From faith to fanatic delusion

Deseret News, Mar. 16, 2003
By Carrie A. Moore, Deseret News religion editor

With the arrest this week of a couple who allegedly believe God told them to abduct Elizabeth Smart, many Utahns are wondering again what moves people of seemingly deep religious faith into fanaticism.

Proclaiming himself a prophet chosen by God may not have been Brian David Mitchell’s first act of delusion, but it was likely among those that set the stage for the increasingly bizarre behavior that would follow.

Such grandiose notions of “chosen-ness” — while not unique to Utah’s own brand of religious fundamentalists — are symptomatic of the slide from deep religious devotion into delusion and even dementia, according to experts who deal with the aftermath.

Victor Cline, an emeritus professor of psychology at the University of Utah, said such people often have emotional disorders or mental illness that “may not be enough to hospitalize them but still enough for them to be out of contact with reality or create their own reality.” The fanaticism is part of their illness, and when religious faith has been a part of their lives, they “use whatever (religious upbringing) they’ve had in previous experience to manifest the symptoms of their illness.”

Marc Galanter, professor of psychiatry at New York University and author of “Cults: Faith, Healing and Coercion,” agrees.

“I think people go crazy relative to the subculture they’re in,” he said. So the fact that Mitchell and other infamous Utahns who have morphed their former membership in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints into their fanaticism isn’t necessarily unusual, he said. In other Christian contexts, they often “think they are in communication with Jesus.” Because Mitchell was born and raised in Utah’s LDS subculture, “his delusions just as likely pick up on that religious background.”

While the state has its own laundry list of bizarre figures who base their actions in part on religious beliefs, “I don’t think it represents an unusual phenomenon, but more the culture of which they are a part,” Galanter said.

Notions and paranoia

Religious delusions usually take one of two forms, Galanter said. Either the person has grandiose notions of importance, like Mitchell, or takes on a “persecutory” persona, thinking that “people are trying to poison them with gas” or something equally paranoid.

Whatever their religious background, Cline said, such people “take elements of their faith and twist it in ways that don’t represent the norm of their religion, often doing things that are terribly evil or out of contact with any kind of common sense or good judgment or values.”

While Mitchell and Wanda Barzee’s alleged involvement in the Smart kidnapping has brought their behavior under scrutiny, Cline said he sees patients who come under the influence of some religious figure who is “very charismatic and persuasive and proposing some things that are very unhealthy or really will not stand the test of time as far as relationships go.”

Such people are “able to persuade others, and there are always some people that are vulnerable that way. I’ve seen it with all kinds of sects and groups in the U.S.”

Some followers are attracted by “living a higher order, or living closer to God” than the mainstream, but come to a point where they realize “they’re going up a blind alley. They come to their senses, come out of it and leave.”

Some women who were at first “entranced by the thought of polygamy” believe they’re doing God’s will because that’s what they’ve been told. But the sadness and disillusionment that follow the initial excitement brings many to the realization that “the promises that were made have no substantial basis to them. They lose faith and eventually return to their origins,” Cline said.

Personal revelation

Latter-day Saint doctrine includes the principle of personal revelation, meaning individuals are entitled to inspiration by God through “the gift of the Holy Ghost,” which is conferred on new members after baptism. While such personal inspiration is viewed as a “blessing from God,” in people like Mitchell and Barzee, “our blessing becomes our curse,” according to Robert Millet, former dean of religious education and a professor of religion at Brigham Young University.

“Our blessing is that we believe in personal revelation. Our curse is that we believe in personal revelation. That’s the honest fact for me. There is a risk associated with the position we take toward God’s ability to speak to you and me.”

As with all of God’s blessings, individuals “have to operate within the parameters” of God’s law to use such a gift correctly, he said. When he speaks to groups of Latter-day Saints about “how to know a revelation is from God,” he emphasizes adherence to gospel principles and good common sense.

From its earliest days, leaders of the LDS Church have warned their members about some within their ranks who profess “new revelation” for the church as a whole. “People unacquainted with what Joseph Smith taught about how revelation is to be discerned are a natural and easy prey” for others seeking a following, Millet said.

He characterized as “particularly dangerous those that use scriptures to justify their cause, who say God has spoken to me or appeared to me or ordained me.”

Yet “any organization our size is bound to have people who miss the mark and go off base and thus misrepresent in every way what we stand for. I think it’s to be expected. It’s horrifying and embarrassing for the church, but it’s not something absolutely and totally unexpected.”


Police and Elizabeth Smart’s father, Ed, said the girl was not only taken forcibly from her home and held against her will, but was isolated from society and rarely spoke to anyone during her captivity. The situation is believed to have left her constantly subjected to religious indoctrination by Mitchell and Barzee, to the point of adopting the name “Augustine” as her own and insisting to police that’s who she was when they initially questioned her.

Mitchell called himself “Emmanuel,” which he told others meant “God is with us.” He also wrote rambling “prophecies” in a 27-page written manifesto he titled “The Book of Immanuel David Isaiah.”

Elizabeth’s father, Ed Smart, referred specifically to Mitchell’s assumed name during a television interview Saturday night with “America’s Most Wanted” host John Walsh.

“I will never refer to him as Emmanuel again because that is a sacrilege,” Smart said.

Many of Mitchell’s religious writings are based on references to Christian and Latter-day Saint scriptures — the King James version of the Bible, the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants and the Pearl of Great Price. Verses from each work have been taken out of context and strung together in a series of “warnings” to readers, interspersed with Mitchell’s version of his “calling” by God as a “prophet” for the LDS Church. The writings also designate Barzee’s special status as a God’s “most cherished angel” who is to “take into thy heart and home seven times seven sisters,” in a reference to polygamy.

Some of the religious rhetoric police believe Elizabeth heard from her captors would have sounded familiar to her as an active Latter-day Saint.

Constant subjection to such teachings and isolation from others would facilitate the “brainwashing” that Smart has said his daughter was subjected to, Cline said. In such a state, people can lose contact with reality.

In that kind of situation, “mental survival means you have to repress” things you can neither control or change, Cline said. So Elizabeth’s initial denial of her real identity when police questioned her is not necessarily unusual, he said. “When things are so awful and terrible, you have to repress who you are, and that’s trauma-based.”

In the same way, some people who have been “sexually molested in horrible ways have to repress it. It’s still there in an area of the brain, but the actual memory of it will be suppressed.” Cline said he treats many people who can only cope with their circumstances psychologically as they “repress out of consciousness who they are or their identity.”

Thus, reporters and others who continue to ask why Elizabeth didn’t escape fail to comprehend what Mitchell and Barzee subjected her to, he said.

Utah’s bizarre criminals

While Mitchell is now the most high-profile religious fanatic to have come out of Utah, the fact that the state has had what seems to be an inordinate share of criminal religious deviants may simply reflect another dimension of what makes the Beehive State unique.

Rodney Stark, a University of Washington sociologist who has studied the Latter-day Saints for nearly two decades, said every community has its own set of bizarre criminals, but “maybe it turns out that in Salt Lake City, they get caught. It’s a very solid and organized community, and in those kinds of communities, people do tend to notice things and report them.”

With widespread citizen involvement, “these critters are going to get picked up and it will look as if you’ve got a high rate of critters. . . . In south Florida, who knows how many messiahs are walking around doing all sorts of things.”

In years of studying a wide variety of faiths, Stark said every religion has its share of “nuts. People with manias will probably more likely focus on religion than politics . . . , and if you want to save the world, politics and religion are really about the only options.”

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