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Austin Cline

Eighth Deadly Sin: Watching Popular Movies

By September 15, 2007

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Warren Jeffs Sworn In
Warren Jeffs Sworn In
Photo: Pool / Getty Images
There have always been contradictions and tension between religion and popular culture, but the contradictions and tensions are surely much greater in the modern, secularized world. In the past popular culture may have been somewhat independent of religious institutions, but people's lives and assumptions were so strictly determined by religion that popular culture could reinforce at least as much as it might criticize.

Today, though, popular culture is far more independent of religious institutions and traditions. Even when cultural products reference religious themes, they don't generally serve to reinforce and promote traditional religious beliefs. This creates problems for religious believers because they are surrounded by messages, ideas, and cultural products which might tend to undermine religious faith simply on the basis of providing alternative ways of viewing the world, never mind the presence of direct criticism

In many cases, religious communities impose restrictions on the sorts of popular culture which members can have contact with. In a few cases, there is even a complete prohibition on contact with most forms of popular culture — with severe consequences for those who disobey. Here is what happened to Woodrow Johnson at just 15 years old:

When his parents discovered his secret stash of DVDs, including the “Die Hard” series and comedies, they burned them and gave him an ultimatum. Stop watching movies, they said, or leave the family and church for good.

With television and the Internet also banned as wicked, along with short-sleeve shirts — a sign of immodesty — and staring at girls, let alone dating them, Woodrow made the wrenching decision to go. And so 10 months ago, with only a seventh-grade education and a suitcase of clothes, he was thrown into an unfamiliar world he had been taught to fear.

Source: The New York Times

There is evidently a serious problem with teenage boys being expelled from polygamous Mormon communities. Where polygamy exists, it's common for low-status men to have no women while high-status men have lots of women. In other words, polygamous communities have too many men for the women available, so finding excuses to get rid of the extra boys can be an important form of social control. In the past they might simply have initiated a war against neighboring communities, but that's just not a viable option anymore.

The problem hadn't attracted the notice of outsiders and state officials until recently, even though it's been going on for several years. The boys exit their polygamous compounds with little in the way of education and marketable skills, so they have a lot of trouble surviving on the outside. Now, though, community and state organizations are moving in to start providing housing and job training so that the boys can be integrated into the larger society.

Johnson was a member of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a Christian sect controlled by Warren S. Jeffs who is on trial for sexual exploitation:

Mr. Jeffs, 51, is in the Purgatory jail in southern Utah, his trial scheduled to start on Sept. 10 on charges of being an accomplice to rape, for his role in forcing a 14-year-old girl to marry an older cousin. He faces several other sex-related charges in Arizona.

But his allies still control the church, former members say, and teenage boys continue to trickle out of the community, by force or by choice. “In part it’s an issue of control,” Mr. Murphy said of the harsh rules. But underlying the expulsions, he added, is a mathematical reality. “If you’re going to have plural marriage, you need fewer men,” he said.

Andrew Chatwin, 39, the uncle who took Woodrow in, left the sect 10 years ago. He explained how the expulsions usually happen: “The leaders tell the parents they must stop this kid who is disobeying the faith and Warren Jeffs. So the parents kick him out because otherwise the father could have his wives and whole family taken away.”

Use of conditions like this to tighten control over church members is very interesting. Control is an important aspect of any society, including those where people pride themselves on being "free" — there are always levels of social control working on us and restricting the options we have. There are probably no fewer working on us when we are "free," but they are certainly less visible and harder to detect.

In the polygamous communities under the leadership of Jeffs and his allies, though, the forms of control are certainly visible — or they are to us outsiders. I wonder if members of the polygamous Mormon church understand or are fully conscious of the ways in which they are being controlled by church leaders — methods of control which just happen to make life better for the leaders. Coincidence?

Rant & Reason asks "if the First Amendment’s protection between the church and state applies to a group like this?" It's legitimate to ask whether protections for religious liberty should apply here. Perhaps the question is whether polygamy would necessarily lead to situations like this — even if we accept that polygamy should be allowed, whether for religious or secular reasons, we shouldn't allow communities to treat its young people like this.

A significant part of the problem may be precisely the fact that we are looking at separatist enclaves — closed communities which are not integrated into the larger social fabric. This is why they have too many young men inside and need to send them outside, isn't it? If polygamous Mormons were more widely integrated into society in the same way that Catholics and Jews currently are, would this sort of treatment of young men be an issue?

This is, I think, an example of why it's important not to give religious communities special rights or special authority over their own members. Some nations have tried to do this in the name of diversity and protecting minority cultures, but this is only accomplished at the expense of the rights and autonomy of the individuals who, through no fault or choice of their own, just happen to be born in those communities. Everyone must live under the same laws and have the same rights; anyone who wants to leave any church or religious community must have the unfettered ability to do so — and the assistance of the state if church leaders interfere.

Comments
September 17, 2007 at 5:30 pm
(1) tracieh says:

That 15-year-old boy was extremely brave. When I read the first paragraph about the ultimatum, my first thought was, “I would take that boy in in a heartbeat.” I thought he was stuck there. But when I read that he chose to leave, I was (1) thinking “good for him!” and (2) very worried about him.

I watched the testimony yesterday of a 21-year-old woman who was “married” to her cousin in Jeff’s community at 14. Her story about her wedding night was wrenching. I can’t fathom how someone can force themselves on another person in that way. I don’t see how that could even be enjoyable—to have sex with someone who is not only disinterested, but repulsed by my advances. That should be enough to kill anyone’s drive!

>”if the First Amendment’s protection between the church and state applies to a group like this?”

I asked this same question after I saw the testimony on television. Where is the line? Can Amish forbid their children to go to school beyond 8th grade? What if the child wants to learn? Is that abusive—to make sure they aren’t educated so much that leaving the community is a viable option for them? When they’re 18—can they be said to have a “choice” if they aren’t equipped to live outside their Amish community? What about home schooling with no oversight? I live in Texas, and there are no real requirements for home school here—no real oversight. I recently was shown a chart showing the different state requirements for home schooling. It’s enough to make a person sick—that parents can refuse education to their child, and then not provide anything substantial (and in many states—anything AT ALL) to substitute. Is that OK? Can parents deny a child a blood transfusion on religious grounds? Where is the line between the child’s welfare and the parents’ rights and religious freedoms?

I don’t know. But it’s certainly an interesting question.

September 24, 2007 at 5:54 pm
(2) John Hanks says:

Movies make money by pandering to human weaknesses. Watching a movie is a chance to learn how that works. If only people would hang out with others with smarts.

September 26, 2007 at 9:52 am
(3) DamnRight says:

Interesting… I’ve seen this behaviour often expressed in “the animal kingdom”… the alpha-male attacks & runs off (or kills) the younger males to ensure his dominance with the “harem”… I just recently saw this also with hyenas from the female side… dominance & the reduction of competition for some limited resource is the goal… did we not “hate” the new boy/girl who entered to classroom to the appreciative looks of those we had our eye on (& possibly considered as “ours”)…

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