New Sherwood

The State and the Cults

It is true that the FLDS cult is – or should be considered – a problem for the state on several levels. Polygamy is a problem for numerous reasons, many of which have been addressed by my commenters. Other beliefs and practices of this cult are destructive and disordered (although they don’t seem so bad when compared with mainstream American culture). The state has a legitimate interest in suppressing the FLDS and discouraging its growth.

The problem is that we have a secular state that claims (falsely and deceitfully) to be neutral in matters of religion. The state has abandoned, for example, all religious justifications for the institution of marriage, and therefore cannot easily make an argument against polygamy or any other oddball marriage practices. The doctrine of religious liberty forbids the state from openly suppressing any religious cult unless a “non-religious” justification can be found.

But a secular and religiously indifferent state is not only impossible, it is foreign to Catholic social thought. The state is obliged to favor truth in religion and morality. Because of fallen human nature and the fact of religious pluralism in many places, the state is also obliged to tolerate a degree of error in order to prevent greater evils. But it is not obliged to tolerate every error, and it is sometimes obliged to legislate against error – that is, against specifically religious error, openly stating the truth of the matter without having to search for a dishonest pretext.

As is the case with Islam, the FLDS is exposing religious neutrality for the fraud that it really is. At some point the state has to discriminate. And there’s nothing inherently wrong with that. The danger, for us, is that it will end up persecuting any group that does not conform to the American Secular Religion with its gods of Materialism, Hedonism, Individualism and Egalitarianism. I believe that is exactly what we are witnessing in Texas.

I would like to see our state and local governments openly acknowledge a bias for creedal Christianity: that is, for the Catholic and Orthodox Churches and those ecclesial communions that have their origins with the Reformation. This would give the state a legal framework for dealing with cults like the FLDS (not to mention Islam). The cults could therefore be legally restrained and prevented from flourishing before reaching the level of human tragedy we are witnessing in Texas.

But let’s face it: that isn’t going to happen anytime soon. The next best thing is to try and maintain the fiction of religious neutrality in order to prevent the wrong kind of persecution. That pretty much means letting the cults do their own thing. That also means – when the time is ripe – permitting the growth of Christian enclaves throughout the land, places where Catholic values are not marginalized, where faith is not banished from the public square, and where families can preserve their children’s innocence without becoming virtual hermits.

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April 26, 2008 - Posted by | Uncategorized

6 Comments »

  1. If there’s a smart lawyer around, and I pretty sure there’s lots of smart, creative lawyers in Texas, this looks to me like a HUGE class-action civil rights lawsuit. By huge, I mean tens of millions of dollars, with a law firm raking in 30%. Specifically that the State of Texas has conspired to deprive these citizens of their rights to religious freedom, and to polygamy. That’s right, a right to polygamy. After Lawrence v Texas, there is no longer any coherent way to put limits on sexual behavior, unless you can show lack of consent. I’m surprised the lawsuit hasn’t already been filed.

    If they had come in and arrested the men for child molestation, they could have avoided it, but I think now it’s inevitable.

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    Comment by Danby | April 26, 2008 | Reply

  2. Good point, Danby. Although Lawrence does not technically apply to minors, its logic certainly does.

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    Comment by Jeff Culbreath | April 26, 2008 | Reply

  3. Jeff,

    I see where you are coming from. It is troublesome to see the state imposing on freedoms. However, I am also uncomfortable with the conservative movement to protect religious freedom for Catholics by setting legal precedents with minority causes like this. I heard a Catholic speaker once(a lawyer possibly?) who works to do just that. But, order to protect Catholics, he defends every kind of New Age group that worships a cement post in a parking lot(not kidding – that was a real example he mentioned). He even went so far as to say that he would defend a Satanist cause in court for the sake of setting a positive legal precedent. Call me a foolish, crazy, young idealist but I think a persecution would benefit the Church much more than shenanigans of that kind.

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    Comment by Lorraine | April 26, 2008 | Reply

  4. “However, I am also uncomfortable with the conservative movement to protect religious freedom for Catholics by setting legal precedents with minority causes like this.”

