“And I would have gotten away with it too, if it weren’t for you meddlin’ kids!”

There are two main points I wish to make about the capture this morning of Warren Jeffs, leader of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS). The first is to say that the sect’s practice of polygamy is not the reason we should find fault with them, or with Jeffs. The second is to condemn fundamentalism in all its various forms.

Warren Jeffs was on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list, a fugitive listed as armed and extremely dangerous. This was his citation: “Unlawful flight to avoid prosecution – sexual conduct with a minor, conspiracy to commit sexual conduct with a minor; rape as an accomplice.” Jeffs is considered a prophet by his estimated 10,000 followers, most of whom reside in the isolated communities of Hildale, Utah and Colorado City, Arizona.

It’s a bloody strange sect, which New York Times reporter Christine Hauser describes as having “basically been run like a theocracy, in which thousands of followers ignored the rule of civil law for years.”

Before I describe for you the contemporary theocratic tyranny of Warren Jeffs, let me make an observation about fundamentalism. Fundamentalism takes existing theological ideas and turns them into legalistic dogma, expecting followers to adhere to a single interpretation of that theology strictly and without exception, indeed, without the need to think about it at all. The Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints was no anomaly, and one man was responsible for establishing its dogma. Every facet of Mormon theology became emphatic as part of Jeffs’ power trip. What LDS Church founder Joseph Smith admonished, Warren Jeffs turned into commandments.

LDS Church founder Joseph Smith believed that plural marriage was acceptable. FLDS leader Warren Jeffs believed it was necessary for salvation and arranged all marriages himself (a man must have at least 3 wives to get to heaven).

Joseph Smith believed that a God-anointed leader was able to guide and give counsel to church members. Warren Jeffs believed that “one man is as God over the people and has the right to rule in all areas of life.” Three guesses who he thought that was?

Joseph Smith believed that his church should write hymns to reflect its theology. Warren Jeffs decided that he would write his own, and embellished several well-known LDS hymns with new verses.

Joseph Smith believed that the Apocalypse would one day come. Jeffs believed it was upon us, and moved his community to Colorado City and Hildale (which is basically a borough of Colorado City).

And Jeffs was more of a doctrinaire than even his predecessor and father, Rulon Jeffs: Rulon advised people to limit television viewing. Warren demanded their televisions be thrown away, along with VCRs, video games and internet connections.

He banned water activities such as boating and fishing. He banned community recreational activities like basketball. He banned children’s books and videos, and particularly hated those that depicted animals with human characteristics. He banned community and holiday celebrations, dances, socials and other get-togethers. He hasn’t quite banned laughter yet, although he has warned his followers that laughter causes the spirit of God to leak from their bodies; not that that would be a problem in the FDLS communities where humour is in short supply. Richard Holm, an ex-FLDS practitioner, says of Jeffs, “Everything he has done was to take things to an extreme.”

If this sounds like a tyranny, a dictatorship, the adamant theocracy of a dangerous, unyielding lunatic, you’d be right.

But what crime has he committed? FLDS members follow Jeffs voluntarily, right? Well, let’s talk about that. It’s time for my two points.

1) Polygamy is not the reason we find fault with Jeffs.

I hate to fly so cheerily in the face of popular opinion folks, but Jeffs’ practice of polygamy should not be illegal. Who is the government and, by representative association, who are YOU to tell anybody how many people they can be married to at once? It’s quite plainly none of your damned business. I know we don’t like to think of it as such, but making this kind of activity illegal dictates to them in the same way that Warren Jeffs dictates to his followers what way they should live their lives and by whose version of right and wrong they should do so. Making polygamy illegal usurps individual rationality, supplants individual morality and seizes individual responsibility. It is that which should be illegal.

I am not polygamous and have no desire to marry more than one woman at once: one is quite enough. But polygamy in itself is not infringing on anyone’s rights, nor is it harming any third parties. Warren Jeffs did not control through polygamy. His community was not sociologically sick due to being polygamous. More polygamous than monogamous societies have existed throughout the history of humanity: Polygamy is not the problem, and maintaining its illegal status is not the solution. Jeffs’ combination of fundamentalist theology and narcissistic control freakery are the problem, and forcing people into polygamy an invention of that deathly blend. Rather than polygamy being a cause, polygamy was merely the amplified result of fundamentalism in action. That doesn’t make polygamy wrong, and I haven’t heard any good moral arguments which do.

2) Fundamentalism in any form is worthless.

Any ideological theory that relies on inhibiting freedom of thought to accomplish its practical customs should be suspicious at best, dangerous at worst. Fundamentalism is not a maturing thing. On the side of fundamentalist leaders, they have the power of dictators, they spoon-feed whatever they like to a susceptible gathering of followers, and they rely on those followers not forming advanced thoughts or ideas of their own. On the side of the followers, they are volunteering their minds to the collective, allowing someone else to do the thinking for them like sheep, and they leave themselves wide open for all kinds of abuse.

Yet they continue to do so, because the pressure, not only from the leader(s) but from the other followers, is so great that their very sense of well-being and livelihood comes into question. As Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard said today, many FDLS followers believe that not only their eternal souls but also their earthly lives may be endangered by defecting from Jeffs’ teachings.

But don’t make the mistake of thinking that fundamentalism such as I have been condemning is limited to sects, cults and weirdoes. I would personally regard a large portion of the evangelical Christian church to be fundamentalist, and believe that the same criticism and disapproval should be extended to them also. Southern Baptist church leaders are equally at fault in this regard: they discourage thought by labelling as heretical any belief that falls outside the interpretations of the bible sanctioned by themselves, they preach guilt from the pulpit every week thereby ensuring that the congregation will arrive at church again next time to repent, again, they press the need to be involved financially and in church organisations and groups, they criticise those who leave or who join other churches or who find that their particular brand of fire isn’t exactly what they had in mind; the list goes on and on.

Fundamentalism retards the faculties of human reason and, outside the political arena (that is, the arena of policy and lawmaking) it is as anti-liberty as it gets.

Of course, Warren Jeffs was not wanted by the FBI particularly for either polygamy (though it is illegal and I think that’s a shame) or for fundamentalism (which is more damaging than polygamy) – he was wanted for sex crimes. But perhaps the reason Jeffs got so big for his boots was that he had ten-thousand, a big number, ten-thousand, a very biblical-sounding number, ten-thousand people to whom he was their GOD.

I’m excited to hear that Warren Jeffs is spending tonight behind bars. But let’s make sure we denounce him for the right reasons.

John Wright

UPDATE: Wed, August 30th, 2006

Click here for an interesting insight into Jeffs’ capture from CNN. He clearly was not short of cash, and his body language was what gave him away.