Now that Austria has replaced Texas in around-the-clock media coverage of child abuse, the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ has moved from the front pages to the inside. The polygamist group, housed in an Eldorado “compound,” has long promoted the plural marriage as the divinely ordered state of holy matrimony, after splitting from the mainline Mormon Church nearly a century ago. Across Texas, more than four hundred of the cult’s children are in foster care, as authorities investigate reports that children might have been physically abused as well.
But, beneath the outrage over the sexual exploitation of children, there lurks a nagging question: what are the limits of religious freedom in an increasingly pluralistic society? Does government ever have the compelling need to abridge the free exercise of religious beliefs and actions? Where do we draw the line?
The last time the government made the choice to go after a religious group, it was the heavy-handed Justice Department of Janet Reno that launched an assault on the Branch Davidians, a Seventh Day Adventist splinter group. That ill-fated 1993 effort resulted in the slaughter of 21 children the government was trying to save, along with dozens of their adult co-religionists. Mormon theology tends to be triumphalist rather than apocalyptic so the raid on FLDS was accomplished without bloodshed.
But, many religious groups in America have beliefs that are outside the mainstream. Jehovah’s Witnesses will die rather than take blood transfusions. Christian Scientists refuse to seek medical treatment at all. The Amish live in tightly knit communities, and refuse to become integrated into the modern world. Scientologists consider psychiatry to be a demonic practice. Mormons don’t drink coffee. One could make a compelling case that all of these religions are abusive to their members, especially the children who haven’t made a decision to join.
Does that mean that the cops should raid the Kingdom Hall around the corner from you this Sunday, where Jehovah’s Witnesses are gathered, reading their crazy riffs on world events and trying to determine when God is going to kill the rest of us? Should the FBI force the Amish to turn on the electricity or pour Starbucks down the throats of those earnest young elders on their bicycles?
I don’t have any particular love for religious cultists, having spent the first thirty years of my life in their twisted web. But I do love the Constitution of the United States, and its particular genius for keeping government’s hands out of religious practice. My church might be the next one the government decides to attack. (As a matter of fact, the IRS has attempted to revoke the tax-exempt status of one of my denomination’s congregations, following a sermon preached by its priest during the 2004 election cycle—so that’s not very far-fetched.) That’s why the first amendment prohibits government establishment of religion and promotes its free exercise.
But, like all rights, there are limits. Just because the second amendment gives me the right to own a gun (or several), it doesn’t allow me to own a nuclear weapon. And just because I can believe that the Flying Spaghetti Monster created the world last Tuesday, I don’t have the right to beat my children for not eating their meatballs (or whatever constitutes a sin in the FSM Church).
These are the horns on which this dilemma sits: government’s role is “to promote the general welfare” of the nation, so it has a compelling need to protect the safety, health and well-being of its most vulnerable citizens, while guarding against undue infringement of adult citizens’ right to believe stupid things. In a case where it can be clearly established that a vulnerable member of a religious group, whether a child or an adult of child-like capacity is endangered, government must act to protect that person.
Unfortunately, government too often uses a hammer to solve problems more easily repaired by a screwdriver, and thus the spectacle of Eldorado. Polygamy is not the western, Christian standard. But it exists throughout the world, in various societies, and has endured for millennia. So, it’s hard to make the case that a polygamist group is of itself an abusive social construct. So Texas and federal law enforcement agents are trying to prove that children have been sexually and physically abused by FLDS adults.
That’s going to be hard to prove, since by most accounts, the FLDS members are not cooperating. They are not likely to turn on each other. Cultists, especially under siege, tend to identify even closer with their group and interpret government interference as proof that they are being persecuted “for righteousness’ sake.”
As strange and repellent as the FLDS beliefs may be, this is not going to break their hold on their followers’ minds. It’s only going to convince them that the government is only intent on destroying them for their doctrines.
Funny thing is, they may turn out to be right.