Thursday, May 8, 2008

Rurality and the F.L.D.S.

We've all seen images of the Yearning for Zion Ranch of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (F.L.D.S.). Photos have been plentiful in the media in the wake of the early April raid there, outside Eldorado, in west Texas. It looks pretty remote. (Photo right, Tony Gutierrez for Associated Press)

Today's New York Times features a photo of a member of the previously better-known F.L.D.S. branch on the Utah-Arizona border. Again, remote. This most recent story is about concern among church members in that locale that they, too, may soon be raided. According to a 2004 story in the Times, other F.L.D.S. outposts are in Mancos, Colorado; Bountiful, British Columbia; and Galeana in the state of Chihuahua, Mexico.

So why does the F.L.D.S. church locate in remote, rural places like Colorado City, Arizona (population 3,334), Mancos, Colorado (population 1,119) and Eldorado, Texas (population 1,951)? There are surely many reasons, cheap land no doubt among them. But the extreme remoteness from metropolitan centers, and removal even from micropolitan areas, also surely plays a role. (Eldorado is 45 miles from the regional center of San Angelo and 160 miles from San Antonio; Colorado City 45 miles from St. George, Utah and 161 miles from Las Vegas). I assume that the leaders who purchased the land that is now the YFZ compound in Eldorado must have been looking to get off (or stay off) the radar screens of law enforcement, and out of the influence of mainstream culture, too. They were presumably hoping to achieve the enhanced privacy associated with rural locales, to stay out of the way of others and to have others stay out of their business, too. Indeed, such considerations are probably quite similar to those that took the mainstream L.D.S. church to Utah in the late 1800s, when it, too, practiced polygamy.

It's a strategy long-employed by many fringe groups (and individuals, for that matter), but in this case, it didn't work. Indeed, a story from the New York Times in 2004, about a year after F.L.D.S. purchased the 1,700-acre ranch and when the temple there was barely under construction, indicates that, even then, Eldoradans were keeping a close watch on their new neighbors.

And that's the paradox of rural privacy. Spatial isolation provides something of a buffer for those seeking privacy. At the same time, however, rural communities tend to know their neighbors' "business." They also tend to have low thresholds for difference, for the "other." Unlike at the Arizona-Utah border, where the sect has had its base for decades, they were relative newcomers to Eldorado, and the object of much suspicion. They have been outsiders with practices the locals found repugnant.

In contrast, today's story quotes authorities in Utah and Arizona as indicating that are planning no raids; rather, they will pursue any allegations of abuse on a case-by-case basis -- as they did against leader Warren Jeffs, convicted last year of being an accomplice to the rape of a 14-year-old. Maybe Utah and Arizona are taking a different approach because the Texas raid has proved to be a PR debacle -- albeit not to the extent one might expect. Maybe it's because the F.L.D.S. don't really constitute the "other" in Utah. Again, they have been in that locale for decades, and they stem, however long ago, from the same root as the mainstream Mormon church (much to the dismay of the latter), which has a huge presence in that region.

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