Aug 5, 2011

Warren Jeffs Convicted

Crossposted from Reflections Journal.

Unrepentant polygamist Warren Jeffs was found guilty of the sexual abuse of two underage girls. Jeffs had been previously convicted in Utah but the verdict was overturned due to improper jury instructions. He was then extradited to Texas where he acted as his own attorney in a trial that quickly descended into absurdity.

Jeffs fired seven attorneys, ultimately opting to defend himself by accusing prosecutors of religious persecution. He also used the trial as an opportunity to preach the gospel of polygamy.

While Jeff's defense was risible, the State's case was stomach-turning. Jeffs assisted in his own prosecution by having recorded much of his life -- ostensibly because everything he did and said was prophetic -- including his molestation of these poor children. The jury heard audio recordings of his instruction of his child brides in the art of pleasing a man... and therefore God.

On one of the tapes played at the trial, Jeffs made a reference to "drawing close" or "being close," which authorities testified is how church members refer to sex. Two female voices said "OK."

"A good wife is trained for her husband and follows the spirit of peace," Jeffs was heard saying.

Another audio tape included Jeffs and the younger girl from a recording made in August 2006 at the Texas compound, according to testimony from Nick Hanna, a Texas Ranger involved in the 2008 raid.

Played in court, it was difficult to decipher, but Jeffs' and a female voice are heard. He says, "I perform this service in the name of Jesus Christ, Amen," then mentions the alleged victim by name. When she says something, he responds, "don't talk while praying." Several minutes of heavy breathing followed.

Jeffs claims to be a direct descendant of Joseph Smith, the prophet and founder of the Church of Latter Day Saints. Smith was also a believer in and practitioner of polygamy. The issue was divisive even in Smith's time and put him afoul of his own developing religion. Blood relation or no, Jeffs is the heir apparent of Smith's struggle to legitimize a doctrine of plural marriage. Ironically, that Smith's numerous "celestial marriages" were kept secret makes tracking his no doubt prolific lineage a little hard to prove.

While today's Mormon church officially denounces polygamy, there are splinter groups that still practice it. Jeffs's Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints is among the  largest. And mainstream Mormons have enough fealty to their polygamous roots to look the other way.

Rarely are polygamists charged under bigamy laws, especially in Utah, where many residents are descendants of plural families, and prosecutors are reluctant to file charges against consenting adults in a religious context. Tom Green, who was recently sentenced in Juab County, Utah, to five years to life on a rape charge for impregnating one of his five wives when she was 13, was the first polygamist in 50 years to be prosecuted in Utah.

More often, members of plural families come to the attention of state and local officials through occasional allegations of welfare fraud, tax dodging, domestic violence and child abuse. But cases are difficult to build, said Ric Cantrell, a spokesman for the Utah attorney general's office. Not only are the county prosecutors generally overwhelmed with more serious offenses, he said, but investigators have trouble finding witnesses to testify.

What I find kind of darkly comic about the whole thing is that Smith's and Brigham Young's ideas about plural marriage comport more with the Christian Bible than does the mainstream view. As I discussed here, what passes for the "traditional family values" espoused by fundamentalist Christians has next to nothing to do with the Biblical portrayal of marriage, in which polygamy is common and women are property. Even so, the early Mormons turned to extrabiblical revelation to make the case and bring about official church sanction under Young's leadership.

In the text of the revelation,[53] Christ commands the practice of polygamy or plural marriage in a "new and an everlasting covenant" and declares that anyone who rejects the new practices will suffer damnation and will not "be permitted to enter into my glory."[54] The 1843 revelation also states that the first wife's consent should be sought before a man married another wife, but also declares that Christ will "destroy" the first wife if she does not consent to the plural marriage, and that the husband is exempt from asking his wife's consent in the future.[55]

Well, it's always nice to be given a choice.

Ultimately, of course, the Mormon Church officially banned polygamy again, and brought itself more or less into alignment with the law of the land. In the fiercest of ironies, Mormons have become some of the most outspoken proponents of "traditional family values." They have waged war on gay marriage and were one of the primary funding bases for the battle against Prop 8 in California. This, of course, brings us back to the issue cherry-picking the Bible.

Like Christian rocker Bradlee Dean, Mormons aren't officially calling for gay people to be killed despite the fact that the explicit Biblical references that are used to condemn homosexuality also call for the them to executed. And let's face it, the Mormon Church actually gave up on a genuinely "traditional" view on marriage when it embraced the one man, one woman model.

In yet another rich layer of irony, Warren Jeffs was shown not to have much of a problem with homosexuality.

Jeffs fought hardest to keep out an audio recording, a training session for his wives on "The Ordinance of Heavenly Comfort."

On the tape, Jeffs voice drones on for well over two hours, using Biblical language and sometimes speaking in the voice of God. He promises his wives they will feel the "all-consuming fire of heaven" and, by giving comfort to their husband, they will be touching God.

There are many long minutes in which it's hard to make out exactly what's happening, but it seems to include sounds of fumbling with clothing and zippers, sobbing, and flushing of toilets.

At one point Jeffs tells the girls or women, "You have to know how to be excited sexually. You have to be able to assist each other. You don't just stand around."

Let's see... Compelling women to engage in lesbian sex acts entirely for the purpose of entertaining a man. That's not really gay is it? Well, yeah, it kinda is. But only in an entirely degrading sense that doesn't in any way threaten male supremacy. The sobbing is a nice touch, too.

Hypocrisy is really the least of Jeffs's crimes, though. In the end, he's been shown to be nothing more than a sexual abuser of children and a rapist.  The Bible doesn't exactly prohibit such things. The Book of Mormon is a little conflicted but the Mormon Doctrine and Covenants comes down strongly on the side of getting them young and, you know, not owned by any other man.

"[I]f any man espouse a virgin, and desire to espouse another, and the first give her consent, and if he espouse the second, and they are virgins, and have vowed to no other man, then is he justified; he cannot commit adultery for they are given unto him; for he cannot commit adultery with that that belongeth unto him and to no one else. And if he have ten virgins given unto him by this law, he cannot commit adultery, for they belong to him, and they are given unto him; therefore is he justified." ~ Doctrine and Covenants 132:61-62

What all of this really demonstrates is that our religious values are much more a reflection of contemporaneous cultural norms than scripture -- no matter how fundamentalist we claim to be. Early Mormons didn't rush to embrace polygamy because it formed in America in the 1800s, not in ancient, tribal Israel. And while mainstream Mormons today may be willing to look the other way on the "celestial marriages" at the fringes, they're not going to tolerate sex abuse of barely pubescent girls.

Leaving the courthouse, Jeffs was heckled by a local Texas member of the The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. "You're not a prophet! You're the devil!" Liz Jackson shouted.

"Warren Jeffs tried unsuccessfully today to manipulate and to lie about the Mormon doctrine in a way to imply that Mormons believe in abusing children in a sexual way," Jackson told reporters, "and that is not at all the case."

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