Monday, April 07, 2008

Media Treatments of Controversial Sects - Revised

Today the media has been filled with reports of the latest legal problems for the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Readers will likely recall that last year the group made headlines as its prophet, Warren Jeffs, was convicted of various crimes. The group became the object of new national attention as police entered the property of the group and removed 401 children as temporary wards of the court. A judge gave approval for this action after allegations of abuse by a sixteen-year-old girl with the threat of alleged physical abuse or the imminent threat of such abuse.

But as this story has developed a few thoughts came to mind as I reflected on media treatments of this controversial sect. I don't want to be misunderstood here or to become the focus of new evangelical critiques as an alleged "cult apologist," so I'll state what should be obvious: If crimes against minors or adults have taken place within this marginalized religious group then authorities should take action just as they would in a situation involving a secular group or a more traditional religious setting. But I am intrigued by media treatments surrounding this group that seem to paint it in less than objective light as the facts in the case continue to be discovered in the wake of the allegations.

First, most media reports on this incident refer to a raid of a sect "compound." Why isn't it referred to as the group's property, community, or living quarters? The term "compound" has been used of fringe religious groups that have come to embody the worst in the popular consciousness where religious extremism is concerned, being associated with things like Jonestown in Guyana or the Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas. Is "compound" used because the assumption is made that religious groups that live on the margins of traditional society and religion are automatically suspect? Is there an unconscious connection with the use of the word to those religious groups that have come to personify the worst of religious "cults"?

Second, it is interesting that this recent frenzy on the part of the media and the general public in relation to a controversial religious sect comes with allegations of child abuse. Recall that one of the initial reasons the BATF engaged the Branch Davidians was over the same allegation. Perhaps these allegations will be proven true, perhaps not. We will have to wait for all the facts and evidence to be released in order to know for sure. But we might consider that given our culture's extreme sensitivities to child abuse that the mere allegation of abuse is enough to initiate the removal of children by authorities and their separation from their parents, and many times the allegations are never proven only to see the children and parents reunited after a long and stressful time of separation. And once an allegation of child abuse is made, it is never possible to completely remove the stigma that the mere allegation raises. (We might also consider that child abuse occurs with unfortunate regularity in both secular and mainstream religious settings as well, so we should exercise caution before throwing stones at an alleged child-abusing "cult.")

The concerns raised by the two items referenced above seem to come together in the Fox News report on the issue this evening. The network reported on a "polygamous cult" and included soundbites from a former member of a polygamous sect that painted a portrait of all such groups as opposed to basic human rights and interested in little more than power, manipulation, and sexual gratification. I am sympathetic to the negative experiences this woman may have gone through, but it appears that her negative personal experiences have become part of her personal template for interpreting all polygamous groups. If this is the case, then while her own pain is very real and tragic, as she applies her views to the FLDS Church she may be less than objective and her commentary will need to be carefully cross-checked against the experiences of women and children in the Texas FLDS group as their experiences are verified over time. In addition, sociological data on former members of new religions (so-called "apostate testimonies"), and positive testimonies of those currently in polygamous groups, provide important considerations for more balanced media treatments of groups like the FLDS Church. As in the instance of terminology, and allegations of child abuse referenced above, the use of former members in media treatments of controversial sects must be used carefully by the media and assessed critically by the viewing audience.

We might also consider that as media coverage of this story has unfolded since the initial raid of the group's property it has taken on a familiar popular media type anti-cult treatment of controversial relgions that draws parallels between a contemporary sect and notorious groups of the past. For example, in a recent Newsweek article online, the headline reads, "We just hoped it wouldn't be another Waco." Why would a very different religious sect in the present cause anyone to draw connections to another from the past, unless there were concerns that the government would create another debacle in its intervention? For these reasons, it does not seem like much of a stretch to question the objectivity of media reports on the FLDS Church raid in Texas.

Most recently, NBC News included a story providing the sect mother's perspective on the children's living conditions.

What do I mean by all of this? Simply that we need to be careful about taking media reports about controversial sects at face value, and to remember that even those religious groups that fall outside the mainstream deserve the same legal protections and benefit of the doubt as mainstream religious institutions. Perhaps we can withhold judgment while the scenario plays itself out.


Steve Hayes said...

Two observations:

1) As has been said quite recently, the media just don't "get religion", or rather, they often seem to be out to "get religion". And in that respect the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Pope of Rome seem to be just as marginalised, to judge from recent reports about the former's remarks on Sharia law, and the latters alleged updating of the seven deadly sins.

2) "compound" is an interesting word, and has long been used for religious institutions, where it means much the same thing as "campus" does in relation to educational institutions.

It has also been used for single quarters for workers, though the politically correct euphemism for that nowadays is "hostel". And for the managerial class as opposed to the workers I think the preferred term is "gated community".

The question I have about the group you refer to is whether their living quarters did in fact form a gated community, in which case "compound" would not be inaccurate, or even pejorative. But if it wasn't a gated community, it could be said to be inaccurate.

John W. Morehead said...

Steve, thanks for your comments. In regard to the second point I think that regardless of the existence of a fence, or lack thereof, the use of term is in some sense pejorative or at least used to cast doubt on the legitimacy of the group in question. Two cultural factors are in play here in that 1) large fenced-off dwelling places are often owned by individuals and groups in the U.S. and when things happen on such properties the media does not use the label "compound," and 2) as I mentioned in my post, this term has a history of connection in media reports on controversial sects.

I think the cultural context for the word is significant in assessing how it is used by American media and I simply raise the issue for reflection.

Steve Hayes said...


Compound: I was just curious about whether the property was fenced off. The cultural context is interesting, because I have found that the term is often used of US embassies in other countries. The US embassy in our city is certainly in a compound, and media reports often refer to those as "the US embassy compound".

John W. Morehead said...

From the video footage I've seen of the property it does appear to have a fence or gate around it.

Anonymous said...

Do our constitutional rights trump the principles of Scripture?

John W. Morehead said...

I'm afraid you'll have to expand on what you mean by this question in order for me to respond. If you do so please interact with the substance of my post on media treatments of this sect while also connecting it somehow to your concern over particular biblical principles.

Lainie Petersen said...


It appears that the phone call that prompted the raid was made by a woman with a history of making such calls:

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