How Dangerous is The FLDS?

Sara Robinson

One of the trickiest parts of dealing with the extremist right is figuring out whether a given group is just harmless garden-variety crazy — or harboring the special kind of insanity that will lead to acts of local violence or outright domestic terror.

it’s a question worth asking in the wake of the state of Texas’ intervention in the Eldorado colony of the Fundamentalist Church of Latter-Day Saints. As the country is thrust into a fresh debate over individual religious freedom versus our collective interest in protecting people’s civil rights, we’re struggling once again with the deeper question: When should we leave people alone? And when does the state have a public duty to intervene?

As it turns out, enlightened governments have been pondering this same question for the past two decades. In the post-mortems on Waco and Ruby Ridge and the Aum Shinrikyo attacks in Tokyo; in preparations made a decade ago for possible millennialist terror; and especially in sussing out which Islamic radical groups are dangerous and which are likely benign; government agencies throughout North America and Europe have been forced to think clearly about what constitutes a real threat, what’s just a bogeyman, and how to respond to both. Over time, they’ve worked out a solid consensus on what the danger signs look like when a religious or political group’s passions are beginning to spin toward violence, and worked up policy documents to help them move more wisely in the future.

The most public of these documents is one issued by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service that summarized some of the tell-tale signs they look for to determine who’s gone over the edge and around the bend, and might be turning into a security threat. (The American government has its own less public documents that lay out similar guidelines.) The signs are simple and elegant — and useful rules of thumb for anyone who’s trying to decide if a group is just disaffected, or likely to become real trouble.

A few months ago, I did a fairly in-depth examination of this report at Orcinus (you can read the three parts here, here and here). This article compares the 12 main signs of brewing trouble discussed in the CSIS report to the church’s recent behavior, and scores the FLDS on a five-point risk scale for each of the signs.

A Few Words Before Beginning
Let me begin by saying that I believe that the raid was necessary, and long overdue. The FLDS has a 60-year history of abusing women, raping young girls, and exploiting or abandoning its boys. Those who have long familiarity with the church know beyond a doubt that it violates the civil rights of its members in more ways that one lone blogger can possibly recount. (I’ve outlined some of these recently at Orcinus, and will be writing more there in coming days.) People in authority have been well aware for over 50 years just what this group was up to. But, for one reason or another, nobody found the political will to stop it until just a few years ago.

But as various public authorities begin to examine and dismantle the group’s incredibly complex community defenses, we also need to be aware that these interventions may come at a cost of their own. As we’ll see, the FLDS fits almost all of the known criteria for a potentially dangerous group in the making. And unless we tread carefully, there’s strong potential that the things we do could make things worse, even as we’re trying to make them better. The possible trouble spots will become clearer as we review the CSIS criteria, and see how they apply.

The Twelve Criteria
1. Marching Toward the Apocalypse — Dangerous groups invariably hold to the urgent and fervent belief that the End is Near. The world is about to end in fire, ice, Rapture, or a Racial Holy War, and people had better be getting themselves right with God. Groups that believe that history is about to come to an end (even a peaceful one) have already taken one giant step back from consensus reality.

The FLDS’ focus on polygamy is directly rooted in their own apocalyptic view of the future. While mainstream Mormons believe that polygamy exists in heaven and is God’s preferred way of organizing families, they also accept that 21st century America is neither the time or the place to practice that principle on earth. The FLDS, on the other hand, preaches that because the end is so near, pious men who intend to rule in heaven can’t afford to be bound by the mainstream church’s sinful accommodations to man’s law. They need to get right with God now — and that starts with taking at least three wives each. This is a mandate that cannot wait; and that strong sense of apocalyptic urgency is why most of the church’s founders left mainstream Mormonism in the first place.

