FLDS sect: MSNBC asks 'Religion or Mind Control?'

The Chicago Tribune/June 19, 2008

There's good reason for the ongoing fascination with the Yearning for Zion Ranch, the Texas compound of a breakaway polygamist sect.

It's not just that the women from this polygamist sect only appear to own one dress pattern (though it must be said that their uniform appearance - old-fashioned dresses, single braids and all - is strangely unsettling).

It isn't just the allegations that older men at the ranch, which is an outpost of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, took multiple wives, some of whom were under the age of 18. It isn't only the recent allegations of child abuse made by Texas authorities, who are in the process of returning the 460 children taken from the ranch in April after a judge found their removal was not justified.

Underneath the tabloid headlines, the battle over the Yearning for Zion Ranch constitutes another chapter in America's very long struggle to define religious freedom. Given that this nation was founded, in part, by devout believers in search of religious freedom, the issue isn't a trivial one, or one that's likely to go away any time soon.

Despite its sensational title, the one-hour documentary "Religion or Mind Control?" (9 p.m. Sunday, MSNBC) adds some compelling fodder to that ongoing debate.

Clearly the children at the FLDS ranch don't have much say in how their lives are lived or whether they can leave. But do the women of the sect (some have called it a cult) have any real freedom?

Kathy Jo Nicholson, who left the group in her late teens, notes that she didn't endure a harrowing escape, unlike other ex-FLDS women, notably "Escape" author Carolyn Jessop, who've spoken out about the dark side of the sect. But Nicholson had to set out on her own with little education and no skills, and had to forge a life without any contact with her family. It wasn't easy to make it in the outside world, and like many ex-FLDS men and women, at first she floundered.

That's not surprising, given that the FLDS, which was also recently profiled in a chilling WE documentary, appears to not just foster but demand passivity in all but a few followers.

Like other children on the ranch - male and female - Nicholson was constantly told to "keep sweet," which meant, be obedient and smile at all times, no matter what. Unquestioning worship of the group's prophet was paramount.

When Nicholson was growing up, that prophet was Warren Jeffs, who is now in jail as an accomplice to rape. Jeffs and other leaders strictly controlled who and what entered the FLDS compounds (TV and movies weren't allowed, but ovulation testing kits were ordered in bulk).

"If you control everything that goes into the mind, you can control the mind," says cult expert Rick Ross, who was interviewed for the special.

The most chilling part of the documentary are not the tales of abuse and exploitation told by Flora Jessop, an outspoken critic of the FLDS, which she left in her teens. It's the glazed eyes and expressionless faces of three FLDS women, who were interviewed in April by the "Today Show."

One women talks about how her children "mean a lot to me," but her eyes are blank and unemotional.

"When you are taught that it is a sin to think or question things, you begin to function in total obedience to the will of another. It is as if you are a robot made to do the bidding of your husband and the Prophet," Nicholson wrote on CNN's Web site in April.

"Is there a point at which strict adherence to religious life becomes mind control?" anchor Lester Holt asks.

That question may never be answered, but perhaps a more relevant question is, "When does strict adherence to religious life violate individual freedom and break the law?"

A one-hour documentary can't realistically address that difficult question, but let's hope the authorities in states with FLDS settlements are doing their best to come up with an answer.

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