The Prime Directive

 Robert M. Price


One of the most illuminating ways of understanding minority religions, so-called “cults,” that I have ever run across is that they are different island realities such as those encountered by Dorothy in Oz or by Odysseus or Gulliver, etc. Maybe the best version of the analogy would be the alien civilizations depicted on Star Trek, where the challenge is always to what extent interlopers into such alternate worlds may dare to intrude, to contaminate, to missionize, and to what degree one must let things remain as they are, as distasteful as they may strike us, given that interference might ruin the whole social ecology. Any lessons we may have learned from such challenging fictions might come in handy as we face the problems posed by enclaves of U.S. citizens in our midst who live by very different mores and insist on respect and legal recognition of them. Are we justified in demanding uniformity of behavior, and even of ethics, from absolutely everyone who seeks refuge on these shores? Our answer to that question may determine whether the old claim of America being a melting pot is justified or not. It certainly describes the many, many cases of immigrants plunging into the mainstream of American life with gusto. But how about the rest?

What about those who, while loving their new home, seek also, as a matter of integrity, to retain traditional mores? A good example would be the age-long efforts of Jews to integrate into surrounding Gentile societies without assimilating to them. If they did the latter, they would soon cease being Jews at all in any meaningful sense. Mostly we recognize their motives and approve their distinctive practices, not wanting to have the precious jewel of Judaism/Jewish culture dissolve amid the detritus of American mongrelism.

Recently we have found our accommodationism tested by the increasing demands of Muslims to have the state (e.g., public schools, state universities) make special provisions for their diet, their ritual ablutions (e.g., foot-washings), and such. Would such support by the presumably religiously neutral state amount to state support of a single religion? I don’t think so, since to do it for one group would only lead to doing the same for any group of reasonable size that requested the same privileges. We already allow Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mennonites, etc., to “affirm” on the witness stand, not to swear, which their religious scruples forbid. Personally, I think such accommodation a good idea, as it always is to make people feel at home and grateful to their new country. The less reason people have for thinking they live under the hoof of the Great Satan the better. But sometimes it comes down to the tail wagging the dog, making the exception into the rule, a situation in which the recently exorcised man only becomes prey to seven more demons worse than the original (Matthew 12:43-45).   

Another prominent case is that of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (FLDS), a split-off sect that is a century old, more or less, having dissented from mainstream Mormonism’s agreement to abandon the practice of polygamy as the price of U.S. statehood. The larger symbolism of the Mormon decision for statehood is clear: do social non-conformists prefer what gives them their cherished identity, their very reason to exist (“exist” means “to stand out from” the broad ground of being), or would they rather have the comfort in numbers of being part of a larger, homogeneous whole, the United States? That is the choice all marginal groups face: cell rejection by the body into which they have either been transplanted or mutated.

As the rest of us, mainstream America, decide how much conformity we have the right to demand, the problem the polygamists pose is not just that, obviously, they allow multiple spouse marriage (just like the Bible, one might add). Worse yet, they practice arranged marriages, and they maintain another very old custom of allowing older men to marry and impregnate much younger women. As I write, a court of appeals has just overturned the decision of a lower court that mandated the removal of hundreds of “endangered” children from an FLDS compound in remote Texas (from the look of it, the same dead-zone landscape depicted in The Devil’s Rejects, basically another planet). The kids were yanked out because of a crank phone-call, as it turned out, from someone falsely claiming to have been abused by an older man, a pre-arranged husband. But they were able to turn up one gal who had been under age while impregnated. My problem with this is simply that such dividing lines are culturally relative and arbitrary. My mother, who died a few years ago at age 87, used to tell me how she recalled twelve-year-old girls in rural Mississippi and Tennessee getting married. Because of that, I was never inclined to condemn Jerry Lee Lewis too harshly. It was within his cultural norms to marry his twelve-year old cousin, and none of my business.

