Saturday, April 12, 2008

History and biology cloud debate over Eldorado marriages

History and biology conspire to muddy the raging conflict between moral absolutes in the controversy over the Eldorado polygamist compound, posing complex, hotly contested questions with few simple or pat answers.

If you believe (absolutely) that women should be independent, free to choose from a range of paths in life, educated side by side with men, and encouraged to seek own fulfillment as individuals, then it's likely most Americans today agree with you, and disagree with how FLDS members are raising their kids. Any honest historical observer, though, must grant that Americans from our not too distant past would be astonished at such feminist effrontery.

If you believe (absolutely) in a very traditional line of Christian values (and don't forget FLDS theology is rooted in Christianity, with the addition of Joseph Smith's improbable canon), you may well believe that St. Paul's admonition, "wives, submit to your husbands," means that women should marry, have children, and support a man who shoulders the responsibilities of the world - not so different from what the FLDSers believe.

Indeed, it's worth mentioning that the biblical case for polygamy is longstanding and well-founded. The first example of polygamy in the Bible occurs early on, in Genesis 4:19, when "La'mech took unto him two wives: the name of one was Adah, and the name of the other Zil'lah." But the Old Testament, in particular, is rife with examples of the practice.

Most Christians and certainly Jews are perhaps more familiar with Abraham, the patriarch of Judaism and a much-revered icon in the Christian pantheon. Abraham was an elderly polygamist who not only married much younger women himself, but arranged the marriage sight unseen between his 40-year old son, Isaac, to Rebekah, a virgin (described in the KJV as a "damsel") still living with her parents who was so young she could not travel without a "nurse." (See Genesis 24)

Isaac's wedding ceremony to Rebekah was described in the King James Version thusly: "And Isaac brought her into his mother Sara's tent, and took Rebekah, and she became his wife; and he loved her" (Gen. 24:67). Perhaps that's what's meant by a "spiritual marriage?

To FLDSers and many Christians, the fundamental purpose of marriage is procreation (if not, e.g., then there's no good reason that gays shouldn't marry), and any fool can see that God decides when girls enter their child bearing years, not Harvey Hildebran nor the Texas Legislature.

Other religions contain theologically legitimate (if legally and ethically problematic) endorsements of both plural marriage and marrying very young girls. According to Wikipedia, "Both polygamy and polygyny were practiced in ancient, medieval and early-modern times among many sections of Hindu society."

The prophet Mohamed famously married a 12-year old bride who bore him many children (along with his many other wives), and an estimated 1-3% of Muslims worldwide continue to live in plural marriages. These examples show it's incredibly difficult to separate the controversy over polygamy from religion.

Part of my reaction to this debate reflects my discomfort when I hear people (often from the liberal end of the spectrum) claim that those they view as "victims" have been "brainwashed" by their religion into a belief system that oppresses them. Perhaps so. But another word for brainwashed is "convinced."

Is it actually "child abuse" for an older man to marry a 16-year old without parental consent, or a 15-year old WITH the parents' permission? Legally, yes. Historically, well, that's a pretty new definition. In the United States, "As late as 1930, twelve [American] states allowed boys as young as 14 and girls as young as 12 to marry (with parental consent)."

Over the last century, the legal marriageable age worldwide has increased. Texas' recently increased marriage age (16, with parental consent) isn't that far out of line with many other states and nations. But it was only in 2005 that Texas banned marriage for 14 and 15 year olds with parental consent, and that decision was aimed directly to facilitate prosecuting religious practices by FLDS.

Ironically, leaving aside for a moment the FLDS controversy, supporters of Rep. Hildebran's law boosting Texas' marriage age find themselves actively encouraging thousands of teen pregnancies outside of wedlock - in practice, at least, if never rhetorically. In 2002, more than 17,000 girls aged 14 or under became pregnant nationwide (see this report from the Guttmacher Institute, pdf, p. 9). More than a quarter million American girls aged 15-17 became pregnant that same year (p. 7)!

Why shouldn't a pregnant girl who's chosen to keep her baby be allowed to marry the father with her parent's consent? That seems like a bad law on its face. Other than persecuting FLDS, why would Rep. Hildebran want his name on a bill that expands the number of unwed teen mothers?

