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Men of the Cloth

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Child abuse. Sexual abuse. Women raised to be baby machines controlled by powerful older men in the name of God. These shockers--and many more--are flagrantly on offer in the spectacle unfolding around the 139 women and 416 children removed by Texas authorities from the Yearning for Zion Ranch in Eldorado. The YFZ is an outpost of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS), a breakaway Mormon cult presided over by Warren Jeffs, convicted in Utah as an accomplice to rape and awaiting trial in Arizona for incest and conspiracy. The visuals are riveting: women in pastel prairie dresses and identical pompadour-cum-french-braid hairstyles weeping for their children in state custody; skinny-necked middle-aged men insisting they had no idea it was illegal to marry and impregnate multiple 15-year-olds. There's a feminist angle, a child-protection angle and a civil liberties angle--it isn't clear that the children were in immediate danger, and this drastic and clumsy sweep might well cause cultists to isolate themselves even more. The original impetus for the raid--a desperate phone call from someone claiming to be a 16-year-old girl raped and abused by her 50-year-old "spiritual husband"--is looking more and more like a hoax.

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Katha Pollitt
Katha Pollitt
Katha Pollitt is well known for her wit and her keen sense of both the ridiculous and the sublime. Her "Subject to...

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The law, passed in 1993 with near-unanimous support, has become an excuse for bigotry, superstition and sectarianism.

I've written before about the evils of fundamentalist Mormon polygyny, which is thought to have some 10,000 followers in closed communities in Utah, Arizona, Nevada, South Dakota and Texas. I will never understand why the people who attack Islam as oppressive to women have nothing to say about the FLDS. The cultural relativist arguments they reject when applied to foreign countries are even less applicable here: everyone in the story is American, supposedly living under American law. Yet for decades state and local authorities have looked the other way when girls are pulled out of school to be "home-schooled," i.e., prepared for marriage to their uncles, and teenage boys are kicked out of the community so as not to compete with the elder men. Indeed, in areas near FLDS communities, public services have been infiltrated by their members: the public schools teach their religious doctrines; the police are on the lookout for girls and women who try to escape.

Still, appalling as is FLDS's extreme male dominance, there was another news story unfolding at the same time that had certain affinities but got a very different slant: Pope Benedict XVI's visit to the United States. What a lovefest! We heard endlessly about Benedict's intellect, charm and elegant red shoes. Cat Lovers Appreciate Soul Mate in Vatican made the New York Times most e-mailed list. How little the Pope had to do to win applause as a wise conciliator: having begun his reign trying to suppress the priestly pedophilia scandal, he met with the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP) and reminded Catholics that homosexuals and pedophiles, while both bad, are not the same. Having kept in the liturgy a prayer "for the Jews" so that God might "enlighten their hearts," he visited New York's Park East synagogue, where the rabbi did not similarly call on Catholics to give up their worship of Christ.

But what about women? Oh, them and their messy bodies! As blogger Dana Goldstein pointed out, only Barbara Boxer said boo when Republican Senator Sam Brownback, who supports a constitutional amendment banning abortion, proposed a resolution welcoming the Pope in coded antichoice language and asserting that religion, not the Constitution, was the foundation of our government. (Boxer led a movement that held up the vote for three days until the wording was changed.)

Where were the tough questions about the church's absolute ban on contraception, condoms, divorce and abortion--even to save a woman's life? If it was up to Benedict, we might be more stylish than the plural wives of the FLDS, but we'd be trapped in marriage and have fifteen children just like them. In the United States the Catholic church has lost some of its moral authority--thank you, pedophile priests--but it has more temporal power than you might think. Around 12 percent of US hospitals are church-affiliated, which entitles them to refuse modern reproductive healthcare to women. The church is the major opponent of the drive to make health insurance plans cover birth control, forcing women to pay up to $600 out of pocket every year for contraceptives. Along with evangelical Protestants, it is the main force behind every attempt to restrict abortion, defeat prochoice politicians, make contraception and the morning-after pill harder to get, promote false and sexist abstinence-only education and discourage the use of condoms to prevent HIV by spreading unfounded doubts about their effectiveness.

Catholic charities do a lot of good, but the Vatican is a major obstacle to the advancement of women's human rights. In Nicaragua and El Salvador it recently won a total ban on abortion that has already led to dozens of deaths. In Chile it defeated President Michelle Bachelet's plan to give out emergency contraception gratis. In Italy, Poland and elsewhere in Europe it works night and day to make abortion illegal or hard to obtain. In AIDS-plagued Africa its opposition to condoms, contraception and abortion rights has cost millions of lives. None of this is as titillating as pastel-swathed "sister wives" and their vast log-cabin dormitories, but it affects almost everyone on the globe. FLDS men have many wives and the Pope has none, which goes to show there's more than one way to keep women pregnant and in their place.

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Vacation From War. The Bosnian Initiative Frankfurt is a German group that brings together Serb, Croat and Bosnian children for two weeks of fun, safety and friendship. The program now includes young people from Israel and Palestine, who get to know one another beyond stereotypes. $150 makes you a godparent, but donations of any amount are warmly welcomed. Make checks out to "Vacation From War" and mail them to me at The Nation, 33 Irving Place, New York, NY 10003.

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