In land of no first kiss, Warren Jeffs rules Taleban-style

Khaleej Times/February 18, 2004

Colorado City, Arizona -- The world of Britney Spears and bare midriffs is kept at bay here by mountains and canyons - and the prophet.

If local women venture onto the dusty streets at all, they sport ankle-length dresses, buttoned-up blouses and 1930s hairstyles with buns and pompadours.

And they always defer to men.

Men cast somber glances at strangers, derive their self worth from the number of wives they have and defer to the prophet.

His name is Warren Jeffs.

In the largest US community of open polygamists, the 48-year-old cleric is judge and jury, bank and police, and above all defender of the faith as head of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.

There is no area of local life that does not bear his imprint.

"The prophet decides who marries whom and when," says Flora Jessop, a native of Colorado City who fled in 1986 after being forced to marry her cousin.

"A lot of times, you only have a couple of hours' notice," she recalls. "They come in and say, "Get ready to be married. Here is your dress.' And off you go."

If it has ever been different, few people remember.

Mormon hardliners moved here at the end of the 19th century, after mainstream Mormons of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Salt Lake City, renounced polygamy in 1890 as a condition for Utah statehood.

Sandwiched between the Grand Canyon and the red cliffs of southern Utah, the valley offers remoteness and seclusion, which makes Warren Jeffs the undisputed ruler.

The Irony

As Arizona Senators John McCain and Jon Kyl go on Sunday talk shows to argue for the rights of women in Iraq, Jeffs ascends the pulpit to tell his followers that a man must have at least three wives to secure a place in heaven, while a woman will get there only if invited by her man, local residents said.

Still, it is the prophet's - not men's - paradise here on Earth.

A young fellow with an eye on a local girl must court his holiness instead, several locals said.

Getting a wife requires being useful, pliant and ready to serve. And forwarding entire paychecks - in addition to the regular tithe - to church coffers, said Pamela Black, who lives in Hildale, Utah, essentially a borough of Colorado City, and just across the state line from Arizona.

Then, maybe his holiness will be kind enough to put the suitor on a list for getting his first or second or third wife.

"I know of a man who never got a wife because he just doesn't have the right last name," Black recalled.

Dating is prohibited, and women are discouraged from even talking to men outside their immediate families.

The first kiss comes on orders from the prophet, who is rumored to have up to 80 "spiritual" wives in addition to one legal wife.

If a married man falls out of favor, the prophet usually tells his wives and children to leave him, according to Black.

Even on a weekday afternoon, the main commercial street is eerily empty and unkempt. Whatever grass there was is torn to shreds by bulldozer treads. Abandoned construction machinery litters many yards.

No Mass Media

Not a single newspaper or magazine can be found. A variety store displays about a dozen second-hand books, mostly on good housekeeping.

No movie theatre, no video rental. The culture-averse prophet banned television years ago.

Word of a stranger in town spreads like wildfire, and a burly man in an SUV becomes a permanent fixture in the rear-view mirror.

His holiness is said to have a private security force called "The God Squad."

In a town of approximately 7,000 residents, the public school has about 100 students, according to Deloy Bateman, the science teacher.

About five years ago, church leaders ordered the faithful to take their offspring out because they had found the curriculum "wicked," says Bateman, whom Jeffs has declared "apostate."

Youngsters are being "homeschooled," with predictable results.

"Most of the children in this town aren't taught anything about the Revolutionary War, (George) Washington or (Abraham) Lincoln, or anything like that," Bateman explains. "They are taught priesthood history, which is their religious doctrine."

Classics like "Gone with the Wind" and "Romeo and Juliet" are unthinkable because, Bateman says, "no teacher would dare bring those subjects up."

Swimming is out of the question because girls may not appear in swimsuits.

Since there is no courtship, there is no dancing. And no out-of-town baseball games: The prophet does not cotton to contact with the outside world.

Now and then, residents are told to get rid of their cats and dogs - no explanation given.

The last serious attempt at outside intervention dates back to 1953, when governor Howard Pyle arrested two-dozen local men and placed about 200 children in foster homes.

But images of crying kids being torn away from their mothers had a boomerang effect: The governor lost his re-election bid after turning off mainstream Mormons, a powerful constituency in Arizona.

Since then, the community has largely been left to its own devices - and those of the prophet.

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