On the other hand, today we know from an accumulating array of brain science that young people haven't fully developed their cognitive abilities to consistently make wise or rational judgments. Similarly, the rise of the women's rights movement in recent decades has expanded options for women beyond early marriage and frequent pregnancies. These two, modern developments cast an especially harsh light on the centuries-old practice of polygamy and marriage for teenage girls.

There has always been a tension, though, between religion and science, not to mention between modern, post-feminist sensibilities and the views of more traditional, religious women. And these FLDS women (and their girls) are about as traditional as they get. Do they have a right in America to cling to historic religious views and traditions that most of society thinks are "obviously" wrong? That's what this case will tell us by the time it's complete, and IMO the nation will benefit from a national conversation on the topic, if it's an honest one.

I've predicted this case will ultimately bog down with few if any convictions for child abuse, and beyond the legal technicalities, the reasons are precisely because of our nation's ambivalence over sexual politics, where our present ideals remain mired in an often misogynistic past.

Over the last century, the legal marriageable age worldwide has increased. Texas' recently increased marriage age (16, with parental consent) isn't that far out of line with many other states and nations. It was only in 2005, though, that Texas banned marriage for 14 and 15 year olds with parental consent. That decision aimed directly to target religious practices by FLDS, who many locals would like to drive out of the area using the machinery of the state, though such cases are notoriously difficult to prosecute.

Plural marriages among consenting adults continue to be tolerated in Utah and Arizona, in part because they could never build enough prison space to house them all, and in part because state's attorneys fear enforcement efforts might not pass constitutional muster.

Today we know from an accumulating array of brain science that young people haven't fully developed their cognitive abilities to sufficiently to make wise or rational judgments. Similarly, the rise of the women's rights movement in recent decades has expanded options for women beyond early marriage and frequent pregnancies.

There has always been a tension, though between religion and science, not to mention between modern, post-feminist sensibilities and the views of more traditional, religious women. And these women (and their girls) are about as traditional as they get.

Instead of focusing on allegations against individuals, the Eldorado raid has used sparsely supported allegations of child abuse to launch a large-scale clash of cultures and religious beliefs, which will now be played out in the criminal justice arena - exactly what the authors of the First Amendment to the US Constitution hoped to avoid.

The Eldorado case reinforces to me once again the brilliance of the founding fathers' decision to separate the power of the state from the hysteria surrounding religious absolutes. I wish our modern leaders demonstrated equal wisdom.

RELATED: Grits' Eldorado Roundup


Ron in Houston said...

It really begs the whole question of how much interest the state has in who marries who.

You do have to wonder if the raising of the parental consent to marry statute did target the FLDS.

I'm with you with your civil libertarian approach to this, but you just can't let every religious belief prosper in society.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Ron, FWIW, the bill author Harvey Hildebran openly said the bill was to target FLDS - he bragged about it recently in the Houston paper.

And while I certainly don't endorse many of FLDS' beliefs, and agree that religion cannot and does not justify abuse, I disagree that so long as the First Amendment exists, it's ever the government's role to decide if a religious belief should "prosper" or not - that is up to the religion's adherents, not the state. best,

Katprint said...

Slavery is another longstanding practice mentioned in the Bible. For example, Moses was born into slavery, and Joseph was sold into slavery by his brothers. It was legal in this country all the way up to 1865; 143 years is a very short time compared to recorded human history.

Nevertheless, even the most sincere belief in the inferiority of "lesser" races or social classes will not save a slaveholder from prosecution. For example, recently there have been many prosecutions arising from sweatshop, agricultural and domestic servant enslavement of illegal aliens.

IMO, the modern laws against statutory rape and spousal abuse are no different than the modern laws against slavery.

Anonymous said...

Very well done, Grits! Very well done! You've identified the issues and stated them plainly. Thank you for sorting through all the BS that we have seen in the past few days, and bringing some focus and clarity to the discussion.

Anonymous said...

Everybody knows the age was raised from 14 to 15 so utah attorney general "caiaphas shurtleff" could persecute the polygs for practicing their religion, and thereby make a play for orrin hatch's senate seat.

and guess what people, it is legal to marry a 15 yo right now in utah, so why the big deal?

And what is the difference between 14 yo and 15 yo anyway. one day??