According to Daphne Bramham, author of a new book, The Secret Lives of Saints, this obsession with the coming end has intensified in recent years, as officials in Utah and Arizona have taken a wide range of official actions against the group. One side effect of this pressure has been to lower the age of marriage even further, as more and more men try to catch their three-wife minimum before the looming end arrives. If securing the men’s salvation means they have to marry off their 13-year-olds, well, it’s better to marry than languish forever in the Outer Darkness.

Score: 4 out of 5

2. A Theology of Violence — Almost all violent religious or political groups hold a specific set of beliefs that set the stage for — and ultimately, justify — violent action. These beliefs include 1) us-versus-them or good-versus-evil thinking; 2) a view of themselves as a persecuted elite; 3) the conviction that the apocalypse is imminent; 4) a desire to bring on the final conflict by their own actions; and 5) a belief that participating in that conflict will guarantee their own salvation and a better world to come.

Whenever a group embraces in-group/out-group thinking to the point of paranoia — and to where it’s actively anticipating, preparing for, and perhaps even making plans to precipitate the coming end — you can safely say it’s veered into dangerous territory.

The FLDS’s status here is mixed. It does hold to a strong us-versus-them view of the world — much of it the result of earlier rounds of official persecution (such as the Short Creek raid in 1953) and the knowledge that what they do is held in contempt by much of the larger culture. They absolutely view themselves as a persecuted elite, and comfort themselves with the thought that come God’s kingdom (in heaven or here), they will be set up to rule over us all. As noted above, they believe the apocalypse is imminent. On the first three beliefs, count them a strong yes.

However, on the last two points, they diverge from the pattern; and these differences may explain why they’ve never set out to force a confrontation in all their six decades. For one thing, historically, they’ve been more of a fertility cult than a warrior cult. They stake their salvation mainly on their own sexual behavior, rather than visions of glorious combat against the infidel. For another, their theology doesn’t tell them that they can bring about apocalypse by instigating war, or promise them salvation if they participate in that war. The absence of holy war narratives may be one reason their past encounters with authority haven’t turned them into an armed camp, as it does with many other groups.

At this point, they just want to be left alone to pursue salvation in their own way. But, as we’ll see, with the right kind of outside instigation — or the rise of a prophet with a raging case of paranoia — that could change very quickly.

Score: 3 out of 5

3. The Chosen One — At-risk groups are almost always dominated by a charismatic leader who dictates every detail of the members’ existence, and co-opts their moral centers. In most cases, the group will fold after he dies or (as often happens) is sentenced to a long jail term. He convinces followers that society’s rules no longer apply to them because they follow his “higher code,” and this belief opens the door to antisocial or violent action. And the leaders themselves, unanswerable to any other authority, often create a culture of violence by heaping unchecked and escalating abuse on their own followers over time.

The FLDS has gone through several brutal succession battles; but so far, they’ve always ended with relatively peaceful acceptance of a new leader. This continuity is unusual among violent groups, and suggests a relatively low level of threat.

However, there are signs that the overall level of control exercised by FDLS prophets — and the amount of abuse they dish out on their flock — rose dramatically when Warren Jeffs succeeded his father as Prophet in 2002. Even though Jeffs is in jail for the next several years, the control and abuse levels in the group are considerably higher now than they were just a couple decades ago. And it would fit the pattern if the church’s next prophet (one has not yet been named) responds to the present situation by becoming even more controlling in the future. Past history and current long-term trends suggests that if the church survives, its future leaders are at high risk of becoming far more domineering with time.

Score: 4 out of 5

4. Goin’ Up To The Country — The decision to withdraw to a closed rural compound is often the first overt act of paranoia in the development of a dangerous group — and a Rubicon that, once crossed, greatly increases the likelihood of violence. Groups withdraw because they believe mainstream authority is “out to get us.” They may also be strongly asserting their intention to live outside the law.

The isolation frees leaders to consolidate their arbitrary control over the group’s members, intensifies the followers’ dependency, and fosters growing suspicion of outsiders that feeds their sense of persecution. Groups turning dangerous will respond to all these developments by arming their compounds and making other preparations for an expected apocalyptic showdown.