    I don’t think we really disagree about that, Lorraine. I’m the furthest thing there is from a civil libertarian. But this case is different because it seems to be setting its own precedent when it comes to removing children from their parents – a precedent that threatens us, too, if it is upheld.

    “I heard a Catholic speaker once (a lawyer possibly?) who works to do just that. But, in order to protect Catholics, he defends every kind of New Age group that worships a cement post in a parking lot(not kidding – that was a real example he mentioned). He even went so far as to say that he would defend a Satanist cause in court for the sake of setting a positive legal precedent.”

    This statement is lacking important context. I would have no hesitation in removing children from the homes of Satanists, in principle, so long as the legal argument went something like “it is illegal to expose children to Satanism”, as it ought to be. Needless to say I don’t think the FLDS cult (so far as I know) can be equated with Satanism. However, I would defend the Satanist if the legal argument was that Johnny, who happens to be homeschooled by a Satanist, is habitually truant due to parental neglect and therefore must be removed from the home.

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    Comment by Jeff Culbreath | April 26, 2008 | Reply

  5. I don’t think I expressed my point about legal precedents very clearly. In order to safeguard Catholics’ freedom of religion, the lawyer I spoke of would defend a Satanist’s right to worship publicly or a New Ager’s right to adore a cement post in a parking lot because it is easier to defend those liberal minorities in court. Once the legal precedent is there it protects Christians too. Here is my objection: One should not use an unwholesome situation to defend a wholesome one. The FLD’s should not be permitted to live as they choose in their isolated compound because they choose to do wierd, unnatural things there and we should not defend their right to do wierd, unnatural things for the sake of preserving our right to live counter-culturally.

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    Comment by Lorraine | April 26, 2008 | Reply

  6. “One should not use an unwholesome situation to defend a wholesome one. The FLD’s should not be permitted to live as they choose in their isolated compound because they choose to do wierd, unnatural things there and we should not defend their right to do wierd, unnatural things for the sake of preserving our right to live counter-culturally.”

    Thanks for the clarification, Lorraine. In a better America, you would be right. The cults ought to be legally suppressed, for religious reasons, by an openly Christian state. Unfortunately that is so far removed from the American political reality that it cannot be seriously proposed. Americans have been indoctrinated against making any kind of religious distinctions when it comes to public policy. We are forced to live with the system as it is – with our neighbors as they are – and to work within an existing political framework.

    Once the modern American secular state gets comfortable with going after weird counter-cultural religious groups, you can bet that traditional Catholics will be on the short list. I take your point about persecution being good for the Church, but persecution does two things: it makes martyrs of the strong and apostates of the weak. The latter outcome is not something to be rushed.

    Anyway, the case of the FLDS children in Texas only touches on this topic tangentially. At issue is the question of whether the state can legitimately remove children from their homes without any kind of due process afforded to the parents. That’s what has happened here. Whatever the charges might be (and there aren’t any), whatever the evidence might be (and none has been presented), in this country we have a tradition – a good one, I might add – of presuming innocence until proven guilty in a court of law.

    These children were completely innocent. They need their natural mothers. Certainly the infants and toddlers were in no danger of being married off to some 50 year old man with 4 wives. CPS admits that the children have been well cared-for and show no signs of physical or sexual abuse. If the FLDS environment is bad, the Texas foster care system is infinitely worse.

    It is likely, too, that most of the mothers are completely innocent and have committed no crimes. There may be some who cooperated with abusive husbands, but that has yet to be proven and is no excuse for punishing all of them without distinction, without evidence, without their day in court!

    Let the state of Texas prosecute and punish those individuals who have committed crimes. Press charges, name names. That’s how we do things in America. But this mass removal of innocent children, some still nursing at the breast, from their presumably innocent mothers is simply an outrage. Their husbands haven’t even been charged with anything. And this would be an outrage in any context – even if the FLDS were justly suppressed as a religious cult, that suppression should not involve actions as drastic as this. Lock up their “prophets”, prevent them from owning property, whatever – but don’t forcibly destroy their most natural family bonds.

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    Comment by Jeff Culbreath | April 27, 2008 | Reply


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