Valley Mormons decry link to Texas sect - East Valley Tribune: News

Valley Mormons decry link to Texas sect

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Posted: Tuesday, May 6, 2008 8:47 pm | Updated: 10:58 pm, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

For Arizona State University senior Steven Raisor, the more he hears about the ongoing Texas polygamy and child abuse cases, the more he's disgusted at those allegedly involved.

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"It's sad what's happening to those little boys and girls," Raisor said on a recent afternoon as he visited the Institute of Religion on campus.

But for Raisor, a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the more the case develops, the other reality also sinks deep.

"It's frustrating that people do think that we're somehow involved," Raisor said, adding that he's heard from friends, especially those outside Arizona, who question him about the case and ask what it has do with "us."

More than 450 children are in Texas Child Protective Services custody, ever since state authorities responded to a call for help last month from a girl claiming she was abused and in a polygamous marriage at a compound of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, an offshoot of the LDS church.

The mainstream LDS church has maintained that it has no affiliation with any polygamous sect, including the one in Eldorado, Texas, whose leader, Warren Jeffs, was jailed in 2006.

Raisor said he's had friends from out of town ask what the Texas case had to do with his religion. It's something he's discussed with friends at his church.

"We all almost wish they had a different name, because it's degrading to us," Raisor said.

Don Evans, Arizona LDS spokesman, reiterated that stance.

"Because our church practiced polygamy until 1890 and they've borrowed our name, some people might be confused, but we have nothing to do with them," Evans said.

Arizona and Utah also figure prominently in the picture, given the presence of pockets of polygamous sects in the two states.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., a Mormon, sparked a debate with Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard and Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff after Reid's recent accusation that the two states aren't aggressively cracking down on the sects.

On Thursday, the two attorneys general will host an annual town hall meeting in St. George, Utah.

Meanwhile, the LDS church's frustration is shared by some East Valley Mormons.

Gilbert resident Tawnya Sherman said her initial reaction was that because some people think it's the same religion, "people look at us questioningly, and it's annoying."

Child abuse and polygamy "is not anything God would want," Sherman said. "It's icky."

Not all East Valley LDS members, however, completely disassociate themselves from the polygamous sects, citing the history between the two.

"The mainstream church is in a quandary," said Bob Olson, a Mesa resident and LDS member. "They just want polygamy to go away, and it doesn't go away."


Making the distinction clear is important for church missionaries, too.

"I don't envy them," Sherman said, adding that their main task would be to clarify the differences even more.

Sherman, who teaches at Mesa Community College, said when anyone in class learns she's Mormon, they say regarding the religion, 'Oh, you're the ones with lots of wives.' "

The Mormon church officially discontinued polygamy in 1890.

Olson said regardless, polygamy is a standing doctrine. "It's a remnant of a bygone era which went on well into 1904 as an unspoken secret," Olson said. "The FLDS continued where we left off, and now they're like an unwanted stepchild."

Olson said mainstream Mormons, numbering about 13 million, don't want to talk about it or associate with polygamy, but he said one more step would complete the distinction once and for all.

Olson said mainstream Mormons hold the scriptural texts - its Doctrine and Covenants - as high as the Bible, "so if we have denounced it, why haven't we taken it out of our religious text?"

Olson, whose family history harks to a polygamist past, said many LDS members don't understand how closely related the two are and that it hasn't been that long since the LDS church had polygamists in it.

"So it's funny. I go to church, and 20-, 30-year-olds say FLDS are a bunch of weirdos," Olson said.

Olson said he's very much part of the Mormon church, but is also aware that reconciling the past is hard.

"We're not able to understand the whys, but it's part of our history," Olson said.

Mesa resident Lyndon Lamborn, who was excommunicated for apostasy by the Mormon church, said the concept of plural marriage still exists in the Doctrine and Covenants.

"Only the practice is no longer supported, but the belief is still there," Lamborn said.

"The LDS officials want to have people stop associating LDS and FLDS, but it will not happen as long as the LDS ascribe to polygamous doctrine. Polygamy is at the heart of LDS doctrine, the patriarchal order, and has only been temporarily suspended from active practice," he said.

He said both LDS and FLDS follow the first three prophets - Joseph Smith, Brigham Young and John Taylor - so the two are well-connected, even if LDS no longer practices polygamy.

Olson said he agrees that being painted with the same brush as their predecessors is unfair, but said the confusion stems from the fact that the LDS church condoned the practice at one point.

Kathleen Flake, associate professor of American Religious History at Vanderbilt University, said LDS followers, like others, are scandalized and angered by the actions of Warren Jeffs and those who do as he does.

"As for the Texas group, like all of Mormonism, claims to be Smith's true followers. But a century later, the differences among them are enormous," Flake stated in an e-mail.


Linell Cady, director of the Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict at Arizona State University said, given their shared history, founder and some doctrines, there are certainly similarities between the LDS church and its fundamentalist offshoot.

"But religions are not monolithic and they are not static," Cady stated in an e-mail. "They change over time, and they include multiple traditions and forms."

Cady added it would be foolish to assume, for example, that the Amish and Methodists are the same, even though both groups profess faith in Jesus Christ.

The issue could take a turn toward Arizona and Utah, with Sen. Reid saying recently that the two states should also step up action against polygamists.

John Heinerman, director of the Anthropological Research Center in Utah, said while many Mormons are glad about the raids if it meant an end to suspected child abuse, there's also angst because the government came in and took away so many children.

"It brings the fear of persecution in people's minds," Heinerman said. He said if the raids spread to polygamous sects in Arizona and Utah, it would create animosity toward government from people who already look at it with suspicion.

"It will exacerbate the issue," Heinerman said.

Reid's comments prompted a reply from Goddard, saying both Utah and Arizona have been tackling the polygamous sects in Colorado City in northern Arizona and in Hildale, Utah.

David Lujan, D-Phoenix, will also attend the town hall Thursday. Lujan said the idea is to create more dialogue about polygamists and discuss where Arizona currently stands. Lujan plans to discuss his proposed legislation to help women and children leaving a polygamous community in custody cases.

The bill is currently held in committee, but Lujan said he hasn't lost hope.

"My goal is to help women and children leaving the polygamous community," Lujan said.

East Valley LDS members, including Trina Johansson, said they don't believe what's happening in Texas has anything to do with their religion.

"They have some similar beliefs, but they've taken their own tangent," Johansson said. "If people feel we're connected, they're absolutely wrong."

Johansson added that while she doesn't agree with the way the FLDS sect marries off the children, she said that "if these kids are happy in their homes and they're being cared for, they shouldn't be taken away from their homes."

Gilbert resident Amber Williams said she hopes, ultimately, that the children get the help they need.

"I haven't talked to my friends about it besides commenting on how hard it must be for the women and children," Williams said. "I don't think in these people's minds they're thinking they're doing harm to their children but if they were out in society they would realize it."

She added one thing's for sure.

"I don't understand it, so I can't judge it, but I can't relate to it at all," Williams said.

ASU student Raisor added that when he was on a church mission, he always heard questions related to polygamy, before the Texas case ever surfaced.

"You do have to deal with it; you have to explain that there was a past link," Raisor said.

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