And i can verify that none of the polyg girls are sluts and none have taken the LBT (low back tattoo). this is why they are being persecuted.

the local govrenment devils want all girls to be w***es and sluts like their own wives and daughters. It makes them feel inferior when they think of the pure polyg girls but have to look at their own tattooed up whorish women. to be honest, i sympathize with them. those ugly faded tattoos combined with the stench of cigerette butts is a romance killer for sure.

Anonymous said...

There have been many killers who claim God told them to do it. Do we ever not prosecute them because of their religious beliefs?

There is nothing wrong in following the teachings of a small religious (or non-religious for that matter) sect in a closed manner like this, but it MUST stay within the law of the land (or in the US, within the law of the state it chooses to be in). If the law says it is legal to marry at 14 with parental consent, then I dont see how anyone can vilify the sect. If people dont like that it is legal, then challenge it through the courts and get the Legislature to change it.

We in Europe find it quite bizarre that an unmarried girl of 14 in America can be the victim of child abuse, but if she is married then she gives up her right to a safe childhood.

Ron in Houston said...


There will always be conflicts between religion and state. I obviously cannot assert a view that my religion allows me to practice ritual human sacrifice.

Most religions also don't have child brides as a part of their theology. The question is whether the state can squelch that belief.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

With Ron's latest addition, people in this thread have now compared plural marriage to murder, slavery, and human sacrifice.

Really?! Hyperbolize much?

The only concrete allegation of abuse in Eldorado is against a man who has never been to the compound. The Texas Rangers questioned him yesterday and let him go.

Sexual abuse against children should be prosecuted. But comparing marriage to murder or slavery, much less ritual human sacrifice, makes little sense.

As for "child brides," let's forget FLDS for a moment. If a 15-year old gets pregnant and decides to keep the baby (that's the youngest anyone has alleged being married at the YFZ compound), should the law REQUIRE them to give birth out of wedlock? When they changed Texas' law to target FLDS, that's exactly what they did.

A 15-year old with a child is not an ideal situation in any circumstance, but it happens. Would you rather she be a "child bride" or an "unwed mother"?

Anonymous said...

To Sunray's Wench:

"There have been many killers who claim God told them to do it. Do we ever not prosecute them because of their religious beliefs?"

Yes, some of those we do not prosecute, even when they act upon those beliefs. George Bush has claimed that God told him to make war against Iraq. Tens, perhaps hundreds, of thousands of people have died and suffered horrible wounds because Bush acted as God directed him. Bush will go down in history as the first great, mass murderer of the 21st Century, in the same league with Stalin and Hitler of the past century. But it is unlikely that he will be prosecuted as he is rich and politically well connected. To quote (mis-quote, probably) Bob Dylan: "Steal a little and they'll put you in jail; steal a lot and they make you King."

We don't prosecute our Kings in America: We fund their libraries, where they can keep secret the incriminating documents about their behaviour, we pay them a handsome retirement, and we protect them from people who might, in response to commands from God, try to do them harm.

Anonymous said...

To Grits:

Ahh, yes. Hyperbole.

Reading the comments here over the past week compels me to conclude that Harbor Freight has had some irresistable online "specials" on hyperbole generators.

Ron in Houston said...

Come on Grits

I did not compare plural marriage to ritual human sacrifice.

Now I might be the ritual human sacrifice if I proposed that to my wife.

I don't have a problem with plural marriages and always wondered in Con Law how those laws didn't violate the first amendment.

I do have a problem with indoctrinating female children into believing that God requires them to give their newly pubescent bodies to some old guy as an act of religious obedience.

I also understand the rape and slavery analogies. When you knock up a 14 year old, you've severely restricted her ability to obtain an education and break free from her situation. There is also the question of real consent when you've been subjected all your life to religious brainwashing.

I'll be the first to admit that this whole case is very scary from a civil liberties standpoint. However, society should not accept religious beliefs that amount to child abuse.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Ron, you've avoided this question so I'll ask it directly: Would you rather a pregnant 15-year old become a "child bride" or an "unwed mother"?

Ron in Houston said...


Obviously not an unwed mother.

I'm also mulling if I were the attorney ad litem for the 14 year old girl who didn't have a problem with the situation. I mean this is the way these people choose to live their lives.

I also think we need to seriously look at the statutory rape laws. One of my great fears is that my 16 year old son will go to a party and accidentally have sex with a 13 year old who lied about her age.

The greatest irony is that these laws are really driven by religion.

