Polygamy persists despite persecution
CANE BEDS, Ariz. (AP) – Ben Bistline starts to chuckle when asked to explain why the practice of polygamy persists. The outside world, he says, just doesn’t get it.
“We just grew up in polygamy,” said Bistline, a 70-something former polygamist and a local historian and author of two books. “It’s part of our life. I don’t know how else to say it.”
Bistline has lived along the Utah-Arizona border, since the twin towns of Colorado City, Ariz., and Hildale, Utah, were still known as Short Creek. The towns are the home of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.
Bistline was here when Arizona authorities raided the cross-border community in 1953 in an attempt to stop plural marriages. He has seen dozens of men and women jailed for their beliefs.
“They believe that it’s necessary to gain their exaltation to the highest level of heaven,” Bistline said. “They’ve been taught that since the day they were born. It won’t change.”
Not even with the prosecution of FLDS leader Warren Jeffs.
Jeffs, 40, was arrested Monday near Las Vegas during a traffic stop. He was wanted on felony charges in both Utah and Arizona for sexual crimes related to plural marriages between teenage girls and older men.
Jeffs was scheduled to appear Thursday in a Las Vegas courtroom, where prosecutors from both states will ask that Jeffs be extradited to Utah to face two first degree felony charges of rape by an accomplice. It is unknown if he will fight extradition.
The FLDS church is one of a handful of Utah-based fundamentalist groups that continue to practice polygamy. Once a tenet of the early Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the practice was abandoned by the Mormon church in 1890 as a condition of statehood.
The church now excommunicates any members found practicing polygamy and disavows the idea of Mormon fundamentalism, although most Utah polygamists identify their beliefs that way.
If history is any indicator, Jeffs’ legal troubles should only serve to move him toward martyrdom, said Ken Driggs, an Atlanta defense attorney who has written extensively about the legal history of polygamy.
“Historically, it’s generally made martyrs out of the people who get prosecuted,” Driggs said. “They come back revered.”
Jeffs is already revered as a prophet who had preached he was untouchable. Followers of the church shun the outside world and are said to be blindly loyal, paying any amount demanded by the church and performing mandatory community service, former members say.
As head of the church since 2002, Jeffs has controlled the sect’s marriages, deciding whom and when women marry, performing most of the ceremonies himself. He is known to demand complete obedience and has reportedly used even minor infractions as grounds for booting some men from the church, forcing them to leave their families behind.
More than any FLDS leader before him, Jeffs has used fear to manage his flock, Bistline said. But it’s unfair to say that everyone lives and worships here under duress, he said. Many people love their church and their polygamist lives.
“The majority don’t want to leave,” he said. “They’re an intelligent people and within their belief of polygamy, they are a moral people.”
FLDS church leaders served until death, so it’s unlikely Jeffs would step down if he’s convicted of the crimes he’s charged with, Bistline and Driggs said. They said Jeffs likely will delegate duties like marriage ceremonies to those men in his inner circle, while still maintaining control over the church.
“He’ll have visitors and mail and some telephone calls in jail, if he goes to jail,” Bistline said.
While in hiding over the past two years, some delegation of local authority seems to have already occurred, Bistline said, with someone appointed as the local “bishop” here and at church outposts in British Columbia, Colorado, South Dakota and Texas.
Driggs said Jeffs’ incarceration now and after any conviction would likely be seen by faithful church members as another test of the faith, which may have a moderating effect on practices like underage marriages.
“That’s where the legal pressure is coming from. It may not stop. It may just happen a lot less,” he said. “But it won’t stop plural marriage.”
What outsiders fail to understand is how deeply the practice is rooted in religious commitment and heritage, said Driggs, who has many friends who are FLDS insiders.
“It’s been my experience down there that the women are as committed as the men, sometimes more so,” he said. Outsiders “think it’s about sex and power and domination, but it’s about a lot of other things. This is what they were raised in and it’s multigenerational. It’s their culture.”