There are anti-polygamist activists with horror stories to tell about the abuses to which young women are subjected in the FLDS and similar groups. But, famously, the daughter of a courageous mom who managed to escape the clutches of one of these cults with all her children in tow shocked her mother by going back to the cult and rejoining when she was old enough. Personally, I have known Unificationists (Moonies) who seem to live quite happily in marriages arranged by Reverend Moon. All of which I intend to lead up to this consideration: it is a mixed bag. If we break up these religions in order to eliminate any possibility of abuse occasioned by polygamous sects, we will be making the exception into the rule, usually a bad idea with plenty of ensuing unintended consequences. Why destroy the village in order to save it? In the same vein, I commend the wise authorities in Utah for their historic policy of salutary neglect when it comes to enforcing the monogamy laws. To do so would be just like sending in crews to remove a building’s old asbestos insulation: the danger lies dormant until stirred up by the very attempt to root it out.

When it comes to the island-world of the polygamists, I say, follow the Star Trek “prime directive” of non-interference. I know, it will not always be possible to do so. Every individual case is special, but this is the basic rule to be flexible with.

But don’t we have the right to summon would-be Americans to embrace the values we as a country enshrine and value? On a pragmatic basis, that is, on issues which have an impact on our ability to work and recreate and go to school together, etc., yes, we must. But even there we have learned to make considerable accommodations, for instance, honoring dogmatic pacifism by allowing conscientious objector status. One thing we believe we do not have the right to do is to demand conformity of belief. But what we sometimes miss is that ethics follow from beliefs, religious doctrines, and that to ban one is to ban the other. We cannot demand that people sacrifice their integrity.

One of the most volatile instances of the responsibility of the state to protect children’s welfare versus the sovereignty of their parents concerns educational standards. The government recognizes parochial and home-schooling for parents who fear public school will corrupt their children morally or ideologically. I think that can work. The state stipulates certain standards for non-controversial subject areas, and parochial/home instructors may be fair in teaching about evolution without advocating it, just as comparative religion teachers instruct students about Buddhism or Islam without evangelizing for them. I knew a woman who was a fundamentalist who home-schooled her kids and had broadly educated herself in preparation for the job. I asked her what she did with evolution, and she said she explained it to her kids and left them to decide for themselves. She had enough faith in God and the Bible as well as her kids, to trust they would make the right decision. Good for her! I don’t know if she is an exception, or if she’s even as objective as she’s trying to be. But I think it is her right.

Against this, I know that some atheists and secularists view religious catechism of one’s children to be a form of child-abuse. They would interfere with normal domestic arrangements and leave child-rearing to “the experts” as they style them. I see what they mean. One can scarcely believe how poorly so many parents bring up their children. But I fear they have to be accorded the freedom to err. We have to have enough faith in the individual to believe each can grow and develop in distinctive ways precisely by overcoming early obstacles to intellectual growth. There is a world out there that will help them educate and endlessly reeducate themselves.

Frankly, I hear about Leftist wishes that the State might control child-rearing, and I think “Stalinism.” Again, it would be a disastrous error, making the exception into the rule. Sure, there are egregious cases of physical, sexual, and emotional abuse that government must patrol and punish, or it is failing in its duties to its populace. We can and should offer parenting guidance to lower-income parents who had families while still children themselves and are just clueless. But to say, “Okay, Americans, we’ve given you your chance, and you blew it, so hand over the kiddies” – that’s making the government seizure of the FLDS kids into policy for all kids. Sure, send them all to Camp Quest and Camp Inquiry for indoctrination—the very opposite of what such institutions are for, but that is what they would become if all children were to be turned over to the ostensibly superior education by “specialists.” What a nightmare! Fascism and Communism, remember, were both social-engineering experiments spawned by doctrinaire Leftist elites. No one was trying to be evil. They just erred by elevating school-marms to godhood. My position is that there is no god—including the government. And including people who agree with me.

So says Zarathustra.

posted by Brian Worley         All rights reserved

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