Reporter Laurie Goodstein wrote a fascinating New York Times front-page story this week on the admissions by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (“LDS Church”) regarding their founder, Joseph Smith, and the fact he had approximately 40 wives, one of whom was age 14, and some others of whom were already married to other men. This came as a surprise to numerous LDS believers, who had been taught that Smith was a paradigm of virtue devoted to his first wife, Emma. The truth is that he was a rapacious polygamist, and his first wife was not a fan of his polygamy or his revelations on the topic. Some believers are having difficulty squaring these now-documented facts with what they had previously been told about the founder of their faith.
From my perspective, the most important element of this story is why the LDS Church found it necessary to post these damaging facts on its website, given that this is not the most flattering information. The apparent answer is the Internet: “Elder Steven E. Snow, the church historian and a member of its senior leadership, said in an interview [with Goodstein], ‘There is so much out there on the Internet that we felt we owed our members a safe place where they could go to get reliable, faith-promoting information that was true about some of these more difficult aspects of our history.’” Janet Heimlich, author of Breaking Their Will: Shedding Light on Religious Maltreatment and founder of the Child-Friendly Faith Project, elaborates on this point: “The fact that the LDS church is posting these essays online—even though it is not making them easy to find—speaks volumes. I have been struck by how insular the Mormon community is, yet how former members needed only to do one or two Google searches to find information that contradicted what they had been told their whole lives, including how they were supposed to believe, feel, and act as children. From there, their belief system quickly unraveled. So the church is losing members and it’s scared. And it realizes that it would prefer to be the messenger of such information than other critical sites as a way to stop the hemorrhaging.”
In short, it is no longer as feasible to perpetuate historical misinformation by religious organizations as it was before the Internet. With blogs, a proliferation of media outlets, social media, and websites established to address specific problems in particular communities, the balance of power between the powerful and the vulnerable has been altered for the better and hopefully permanently.
Religious cultures control the beliefs and perceptions of their believers by limiting access to outside information and especially information that undermines their authority. The Internet is the first populist tool that creates nearly insurmountable challenges to such image-building and unless the group bans the use of computers and smartphones altogether (not just ownership of them), the information streaming on the Internet can send shockwaves into firm foundations carefully constructed by religious leaders.
The Internet also has been useful in uncovering the bad acts of religious organizations (and plenty of others), particularly where they resisted transparency. Thus, it can be an agent for justice and the truth. In large part due to the Internet and the World Wide Web, we know much more now about the dangers of polygamy and clergy sex abuse. This sword is double-edged, however, as ISIS and other jihadist organizations are using the Internet to recruit new members into terrorism. Yet, the answer to this is likely the Internet!
The Internet and Disclosing Polygamy’s Dangers
Until recently, most Americans knew little about the realities of polygamous cultures in the United States, such as the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which traces its roots to Joseph Smith, and from which the LDS has plainly separated itself. They have been secretive groups that chose to live under the radar so as to avoid prosecution for polygamy, child abuse, statutory rape, and child abandonment.
Even groups dedicated to such secrecy, however, have had a difficult time maintaining a low profile when the Internet offers such easy access to stories, pictures, and news items as they happen. When Texas officials raided the FLDS’s Yearning for Zion Ranch and placed the children in foster care because of the evidence of child brides, the information was not limited to reports on the evening news, the media, or even blogs, but also could be shared among a vast network of citizens, scholars, lawyers, historians, child advocacy groups, and religious advocacy groups. With the 24-hour news cycle and the Internet coverage of their behavior, it became increasingly embarrassing for prosecutors not only in Texas but also Arizona to ignore the abuses going on in the community. They were marrying off adolescents, who were having babies soon thereafter, and abandoning boys. This culture of information led to prophet Warren Jeffs being placed on the FBI’s Top Ten Most Wanted List after arranging thousands of polygamous marriages between adolescent girls and much older men, arrested, and tried for his crimes. He is now in jail where he belongs.
Author of God’s Brothel, Andrea Moore-Emmett, says, “The Internet has proven to be a beacon of light on the dark corners of religion’s secrets—both new secrets and old. The proverbial ‘Shush, don’t tell’ has perpetuated abuse while lies of omission have given collective amnesia to multitudes of unwitting followers. The polygamy story in the United States is a perfect example of how these secrets have been used and how they have been exposed by the Internet’s searing beacon of light.”
