Why Is American Culture — Still — So Obsessed With Fundamentalist Mormonism?

This weekend, Showtime aired Prophet’s Prey, Amy Berg’s riveting documentary about now-jailed fundamentalist Mormon “prophet” Warren Jeffs, who has been tried and convicted of aiding and abetting child marriage in his polygamist cult. Many worse accusations against Jeffs are floated throughout the film, including rape, embezzlement, child abuse, and maybe even bumping off his aging father so he could assume the mantle of prophecy.

Berg’s film — also playing in select theaters — is harrowing, exploring the influence Jeffs still exerts over 10,000 followers in places ranging from off-the-grid Mexican refuges to compounds around the American West to his community’s stronghold in a border area between Arizona and Colorado where the FLDS controls everything. One place no longer under the Prophet’s jurisdiction? The “Yearning for Zion” ranch in Texas, which was controversially raided when Child Protective Services found a number of pregnant teens on the compound. Years of legal back-and-forth later, the compound is government property.

Watching a documentary about a religious sect’s child abuse, brainwashing, and law-skirting might not seem like a leisure activity, but it’s part of a recent cultural fascination with the smaller world Jeff runs, and the larger world he runs in. The past decade has seen an explosion of media about the thousands of fundamentalist polygamist Mormons still living Joseph Smith’s original creed of plural marriage (the regular LDS church outlawed polgyamy in the late 19th century). There have been a number of sensational memoirs by escaped polgyamist wives, as well as documentaries, nonfiction books, and long-form journalism. All this is supplemented by popular shows like Big Love and Sister Wives, as well as quite a few Lifetime movies and a surprisingly dark and gritty reality series.

I’ve been personally hooked on the topic since I read Jon Krakauer’s true-crime book Under the Banner of Heaven and started watching HBO’s Big Love. I started dropping lingo like “living the principle” “the prophet,” and “the priesthood.” I paged through the escape memoirs and blogs, read all the articles on Big Love‘s backstory. I became particularly fascinated by the idea that if I accidentally drove through Short Creek (technically the twin cities Colorado City, Arizona and Hildale, Utah), I’d be followed by cameras and possibly harassed, deemed suspect for merely passing through a community that’s more forbidding to outsiders than any neighborhood I can think of in my native New York City. That’s what sucked Krakauer in, initially — he took a wrong turn in Colorado, got followed, got the creeps, and has been “chasing” this story ever since.  He, along with investigator Sam Brower, are our two guides through this world in Prophet’s Prey, although the emotional centerpiece is the handful of ex-FLDSers who talk angrily, tearfully, and wisely about the life they left behind.

Interestingly, this explosion of media interest in the FLDS mirrors the rise of “ex-Orthodox” memoirs that similarly offer a lurid look into a closed and often inhumane religious community. It also has arisen at the same time as a newfound effort to puncture a hole in the secretive (and also dangerous) practices of Scientology. And Berg herself has investigated the child abuse in the Catholic Church. No religion is immune to a tendency towards zealotry, control, and evil, it seems, with women and children as the primary victims. And no audience is immune to being preternaturally fixated on the stories of our neighbors who have been sucked in, or born into, these cult-like societies.

What makes fundamentalist Mormonism particularly captivating to me, among all the scary religious sects in the world, is how bizarrely American this particular way of life is. The mixture of a sort of libertarian ethos with a blind, irrational, and zealous adherence to a leader — not to mention a deep, abiding misogyny — makes the FLDS very much feel like “our” homegrown cult.

A combination of rejecting government interference in private medical practices, education, and business while simultaneously relying on government aid (since all the polygamist wives are technically single mothers) is one of those American qualities. Not to mention the leaders’ own practice of mythologizing the Western frontier, dressing like pioneers, and living in what Krakauer notes, in the film, are stunning, remote locations ringed by majestic mountains and fruited plains. Add to this the final ingredient of absolute belief in an obviously batty authority figure peddling harmful ideas, and this certainly reflects something in the larger American society. Sure, it seems outlandish, but look no further than Donald Trump to see the tendency.

In Prophet’s Prey, allegiance to Jeffs mean his followers are doing things that cannot be interpreted as anything but deeply harmful, including  choosing to give up their children willingly, to surrender their daughters to old men as wives, to kick their sons out of the community for infractions that are really an excuse to even out the gender ratio, and to continue producing a rare and severe birth defect by allowing cousins to marry and refusing to get genetic testing. Watching and learning what kind of harm other people will willingly endure rather than question their dearly held beliefs is a sobering reminder that we humans aren’t quite as evolved as we think we are.

So people like me, who read everything we can about the FLDS, are drawn in perhaps in part because we feel superior — but, surely, also because we can’t help but wonder, if we were born in Colorado City, whether we would have the strength to leave our families, our way of life, behind forever. What would win out? Our sense of injustice or our desire not to rock the boat?

In recent years, I watched my sophisticated, urbane high school get caught in a horrible child abuse scandal — and observed that it’s hard for even the most (self-described) rational people to move out from under the deep cloak of denial. Understanding the FLDS, or Scientology, isn’t just about gawking at one outlaw sect; it’s a way of looking into the intractability of human belief, even in the face of the worst infractions.