The FLDS has turned “goin’ up to the country” into an art form for the ages. They have at least half a dozen colonies stretching from Canada to Mexico, and shuffle members around between them to keep inquiring authorities on goosechases. As the CSIS predicts, this isolation, which was rooted in their determination to break the country’s marriage laws, has bred deep suspicion of the outside world. It’s also created an ever-deepening dependency on the Prophet, and allowed him to greatly consolidate his control over every aspect of his followers’ lives.

While earlier prophets have seemed willing to let the apocalypse come in God’s own time, many people familiar with the FLDS found Warren Jeffs far more worrisome. John Dougherty of the Phoenix New Times, reporting in 2005 on the group’s mass migration from Colorado City to the new colony in Texas, noted that Jeff’s shiny new YFZ Ranch was far more tightly defended than the twin towns were. Former members told Dougherty that Jeffs was preaching “blood atonement” (the practice of killing apostates to save their souls) and took steps to install a crematorium in the YFZ temple capable of burning DNA. The New Times concluded that Jeffs was laying the groundwork for a violent Waco-style confrontation with authorities — a confrontation that may have been averted when he was captured and convicted as an accomplice to rape last year.

Jeffs resigned as prophet last November. Since the church hasn’t yet publicly named a new leader, it’s hard to know how the community will respond to its current troubles. Where there’s no strong leader in place, there’s some opportunity for lasting change. But if a new leader uses these events to consolidate power by rallying the faithful against an outside enemy, the church may adopt a far more militant and confrontational stance going forward.

Score: 4 out of 5

5. Political Influence — Despite their urge to retreat from society, at-risk groups also seek political power, often by corrupting or recruiting officials, or by putting their own members in positions of civil authority. And this is one of the areas in which the FLDS has proven most effective — and most dangerous.

Since the late 1940s, the FLDS has made its headquarters in two dusty towns that straddle the Arizona/Utah border. Hildale, UT blends almost seamlessly into Colorado City, AZ — though the border between them comes in handy when outside authorities start sniffing around. Both are fully incorporated cities, completely with city councils, police forces, schools, an airstrip, and a hospital; yet all the land in both towns is owned by a church trust that was until recently in the sole control of the prophet.

These towns receive all the same state and federal funds that other small towns get to sustain themselves. In 2005, according to the New Times, it was estimated that the two cities were getting upwards of $20 million per year in welfare and food stamps, health care and education subsidies, and shared revenue grants — much of which ended up in church coffers. Until the two states intervened a few years ago, every single council member, doctor, nurse, cop, and teacher was an FLDS member who swore his or her first loyalty to the church’s prophet.

That infrastructure meant, in effect, that the two towns’ 8,000 members knew to no law but the Prophet. The police were there to enforce not the people’s law, but the Prophet’s will. Judges based their decisions on church scripture and the Prophet’s edicts. Teachers openly taught the Prophet’s curricula in the publicly-funded schools. Doctors ignored mandated reporter laws and quietly delivered babies from 14-year-old girls, and slipped women Prozac or committed them to mental institutions when they complained about their lives.

According to Dougherty, some of the resources used to build the YFZ ranch were diverted from the Colorado City government to the new private Texas colony. City employees were dispatched to work on the ranch for weeks at a time. City property was moved to the site under questionable circumstances. This was possible because the church so thoroughly controlled the entire political, fiscal, and civic infrastructure its followers lived under, and used that control to deprive them of any recourse to their rights. There are few religious groups in the history of the country that have done such a thorough job of co-opting civil institutions for so many illegal ends.

Score: 5+

6. Takin’ Care of Business – Buying country property and turning it into a self-sufficient redoubt costs money. A lot of money. So, sooner or later, most extremist groups go into some sort of business. And these businesses often evolve into a handy legal cover for illegal activity.

