The Church of Latter-day constraints

A former Mormon says that the sheltered environment of Elizabeth Smart's religion might explain why she didn't run from her captors.

Published March 19, 2003 12:14AM (EST)

We've heard plenty of the details by now: While in captivity, Elizabeth Smart wore a veil, frequented grocery stores, and attended a town picnic while half of America was looking for her. She loaded up on croutons and ranch dressing at the Souper Salad, directly underneath a wanted poster featuring her picture. She lived a block from the Salt Lake City police station, heard searchers shouting her name, even went back for her shoes when Brian David Mitchell allegedly kidnapped her.

The Smart parents are beginning to take a little heat for this, and thus have started telling reporters that their daughter must have been brainwashed. The usual cavalcade of child psychologists has been trotted out to discuss the Stockholm Syndrome. As for my family, former Mormons now living thousands of miles from Utah, my brother summed it up best: "They hypnotized a Mormon girl? How hard could that have been?"

Growing up Mormon and then drifting from the faith -- known as being a "jack-mormon" in local parlance -- echoes the experience of lapsed Catholics. I'm certainly not one of the more virulent jack-mormons running around on the Net, but I think we all have a very complicated relationship with our former religion.

A lot less "cult-y" than mainstream Americans generally think, Mormons traditionally have tremendous international interests (aided by ex-missionaries fluent in other languages), a pro-technology bent in business and medicine, and unless you happen to be a homosexual, tend to be socially inclusive. They have an unrivaled connection to their community, a genuinely sympathetic worldview that includes a tolerance of many other faiths, a stellar record of generosity and a damned good choir.

If you get past the genealogy thing (which is a great resource for nonbelievers) and the polygamy (outlawed early last century), you could do a lot worse than be a Mormon. I trust them implicitly. If you want a used car, go to Provo, Utah; most of them are genetically incapable of lying.

But the Mormon environment, Utah in particular, is nothing short of a fantasy world. Many of my cousins, who are now in their mid-30s, know few people who have ever smoked a cigarette. Premarital sex, drug use, even caffeine are almost unheard of in this state that claims 71 percent of its population as Latter-day Saints (in some areas, that number goes up to 99 percent). Utah has the dubious blessing of being the one place in America where theological homogeneity is rampant. It's a religion without any competition. The only place Elizabeth Smart would have been exposed to differing viewpoints is at an R-rated movie, but even adult Mormons can't see those.

Most important, it is a religion of the Man. Mormonism is an exasperatingly patriarchal faith that keeps women from holding the priesthood, and in fact, even denies them special rights in their afterlife. At home, the dad is king, his word reigning supreme over all others. This dual worship of both God and Dad infantilize Mormon children, especially girls, who are subject to calcified ideas about gender.

Time and time again I have seen my vibrant, funny, 10-year-old female relatives gradually lose their personalities, especially once they get into their teens and the husband hunt becomes serious business. It is a religion that has no interest in reviving Ophelia; my grandmother had a cross-stitched quote from a recent Mormon president in her hallway that read, "A modest, gracious woman is God's masterpiece."

Elizabeth's alleged captors, especially Brian David Mitchell (whom she called "Emmanuel"), played easily into a distended father fantasy, even for someone her age. Mitchell's story about being a latter-day Messiah was tailor-made for consumption. Mormonism itself stems from Joseph Smith, a young farm boy who claimed to decipher gold tablets in western New York that said Jesus had visited his brethren in America as well. The Old Testament is filled with stories equally incredible, but the fact that the Book of Mormon was found here, outside Rochester, N.Y., allows Mormons to believe in both the mundane and the magical.

In fact, it is the Mormons' combination of the transcendent and the here-and-now that makes them so fascinating. While still thriving in the material world, they constantly live (in their vernacular) "close to the veil" -- the thin, gossamer shroud that separates the real world from a host of otherworldly splendors. It is this ability to imagine the unimaginable that makes them fabulous raconteurs, and excellent missionaries. It is one of the world's fastest-growing religions. And if you ever talked to my Uncle Chris, a subtle and brilliant proselytizer, you'd know why.

I'm not going to pretend I know what happened between Elizabeth Smart and her captors. Philosophizing from afar is a loser's game, and no doubt more will be revealed in the coming investigation. I won't even pretend that I can generalize about a religion with 10 million members and counting -- my own extended family bucks the trend substantially, with a gaggle of incredibly strong women, many divorced, who willed their children through the 20th century on determination alone.

But the unrealistic environment of Utah -- and the unwavering faith of a high school sophomore -- might have left Elizabeth Smart woefully underprepared for her ordeal. The same ideological pundits now thanking God for Elizabeth's return (as Pat Robertson did on Fox News) are the ones who crucified John Walker Lindh's parents for being morally relativist California flakes. Jeff Jacoby of the Boston Globe bemoaned Lindh's ultrapermissive environment, saying "his road to treason and jihad didn't begin in Afghanistan. It began in Marin County, with parents who never said, 'no'." But this week's incredible abduction-and-return story forces us to ask: Did an extremely nonpermissive family like the Smarts -- the kind that never said yes -- do Elizabeth any favors?

Don't let the photos fool you; even though she looks much younger, this is a 15-year-old girl. Most Americans at 15 are already wizened and street-smart. Half are already sexually active, and a quarter have smoked pot. People looking for the answer to the big question -- Why on earth did she stay? -- may well keep in mind that Utah, for better and for worse, is not the rest of America.

By Ian R. Williams

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