Since the capture of FLDS Church leader Warren Jeffs last week, I have read numerous articles that express hope that the communities that he leads will now join the broader society and/or will quit following his autocratic leadership. I believe that many of these expressions are either optimistic, blind to some important facts, or both.
It seems clear that under Jeffs’ leadership the FLDS Church has experienced a substantial increase in the number of dissidents and excommunicated members than was common before his tenure began. Many of these former members feel very attached to the communities that have spurned them, and some of them are actively working to improve these communities.
A whole new demographic called “lost boys” has been created, as young men that would compete for brides have been pushed out of the tight-knit FLDS communities and into broader society with little preparation for dealing with that society. Many of these young men have become net consumers of government services (i.e. welfare services, law enforcement, corrections services, medical, substance abuse services, etc.)
The excommunicated members and “lost boys” are indicative of serious problems and malcontent within the FLDS culture. But no one should assume that this means more than it does. Those hoping that these problems and Jeffs’ incarceration signal the demise of general FLDS acceptance of Jeffs’ leadership are ignoring the power of the general FLDS belief that Jeffs is the spokesman of God.
A look back at mainstream LDS history should be instructive. From the time that the LDS Church moved its headquarters to Salt Lake City in the mid 1800s until the early part of the 20th Century, LDS culture became a very tight, closed society. Actions by the government to bring the church and its members into the broader culture were seen as religious persecutions. These actions did not initially cause the church to embrace mainstream culture, but instead intensified and strengthened the power of the church’s leadership structure over every facet of daily life.
To be sure, as persecution intensified, some members broke with their leaders and even assisted the government, but these people were very much seen as enemies by the church and most of its members. Leaders that were jailed for polygamy were honored as heroes. Does anyone think the general FLDS membership will see Jeffs’ incarceration any differently? The fact that Jeffs was captured dressed in a manner that violates principles he preached will only be seen by FLDS members as something Jeffs was required to do in an attempt to escape the evil society that seeks his demise.
It was only the most extreme government actions, validated by constitutional interpretations that would be considered bizarre by today’s standards—interpretations that still impact the private behavior of every American today—that brought sufficient pressure to bear to cause the church to relinquish its hold on political power, allowing the process of the mainstreaming of the church to begin (see here). Some would assert that the church’s growth beyond the Wasatch Front also helped this to occur, but it is unclear how much impact this had on the church’s mainstreaming, or how much impact mainstreaming had on church growth outside of the Intermountain West. Also, encroachment of non-LDS culture into the region following WWII introduced a new dynamic that further altered the relationship of the church to politics.
Still, the LDS Church’s half century outside of the mainstream helped create a cultural identity that resulted in a number of cultural peculiarities that persist to a certain degree. Some will argue that this is a positive thing, while others will argue otherwise. Many will also argue that the church still continues to exercise undue political power in areas of the West that its members originally settled, while others will suggest that this is partially a dividend of the peculiarities engendered by a half century outside of the cultural mainstream.
Undoubtedly FLDS Church members see themselves as persecuted by the government and under attack from an ungodly mainstream culture, much as did LDS Church members of over a century ago. FLDS communities are still quite remote, and it does not appear that there will be a lot of non-FLDS cultural encroachment in the near future. And unlike the LDS Church, the FLDS Church does not appear to be bent on increasing its numbers through evangelism, so influxes of outside thought are not as likely to occur.
Like the LDS Church of over a century ago, the FLDS Church will only be brought kicking and screaming into the cultural mainstream after many years of strong government intervention. But the transition is likely to be even less clear-cut and less certain unless outside cultural influences make their way into FLDS communities.