The Smart case and religious certainty

Knight Ridder Newspapers, Mar. 31, 2003 (Opinion)
BY BILL TAMMEUS, Knight Ridder Newspapers

(KRT) – Brian David Mitchell, charged with kidnapping Elizabeth Smart, the now-recovered Utah teen-ager, embodies one of the most baffling human phenomena – bizarre religious beliefs.

How do people come to imagine that they are prophets or even God? What gives them an ability to lead other people into the terrifyingly dark corners of their labyrinthine minds?

In the case of Mitchell, there may well be something to a conclusion drawn by Vicki Cottrell, a mental health worker who knows Mitchell and his wife, Wanda Barzee. Cottrell told a Utah newspaper that she believes Mitchell and Barzee suffer from mental illness.

“This is what people with schizophrenia do,” she said. “They think they’re God or Noah or Moses.”

If her diagnosis is accurate, the questions about religion in the Smart case are even harder to unravel. People with mental illness, after all, simply are not fully responsible for the imponderably aberrant ways – sometimes with heavy religious overtones – their minds work.

Still, I am not quite ready to leave it at that. Just as it seems too simple to say Elizabeth Smart was brainwashed during her captivity, so it seems too facile to suggest that Mitchell and others like him – the David Koreshes, the Jim Joneses, the Osama bin Ladens of the world – are simply lunatics. The world – especially the New World – has seen too many examples of strange religiosity for that to explain all of it.

I also acknowledge that traditional religions are so replete with odd stories that it sounds almost tautological to call any religion strange. My own mainline Christian faith, for instance, makes claims about God coming to Earth in human form and about resurrection from the dead.

And yet there are broadly acceptable standards for discerning traditional and healthy religion from the ad hoc variety rooted in sick imagination and run-amok enthusiasm. Mitchell’s corkscrew offshoot of Mormonism clearly falls into the latter category.

Mitchell created a 27-page homemade gospel he called “The Book of Emmanuel (or Immanuel) David Isaiah,” the name he preferred for himself. Witnesses say he’d wander about reciting rambling passages from this delusional writing. One of his core beliefs came to be the rightness of polygamy, a practice the Mormon church once allowed but that it officially gave up more than 100 years ago. It now excommunicates people who practice it, though experts say more than 25,000 polygamist families still live in Utah.

The Smarts are Mormons, but they have stayed part of the traditional church. Mitchell grew up in a Mormon household, and his wife once was a church organist. But early in the 1990s, according to a Washington Post account, Mitchell joined people sometimes called “fundamentalist Mormons.” They believe in and promote polygamy.

A whole branch of academic scholarship has grown up to explain what researchers call “New Religious Movements.” The politically incorrect term for them is “cults.” It is an unfair pejorative because it tends to suggest that all new religious developments are destructive or even evil. That’s not necessarily true, although scholars say there is a tendency for new religious movements to attract people who are susceptible to charismatic and authoritarian leadership.

In some ways, new religious movements are responses to some of the more noxious aspects of modern life. These sects often seek to compensate for the epidemics of loneliness, environmental degradation and meaninglessness that bedevil so much of our culture. In that way, they can be useful safety valves.

But when they get sucked into the plague of our era – false certainty – they become menticidal and leave ruin in their wake. Mitchell’s myopic attraction to polygamy – and, worse, his apparent willingness to kidnap children to marry so he could live out his vision – was an example.

So the lesson in the Mitchell affair is the same lesson in any disaster rooted in false and fearful religion: Belief systems that allow no alternative interpretations are almost inevitably calamitous.

Bill Tammeus is an editorial page columnist for The Kansas City Star.

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