was hugging and holding her children. They were laughing and they didn’t look like these evil disciples of the devil like I have been told they were. So I think my questions really started early on.
In Prophet of Evil, a parade of women from the cult recount their experiences of being sexually molested by Jeffs when they were innocent girls, one as young as 5, even one of the so-called prophet’s own daughters. Ultimately, Jeffs reportedly had as many as 78 wives — including 12- and 15-year-olds — and fathered more than 50 children. That’s all in addition to controlling millions of dollars in church funds and holding absolute authority over the entire FLDS flock. One disciple said any of his followers would “kill in an instant” if ordered by Jeffs.
With Wall as one of the star witnesses for the prosecution, Jeffs, now 62, was eventually sentenced in 2011 to life plus 20 years for felonious sexual assault of “brides” of 12 and 15. He also inflicted enormous suffering on individuals and families by banishing young men as a way to limit competition for women (a few men controlled large harems), forcing sex and marriage on minor girls, and ruining the lives of many followers and rivals by poisoning public opinion against them.
All of this was in the name of goodness and godliness — and accepted without question by his followers.
A similar dynamic was at play under Koresh at his isolated Mt. Carmel Branch Davidian compound outside Waco, except it ended murderously in April of 1993 after a 51-day siege with his death and that of 75 disciples, including 23 children, in a catastrophic fire that leveled the main building. Six followers and four law-enforcement officials had been killed earlier as agents tried to arrest Koresh, who believed he only had to answer to God’s law, not man’s.
Both Jeffs and Koresh controlled their compliant followers with fear of the imminent End Times and by claiming to receive direct “revelations” from God, ostensibly giving the leaders divine authority for commanding their disciples to do anything whatsoever they wanted. Followers were too indoctrinated to effectively question or complain.
The Waco doc shows how devastated law enforcement officials were on the final day when a raging fire broke out inside the compound, and it became clear that Koresh was not allowing even the children to escape. Kat Schroeder, a Branch Davidian mother who fled the compound during the standoff, left her children behind and later watched as they died in the fire.
Watching everyone you know die, when you know dying is the right thing to do, then it’s actually a good thing. I should have died, too… [The FBI] didn’t have any idea that everyone in that building had complete and utter devotion to doing God’s will before man’s will. And that meant, we were not comin’ out.
Easy for her to say on the outside.
Such human tragedies are what inevitably occur — far too often — when people choose to believe in chimera and give their leaders absolute control over their lives. These two documentaries are an important reminder how destructive and deadly unquestioned faith in nonsense can become.
(Screenshot via YouTube)