Religion has always been used to sanctify inequality here on Earth, in the present no less than in the past. By teaching their followers that they are God's chosen rulers, religious authorities can accustom the flock to obedience and ascend to positions of power without the consent of the majority. The fundamentally oligarchic and anti-democratic nature of most established religions, in which the church leaders choose their own successors, testifies to this.
These anti-democratic beliefs are all too readily exploited to justify the most horrendous abuses of power. One of the most obnoxious and sickening tendencies of fundamentalist religion is the way in which its leaders use their supposedly God-given status to claim the pretense of moral superiority over their followers, even when they are the ones in the wrong. Two recent criminal cases bear witness to this phenomenon.
First, take Warren Jeffs, the fugitive Mormon cult leader who was captured last year and whose trial has now begun. Jeffs was the patriarch of a polygamist Mormon enclave in the deserts of Utah, and from all accounts ruled with an iron fist. Women in this community live like prisoners, indoctrinated into absolute obedience from a very early age, and are usually "given" in marriage to far older men who already have many wives before they are old enough to give consent. It is this practice that has led Jeffs to be charged as an accomplice to rape. A witness for the prosecution, a former member of Jeffs' cult who, at the age of 14, was married to an older male cousin without her consent and then raped, gave horrifying testimony of the ordeal she endured:
"I can't do this, please don't," she said she told her husband. "I was sobbing. My whole entire body was shaking I was so scared. He didn't stop. He just laid me onto the bed and had sex."
Afterward, the woman said she felt dirty and took two bottles of painkillers. "I just wanted to die. I didn't want to deal with (my husband) anymore. I didn't want to deal with Warren, or the prophet, or my mother... I was so hurt by them," she said.
When she sought out Jeffs, the only authority she knew, and pleaded for help, he harshly rebuked her and sent her back to her abusive marriage:
"I told him (Jeffs) I was sorry I had failed so severely... He told me that I needed to repent, that I was not living up to my vows, I was not being obedient, I was not being submissive and that was what my problem was," she recounted.
Jeffs told her to go home "and give myself mind, body, and soul" to her husband.
Thankfully, this woman later escaped Jeffs' cult, but there are doubtless many young women who still suffer in its clutches. Criminal considerations aside, Jeffs' awful reaction to this woman's cry for help - telling her to go back and submit to her rapist husband, and blaming her for not being submissive to his wishes, rather than giving her shelter and seeking legal help as a good person would have done - shows clearly that he totally lacks empathy and human feeling. Religious authorities, who see human beings as pawns to be moved around at whim, too often take such a stance.
On another note, there are further developments in the story of Thomas Weeks, the megachurch leader accused of savagely beating his estranged wife in a parking lot. In his first statement since his arrest, Weeks asked his fellow believers not to pass judgment and then, in an act of supreme arrogance, announced that he forgave his wife. For what? He should be begging her forgiveness, not acting as if she did something wrong and he was graciously choosing to pardon her!
Fortunately, we live in a society that has separation of church and state, and a civil justice system that does not recognize any accused person's delusions about being the anointed servant of God's will. Still, even when facing lengthy prison terms, it's incredible that these religious leaders continue to act as if their alleged victims, not they, are the ones who have done something wrong. As both these stories show, women especially suffer the results of this, since they are most often on the receiving end of theological justifications for inequality.
LATE-BREAKING UPDATE (9/25): Warren Jeffs has been convicted and faces up to life in prison.