The Fundamentalist LDS’s United Effort Plan started out as a church cooperative that ran the businesses and properties belonging to the church. As originally set up, members’ tithes went into the trust, and all members were its beneficiaries. Under Rulon Jeffs’ careful management, the trust holdings eventually included grain farms, cattle ranches, aerospace companies with NASA contracts, and tin mines in Bolivia. These businesses provided jobs for the faithful, and money to expand the church.

However, over time, control over the trust was gradually concentrated into the hands of the Prophet; and the beneficiaries received less and less benefit. By the time Warren Jeffs came to power, the trust had become the Prophet’s personal piggybank and extortion racket. Men went into debt so they could tithe the tens of thousands of dollars the Prophet demanded of them every year. Those who failed to pay were subject to getting fired, excommunicated, evicted from their homes (typically, homes they’d built at their own expense on church-owned land), and/or having their wives and kids reassigned to other men. As noted before, the UEP has also been the vehicle for financial sleight-of-hand that appropriated civic money for the personal profit of the prophets. One example: until the state of Arizona intervened, Rulon Jeffs and his elders had an airplane, private cars, and personal credit cards all paid for by funds diverted from the Colorado City school district.

Daphne Bramham also reports that UEP businesses in some colonies have relied heavily on the slave labor of the church’s “lost boys” — unmarriageable (and thus expendable) boys who are put to work on dangerous jobs like logging, roofing, and roadbuilding without adequate training or safety equipment, and are paid wages well under a dollar an hour, if that. This unlimited access to virtually free unskilled labor, along with the willful violation of OSHA regulations, has allowed FLDS-owned businesses to undercut local contractors (who pay the prevailing wage and follow sound safety practices) for large jobs throughout the Intermountain West. To my knowledge, this situation has never been seriously investigated by authorities.

Score: 5

7. Crimes of Intimidation — Groups heading toward violent confrontation usually start with threats and petty violence against members and outsiders who dare to cross them. (Occasionally, these people end up dead — which only makes them a useful warning to others.) Knowing that they can intimidate and silence people raises the leader’s sense of invincibility, and teaches him that violence works. Both lessons raise the odds he’ll resort to more violence more quickly in the future. It also makes life much harder for investigators gathering new information on the group as the risk level rises.

For FLDS members, the cultural atmosphere has always been one of dawn-to-dusk intimidation. As noted, men who don’t comply will simply lose everything. Women risk being sent away from their families, reassigned to other households or colonies, or committed to mental hospitals. Children have no choices about marriage, work, or education. Whatever the Prophet says, goes — and God have mercy on you if you dare to refuse.

The New Times account strongly suggests that Warren Jeffs was rapidly ratcheting up the overall level of intimidation within the group — and hinting strongly at violence — before he was arrested. His growing paranoia led him to purge dozens of men from the church as suspected enemies, banishing them and seizing their wives on a scale no prophet had dared attempt before. Removing him from the picture may have slowed the group’s acceleration toward violent confrontation; but if he comes back — or another leader takes up these same themes — the group could once again move into the danger zone. After all: they live their lives on the edge of that line.

Score: 4 out of 5

8. Increasingly violent rhetoric — Strong words are often a rehearsal — a promise of strong action to come. According to the CSIS, you can usually hear a fundamental shift in a group’s rhetoric as the gear up for violent confrontation. In the early stages, they establish the lines of conflict by obsessively focusing on the group’s enemies and denouncing their essential evilness. In the later stage, the talk turns overtly eliminationist, and the group starts expressing its clear intention to eradicate those enemies. When they shift to the second stage, it’s a sign that they have mentally committed themselves to violent action — and have justified it to the point where they may be actively planning something.

Those who were around when Warren Jeffs succeeded his father in 2002 say that this shift in rhetoric pretty much defined his behavior as the church’s Prophet. Where the elder Jeffs had seen to the group’s security by acquiring money, land, and political power, his son was more focused on building a more secure and isolated compound, punishing his enemies with every means available to him, and allegedly making plans to dispose of bodies in an untraceable way. He knew who his enemies were — and he was making specific plans to get rid of them.