The Internet and Uncovering Sex Abuse and the Cover-ups
The Internet had one of its most fortuitous impacts on crime in its capacity to bring survivors of abuse in religious organizations together, and to unveil the orchestrated cover-ups that have become one of the marks of religious organizations (and many others) in this era. The impact has been felt from the largest religious organization in the world, the Roman Catholic Church, to the small and insular, like the FLDS and the ultra-Orthodox Jews. In each of these religious organizations, among many others across the faith spectrum, higher-ups hid knowledge about child sex abuse for a variety of motives, including the protection of image, the preservation of power, and the fear of legal and financial liability.
The Internet has flushed out even the most insular. As Hella Winston, award-winning journalist and author of Unchosen: the Hidden Lives of Hasidic Rebels, explains, “For people living in a community where speaking out publicly about abuse can be socially, emotionally and even physically perilous, the Internet played a critical role not only in exposing the problem of abuse but allowing survivors to connect safely with one another and with others—both within and outside their communities.” These survivors have been able to find comfort and power through the Internet. “Blogs like UOJ and Failed Messiah, along with the Awareness Center, were instrumental in fostering the anti-abuse movement in the Orthodox community, publicizing stories of abuse and exposing those (often powerful and until then, untouchable) people, who enabled it and connecting survivors and advocates who went on to effect real change in the world.”
The Internet also empowers survivors to learn the facts about their perpetrators, the religious organizations that employ or have employed them, and other fellow survivors: “Now, a struggling man who has been told for years by church officials: ‘We’ll make sure Rev. Bob won’t ever be around kids’ can often—with a few clicks of a mouse—find out that he’s been deceived yet again and that Rev. Bob still pastors a church,” says David Clohessy of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP.
Given the size and global scope of the Catholic Church, it is inconceivable that, without the Internet, connections could have been made between survivors across countries as they have, with strong coalitions between Irish, Australian, and American survivors, and the emergence of a pattern of behavior by the hierarchy that is echoed in one country after another. Such a global comparison of experiences and the ability to see such patterns were enhanced dramatically by the Internet. In turn, the global character of the scandal earned the attention of the United Nations, which held hearings and issued damning reports on the failures of the Catholic Church to protect children, despite being a signatory to the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
The Internet is also the home for the remarkable database of facts, documents, and news stories about the ongoing revelations of clergy abuse at www.bishopaccountability.org, which was founded by Terry McKiernan and Anne Barrett Doyle, who now devote the vast majority of their time to building and securing this cache of information.
The Internet as a Tool of Tyranny by Islamic Terrorists
At the same time, it has been able to use images on the Internet to remotely indoctrinate converts, leading one man to kill a police officer in Ottawa, Canada. These developments are disturbing, to be sure, but they may not be as menacing as they appear at first glance. The cure for such propaganda is more information on the Internet, e.g., human rights and child protection groups and western countries countering the propaganda with facts. As the recruited young women learn what ISIS is truly like, and perhaps some escape, we will learn, via the Internet, the truth. And future recruits may well be deterred.
Internet Sunshine and the Path to Accountability
The Internet by itself cannot guarantee the safety or protection of the vulnerable. There is also a need for neutral law and human rights that are respected and enforced by the vast majority. The one thing that is for certain is that increasing “religious liberty” on the international front is not the pathway to such accountability, but rather a message to believers to overcome neutral laws and basic human rights. Professor Elizabeth Shakman Hurd has rightly criticized the international extreme religious liberty movement as a step in the wrong direction for these very reasons.
The sunlight that the Internet has been able to shed in the areas discussed already has disinfected a great deal, but there are still many pockets of darkness for the vulnerable, including unfolding sex abuse scandals, the medical neglect of children, and the covert political lobbying by religious organizations for exemptions and favors that put the vulnerable at risk or that undermine civil rights, as the Mississippi state RFRA does, and the Arizona RFRA would have. No doubt, the Internet will be critical in bringing these practices to light as well.