Fundamental Law

Last year I posted a piece on Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints fugitive Lyle Jeffs. The occasion for my venturing into this sect was that Jeffs’ lawyer, after Jeffs had escaped house arrest claimed the Rapture was responsible for his disappearance. Now that an unraptured Jeffs has been recaptured, I begin to wonder about the special immunity of lawyers. Surely Jeffs’ attorney knew that his client hadn’t been spirited to heaven in the fictional escapade we all know as the Rapture. Indeed, all criminal lawyers—or at least most—know the facts behind a case before they step into the courtroom. While their witnesses are guilty of perjury if they lie under oath, lawyers, through careful wording, are permitted to insinuate the opposite of the truth with no hint of wrong-doing. It’s just their job.

Legalism and religion go hand-in-hand. After an interesting preamble, the Bible begins by laying down the Torah. Among its stipulations is not bearing false witness. But then, that was before the modern legal system. Religions tend to serve as moral compasses—and that’s the phrase that’s frequently used. A compass helps to find direction, ensures that we go the right way. What exactly the right way is can be a matter of debate, however. It all depends on where it is we want to go. When religious law, such as polygamy among Fundamentalist Latter-Day Saints, and civil law (generally recognizing one spouse at a time) clash, lawyers debate with the comfort of knowing they need not be accountable for the truth.

I’m no legal expert—in fact, I wouldn’t even have known about this had not a friend sent me the piece by Ruth Graham on Slate—but the question does trouble me. Religion is often all about laws. Specialists in Islam are called jurists, and in Judaism rabbis know the Torah inside out. Religious laws sometimes—often, actually—conflicts with the laws of the land. Believers either accommodate the differences or get into trouble in the secular courts. It’s headline news when religious law becomes civil law in this modern day and age. Isn’t there something cynical, however, when a lawyer pleads the Rapture as probable cause for a disappearance? Knowing the law, they need not reveal the truth they know. And yet, if you personally implicate any wrongdoing in another you can be sued for liable or slander. Lyle Jeffs wasn’t in heaven. He was living out of his car, keeping off the grid. Of course, following religious law can be like that some times.


Fundamental Fear

Something truly scary landed on my desk. Working for an organization that has many different departments, there’s no way to know everyone. So when something bible-ish arrives in the mail, it gets directed to me. Now, I don’t follow the afterlife of creepy religious people through prison, so it took a few minutes to remember who Warren Jeffs is. I knew I’d read about him but I couldn’t remember where. Then I remembered the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Jeffs was once the head of this church before being put into prison for child sexual assault crimes. So why had he sent a copy of Jesus Christ Message to All Nations to my publishing house? It is already published, and it is rather modeled on the Bible, at least at a surface level. No letter, no instructions. Just a book that I felt I needed to wash my hands after touching.

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I’d not heard of this book before. The author is boldly listed as Jesus Christ. “President Warren S. Jeffs, Mouthpiece of God” it says, given credit for, I suppose, putting pen to paper. What’s to prevent me, I wondered, from claiming God wrote what I framed into words? It is far too easy a claim to make and the credulous follow where the bold lead. That’s the way human authority, unfortunately, often works. Someone with a surfeit of testosterone declares that he speaks with absolute authority—I think of angry atheists as well as televangelists here. Such sense of irrational conviction must feel god-like. I can only guess from the sidelines. And I wonder about those who wrote what are recognized as scriptures in other religions.

Did those who wrote the books of the Bible, for instance, ever feel that they were writing unquestioned truth? Might they not have been a bit more circumspect? Maybe they were writing in the heat of inspiration, but not with the confidence of claiming divinity. Somehow I doubt even that. Writing is a human activity. The creator of an entire universe shouldn’t need to use it. Still, religions are often built around written texts. Parts of the New Testament claim to come from Jesus of Nazareth, although he’s not the actual writer. I guess he must have been working on later works of which I’ve never heard. And I do wonder how the doctrine of the faulty vessel applies in cases like this. I know better than to ask a Fundamentalist of any stripe, because I already know the answer they would give.


In God We Lust

One of the entrenched ironies of human mentality is that reason will not suffice to change religious views. Many studies have repeated demonstrated that faith is impervious to logic, and this has appeared with Ektachrome clarity in the case of Warren Jeffs. Rev. Jeffs, the leader of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, has painted himself into a mental corner that makes the logic of legal proceedings appear as slapping the idiot. Logic and faith do not connect. Any Christian who has read the letter to the Hebrews should know that. Nevertheless, Rev. Jeffs, having illogically dismissed his team of lawyers, has been attempting a divine defense to justify his alleged sexual abuse of minors. He remained silent during his opening statement, despite judicial advice that such a tactic might harm his case. Breaking silence yesterday with a nearly hour-long sermon, faith responded to logic and was found wanting.

Society at large fails to consider that studies of religion have been carried out from multiple angles over many decades. We have erudite studies of the philosophy of religion, the psychology of religion, the anthropology of religion, and the sociology of religion. They all point to the human origins of this phenomenon, often demonstrating that a basic disconnect remains when religious belief is brought into the harsh light of logic. Neurologists and biologists have explored the utility of religion as a survival tactic, and evolution seems to have blessed it. Yet trial lawyers, judges, law enforcement officials, and politicians—often themselves religious individuals—are charged with apprehending and convicting others who simply take their religion to extremes. Religions make untenable demands on adherents. God has a poor record of turning up in the courtroom. His divine statements are absent from the stenographer’s tape.

Not knowing the details, it is difficult to find much sympathy for Rev. Jeffs, should he be found guilty. Yet at the same time, his interpretation of religion differs only in a matter of degree from other religious sexual ordinances. Is it normal for a clergyman to live a lifetime of enforced celibacy? Although signing on the dotted line may indicate a tacit agreement with church policy, what young man can clearly anticipate the pressures of decades fighting biology and psychology? Yet the practice is perfectly legal. Until the nearly inevitable inappropriate results squirm out. Public rancor runs high, as it should, against child molesters. The children are innocent victims. The perpetrators, however, believe themselves to be following divine dictates. It would seem that much suffering would be ended if God would go on the record here, so that we might have solid evidence with which to judge the case. If it please the court.

Photo credit: Tony Gutierrez, AP, from The Seattle Times