There’s no way of knowing whether Jeff’s successor will be inclined to that same paranoid edge. However, having the Texas Rangers invade their compound is just the kind of event that could trigger a resurgence of Jeffs’ eliminationist spirit within the group, as they identify new enemies and make plans to fight back.

Score: 4 out of 5

9. Blaming the government — It’s a truism of conspiracy theories that no matter who the bad guys start out to be, sooner or later it’ll turn out that they’re all in cahoots with the government. Paranoia is a close cousin of narcissism, and people who believe they’re locked in a Great Cosmic Struggle tend to assess their own importance by the size of the enemies they attract. In that sweepstakes, Uncle Sam is the biggest contender this side of Satan — so it follows that if the government is out to get you, you must be somebody Very Important Indeed.

This belief adds layers of meaning to every encounter between authoritarian group members and any kind of government authority. A simple traffic stop or construction inspection sets off all kinds of alarms (They know! They’re watching us!). Congressman Leo Ryan probably didn’t understand this when he decided to respond to constituent requests and fly down to Jonestown; but Jim Jones and his followers were strongly predisposed to view his visit as a hostile invasion, and over-reacted accordingly.

This, too, is a signaling shift, as first-stage beliefs that “our group is above the law” harden into a second stage belief that overt revolt against the state is necessary. When the rhetoric calls for revolution, it’s one sign of looming trouble.

The FLDS isn’t there — yet. They’ve been so successful at co-opting government for their own ends that revolution has hardly been necessary. Why bother to kill the beast when you can keep it alive and bleed it? However, it’s very likely that attitude could change as the community regroups in the aftermath of the YFZ raid. They now have a clear government enemy: the Texas Rangers, the courts, and the social workers whom they will view having instigated a military assault on them. They wouldn’t be the first group to interpret a criminal investigation as an overt act of war — and make plans to respond in kind.

Score: 3 out of 5

10. Intensification of illegal activities — As violent confrontation becomes imminent, the group starts behaving in more overtly illegal ways. Petty crime goes up, and people who were never much trouble before are suddenly coming into frequent contact with the authorities. This is a sign that the group has begun to adopt an attitude of open defiance and contempt toward the larger society, and is moving into the strongly oppositional stance that precedes a large-scale attack or confrontation.

The CSIS observes that this pattern of increasingly lawless behavior almost always goes hand-in-hand with weapons laws violations. When they reach this point, the group is probably arming up to either defend its home turf from perceived enemies, or making concrete plans to eradicate those enemies.

As far as the FLDS goes: the YFZ Ranch was clearly built to be a well-defended fort; but there’s no evidence yet that the group was stockpiling weapons. (This assessment may change when the Rangers tell us what they found.) Furthermore: FLDS members haven’t been any more confrontational than usual; in fact, if anything, they’ve been more honest and forthcoming about their lives in recent years. This is a very late-stage sign of approaching trouble; and it seems clear, based on what we know, that the FLDS isn’t anywhere near there.

Score: 1 out of 5

11. Shaming the Leader — The final flashpoint is almost a triggered by a specific event that humiliates the group’s leaders, or makes them feel that they’re losing their control over the group and its vision. Unfortunately, their egos are huge and their need for control is insatiable — and, therefore, even relatively small events have the potential to set them off in very big ways.

All I can say to this is: Thank God the YFZ raid didn’t happen while Jeffs was still free, because it’s terrifying to contemplate how he might have responded. As it is, the community is embarrassed and chastened by these events, and it’s a safe bet that they will never be allowed to operate anywhere without close government oversight again. But it could have been so much worse if all of this had gone down with a paranoid leader’s pride riding on the line — especially a True Believer like Jeffs who believed his word was God’s. It could have been a real mess.

