Texas officials this week took custody of 416 children who lived in a West Texas compound. The raid came after a phone call from a 16-year-old who claimed to have been forcibly married to a 50-year-old man and sexually abused. The charges are horrifying, says Dallas Morning News religion columnist Rod Dreher, but he cautions against acting hastily against a religious minority.
Dreher, who also blogs at Beliefnet.com, says an earlier story involving religion, children and sex — the abuse cases against Catholic clergy — affected his worldview even more than the Sept. 11 attacks. "The refusal of the authorities, the Catholic bishops, to step in and protect children was just completely grotesque," Dreher says.
But he says the West Texas case is much more nuanced, summoning both the history of polygamy in the Mormon church, and the wider history of people marrying at early ages. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints put an official stop to the practice of polygamy in 1890. The West Texas case involves a splinter group of the Mormon church — the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.
Dreher cites one Mormon who says that only a generation ago, the Mormon church faced widespread persecution. As a result, Dreher says, more than a few people get "a chill when they see the state of Texas move in to break up families ... even if it looks like the cult was up to no good and the state had no other choice."
Dreher himself is a member of a tiny religious group — the Eastern Orthodox Church. "What should happen if our beliefs and practices offended the Democratic majority?" he asks, indicating how much and how often public opinion fluctuates — and how much power public opinion holds. "My religion doesn't have much political power. ... We are at the mercy of the majority."
All religious groups, Dreher says, must submit to the U.S. Constitution. Certain things are a matter of law, not opinion or morality, he says: "You can't have people raping girls and calling it marriage."
Regardless of the allegations, though, Dreher says images of the West Texas mothers in tears summon horrific feelings. "People can put themselves in the situation of these families," he says. "You can easily get into the position of forgiving the unforgivable. ... As the pictures play out on our TV screens, it's giving us all a lot to think about."
On our blog, an open thread: On the kids from the compound.