Anonymous said...

alun(Rev) Charles Kiker from Tulia chiming in yet again:

I've said this before regarding this matter. I'll say it again and maybe elaborate a little. The first amendment explicitly prohibits interference with the practice of religion. And of course our laws explicitly prohibit child abuse, without explicitly defining just what constitutes child abuse. And the constitution never defines exactly what the practice of religion. Every right is to some extent a conditional right. Freedom of speech does not allow me to shout "Fire!" in a crowded theater. And probably would not allow me to shout "Fire!" in a church service. Maybe it would, if the shout was a recognized part of the worship.

Scott is right on in saying polygamy is standard practice in the Hebrew Scriptures. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob all had multiple wives. And they are the "fathers" of the Judaeo-Christian tradition. King David--and Jesus in the New Testament is called, among other apellations--"Son of David." That obviously does not mean that David begot him, but that Jesus is a David-like person. In later Old Testament times and in the New Testament, polygamy is not in evidence as a common practice among Jews or Christians. But, to my knowledge, it is not explicitly condemned. (Certain church leaders, in the New Testament, are to be "husbands of one wife.")

Joseph Smith was much under the influence of traditional Protestant religion. He had no doubt read the Old Testament accounts, so it is not surprising that his new revelation allowed multiple wives.

Back to the Old Testament: ritual child sacrifice is much in evidence, but it is forbidden by the prophets to the Israelites. Among the prophetic fulminations against some of the Iaraelite kings eas that they made their sons "pass through the fire to Molech"--a reference to child sacrifice. Some of Israel's neighbors practiced child sacrifice as a religious ritual. They were exercising their religion, and sometimes Israelites copied them.

The ancient Mayans and Incas practiced human sacrifice.

"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."

What if the exercise of religion involves child sacrifice? What if a mother drowns her children in the bathtub because God told her to? The laws against murder take precedence over the constitutional right to the free exercise of religion.

The laws against child abuse also take precedence over the right to the free exercise of religion. Much of the media coverage has focused on children being isolated from the outside world in the FLDS sect, as though that in itself constituted child abuse. Well, what about other fundamentalist parents who home school their children to isolate them from contamination by the godless secular schools? Does that constitute child abuse?

Rape is against the law. And legally there's no such thing as "consensual sex" with a child. And I believe the laws against rape should trump the first amendment.

But if Texas law increasing the age of marriage with parental consent was specifically designed to target FLDS, as Scott maintains, well then, the state is interfering with religious practice in a discriminatory way. Proving that in court would be very difficult if not impossible.

Anonymous said...

You know, I was thinking about some of the similarities between the justification I keep hearing on the news and those used to justify taking American Indian children away from their families to be raise in a "modern" home, when I ran into this article:

"All mothers are important." Well said.

Also, another link that I think is very revealing about the differences between Arizona and Texas in their approach:

Anonymous said...

Lets try that again, it cut the links off, so here it is broken up.





The Texas Arizona comparison:



Anonymous said...

I wasn't comparing child abuse to murder Scott, I was comparing one instance of someone following what they believe God told them to do with another instance of someone following what they believe God told them to do. I have no problem at all with mothers being unmarried, and I fully accept that there will always be girls (NOT women) who get pregnant below the age of consent. But if you have a law that says sex with a CHILD under 16 is illegal then that should, IMO, override anyone's personal religious stance. We have that law here, but we also have the ability for judges to differentiate in sentencing between an age difference between the 2 people of less than 4 years, and an age difference of some 40 years +.

Anonymous said...

Grits, I don't know how many women would even question whether it's better for a brainwashed teenaged girl to be pregnant and married to an of-age adult, or for her to be a single mother.

If a teenaged girl in this situation is, *GASP, HORRORS*, an unwed mother, she is not legally bound to an older male who will continue to hinder her independence and self-determination for the rest of her life. Why on earth would it be better for a young woman to have the responsibility of raising a child AND being shackled to a self-serving religious zealot than for her to have the opportunity to either eventually leave with her kid, no marriage attached, or to be supported by the women around her, or relatives outside the cult, or anyone else who won't consider her a subservient female?

These girls cannot be expected to get rid of their children, but if they're not already bound to an abusive older male, good for them for having that relatively greater amount of freedom.

You may have some skill in writing about criminal and other kinds of law, but you sorely lack in the ways of understanding the rights of women and how male centric your opinions often come across.