Saturday, August 20, 2011
Polygamy and religious liberty
The State of Texas has finally managed to convict Warren Jeffs and send him away for life. He’s had this coming for a very long time, but this is hardly a time for satisfaction or gloating. It’s time to take action again. The irony that Texas had to finally put this criminal away should be a painful jab to all of us here in Utah.
Activists have dedicated their lives to exposing these sex abuse problems and we have been met with little more than reluctance, if not outright resistance, when it comes to investigating them. Some have even had their lives threatened.
Attorney General Mark Shurtleff has used the extremely poor excuse that we haven’t the resources to investigate these crimes. To be fair, he said he didn’t intend to prosecute polygamists who aren’t abusive, but we can’t guarantee equality of human rights in this sort of situation.
Women in polygamous societies are under duress. They aren’t entirely at liberty to express themselves. They have undue responsibilities simply because of their gender and the whole system makes them scarce. Men of all ages start pressuring young girls to marry early, and as in the case of Warren Jeffs, the dominant males take excess to the detriment of everyone’s human rights. It is a system that is stacked against the young people, regardless of their gender but also because of their gender.
There is no healthy society that can sustain polygamy. All of these groups cast off young men who are unable to marry and are faced with lifetime bachelorhood. But these young men aren’t spared the commandment to become polygamists themselves. It’s hardly a fair situation and many young men leave and go on to lead broken lives. Most of them have never known any other life and end up in severe culture shock. The women who are left behind are obligated to provide themselves, including their very bodies, as the means to the man’s glory in the hereafter. And the men compete amongst themselves fiercely, especially for the younger ones.
Above all, this is a question of human rights. If we didn’t have a human rights society, we would surely have religion, but there would be no freedom of religion. Human rights are fundamental. Religious liberties have a place as long as they don’t come at the cost of anyone’s individual human rights.
With polygamy, it’s not a simple matter to allow its practice as a private religious ritual. Polygamists who argue that the law limits their religious liberties are inevitably asking for the right to make polygamy into a moral imperative within their closed societies. This is not a religious liberty. And forcing girls as young as 12 into consummated marriages in the name of religion is a particularly hideous offense.
There is no question that polygamy must remain illegal, and there is no excuse for refusing to prosecute offenders. It is a whole system of abuse. Jeffs is not the only offender. He had thousands of people enabling him to commit his crimes. The deeds for which he was convicted took place while he was already a fugitive from the law.
What we have learned about Jeffs is just the beginning. We need a cultural change of attitude. Liberal tolerance has brought us many benefits and we have advanced greatly in our efforts to protect human rights. But slavery had to come to a reluctant end and this religiously-coerced polygamy must end too.
We have to ask ourselves where we should set limits for our tolerance.
Troy Bowles is a public philosopher specializing in human rights and justice. He received a BA in philosophy from the University of Utah in 2009. He lives in Salt Lake City.
**I feel privileged to have had a friend lead me to Tom awhile back when I had some questions trying to figure out so much in so little time. GREAT JOB, TROY! WE ARE PROUD OF YOU OVER HERE AT SISTER WIVES!!!