Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Religion and Child Abuse

What is it about religion and the mistreatment of children?
The Mormons did it/ do it too!
Now, before you think I am stating this to lessen in any way the shame and guilt that rightly belongs to those priests and their overseers who engaged in or concealed the practice of pedophilia, I am stating this to move the discussion in another direction: there seems to be something intrinsic in the mantle of religious authority that is more often than not lethal to the spiritual, moral and physical health and well-being of children.
I have just finished reading a novel by David Ebershoff, called “The 19th Wife.” In its pages are intertwined the account of her life by Ann Eliza Webb Young, the “19th wife” of Brigham Young, and the story of Jordan Scott, a young man thrown out of a present day fundamentalist Morman sect, who returns to help free his mother from jail after she is charged with killing the “man of the house,” as it is so euphemistically put in describing the polygamous husband.
This is a wonderful novel. It treats, as only a novelist can, of the highly charged topics of religious faith, divine revelation, polygamy and religious leadership without resorting to clich├ęs or stereotypes about any of them. In the book there are good believers and believers who use their beliefs to coerce others. There are elements of divine revelation that will awaken new dimensions of faith in those who already believe; and there are divine revelations that good believers will be ashamed are even considered divine. There are descriptions of polygamous households that appear different to our sensibilities, but not impossible or immoral; and other descriptions that frankly will disgust many a reader. And, finally, there are treatments of religious leadership that are inspiring and ennobling; but mostly, in this novel, there are treatments that expose religious leadership for what it too often is: the seer leading those whom he keeps blind.
Polygamy by itself is not the issue. Besides, there is polygamy in the Hebrew Bible, there are accounts of God telling patriarchs to take another wife. Women’s rights are an issue; but that is an issue they can well push themselves—as Ann Eliza Webb Young did in history and does in the novel. But the real issue, it seems to me, is what happens to the children. The girls are forced into sexual unions when they are under-aged; the boys are forced out of the community to leave more females for the predatory men—and those who stay live in a world where any kind of healthy psychological and sexual development is distorted.
And all of this is done in the name of religion, in the name of divine revelations to a “prophet

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