Score: 2 out of 5

12. Blundering Authority — In the end, the final confrontation is too often triggered when authorities — not realizing their special place in the unfolding eschatological drama — blunder right into their assigned role. As the CSIS put it: “Authorities often fail to appreciate the leverage they have over doomsday movements, which depend upon them to fulfill their apocalyptic scenarios. Failure to fully comprehend this symbolic role often results in actions that trigger violence.” They also note that law enforcement agencies are especially prone to respond to small acts of defiance with punitive force — and that groups spoiling for a confrontation will interpret this as an assault, and vastly escalate their response. This creates a “spiral of amplification” that can very quickly spin toward catastrophe, as it did in Waco.

That’s why the authorities in charge of these confrontations need to move slowly; avoid humiliating the leader or backing him into a corner; keep the cops in the background; and rely on negotiators who have a detailed understanding of the group’s specific worldview and belief structure, and can describe how each unfolding event is being perceived on the inside.

Fortunately, the officials in Texas have given us the textbook example of how this is done. They have moved slowly and deliberately, taking the time to explain to everyone — not just the people involved, but also the entire nation — just what they were doing, and why. They have been very careful not to back the church’s leaders into unnecessary corners. Wherever possible, they have tried to behave with compassion and great cultural sensitivity; but they have not allowed that to compromise their firmness in enforcing the law. It’s obvious from every news report I’ve seen that the state government has learned the lessons of Waco, and taken them very much to heart.

Score: 0 out of 5

Conclusions
Total score: 39 out of a possible 60. The FLDS has clearly assembled all the basic ingredients required to create exactly the kind of authoritarian group that’s at high risk of souring into domestic terrorism and violence. They’ve got the right kind of apocalyptic theology, the all-powerful leaders, the thoroughly intimidated and dependent followers, the remote compounds, the political and business infrastructure, and a truly audacious contempt for the laws the rest of us live by.

However, these steps describe an unfolding process; and while the FLDS appears to be all packed up and ready to head down that road, they haven’t yet made the whole journey. The evidence suggests that Warren Jeffs, had he remained at large, had the requisite level of grandiose paranoia to take them there over the course of the next few years — and was, in fact, making concrete plans to do just that. But with him safely out of the way for at least another few years, that bad outcome is far less likely.

Now, there are choices. Over the past several years, the governments of Utah, Arizona, and other states hosting FLDS colonies have begun to work together to dismantle the infrastructure that kept the church beyond official reach for so long. The Utah attorney general put the UEP into receivership. State authorities have forced reforms in the Hildale/Colorado City police forces, courts, and schools. Other states are keeping a close eye on the new colonies rising in their jurisdiction. And the State of Texas has put everyone on notice that it will not look the other way while the FLDS breaks its laws.

Polygamous Mormons won’t go away. There are several other groups (the FLDS wasn’t even the biggest of them) that will carry on, quietly and mostly lawfully. And the FLDS community itself will probably regroup and continue, in one or more of several possible forms.

The worst case is that another equally paranoid patriarch uses these events to consolidate power, resurrect a large piece of the community, and proceed on the path Jeffs seemed so determined to follow. Resolving that they will never again give up their children to Gentiles, these members will be determined to retreat completely from this evil world. They may finally succeed in turning one or more of their colonies into an armed camp — and ultimately force a confrontation tailor-made for their apocalyptic fantasies.

The best case is that the Texas authorities continue to move deliberately, with transparency and compassion — and don’t stop until every aspect of the church has been properly investigated, prosecuted, reformed, or dismantled. Along the way, some members will be arrested. Some will move to the emerging colonies in Idaho, Colorado, or South Dakota. Quite a few may decide they like life on the outside after all, and leave the church for good.

In the meantime, we can only hope that the national conversation we’re having about this case will help us refine our collective understanding about where the line between religious liberty and collective responsibility and security falls. Whatever happens, the FLDS will never be the same. And, in the end, neither will we.

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