Recently, the state of Texas undertook a police action that amply demonstrates the radical transformation of public attitudes to family, children, and the role of the state over the past half-century.  In April 2008, Texas authorities staged mass raids on a polygamist compound near San Angelo, in which they took custody of several hundred children.  This event bears close comparison to a similar assault that took place back in 1953, at Short Creek, Arizona, although public response to the two actions was utterly different.  In 1953, the American public was appalled at images of police and social workers wrenching apart loving (if unconventional) families, causing children to vanish into the state gulag of orphanages and foster homes.  Such actions, it seemed, were the distinguishing mark of Soviet and totalitarian regimes, and they had no place in a democratic nation.  After some months, popular outrage forced Arizona to release almost all the polygamist captives and to leave Short Creek alone to pursue its own destiny.  In 2008, however, no such public fury has greeted a much larger seizure of children, although the process has involved even more egregious violations of legality and common sense.  Today, apparently, we think of such interventions as a normal and necessary part of what the modern state is supposed to do.

Although the mainstream Mormon church officially renounced polygamy in 1890, the practice was revived by many separatist groups in later years, and today, these sects command the loyalty of perhaps 60,000 believers, largely concentrated in Utah and Arizona.  State authorities largely operate on something like a “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.  Provided that the sects do not marry underage girls, or engage in any kind of coercion, police leave them alone.  The most visible challenge to tolerance is the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS), headed by the Jeffs family and based at the YFZ Ranch in El Dorado, Texas.  Unlike most of its rivals, the FLDS do expect girls to marry at 13 or 14 (the customary age of consent a hundred years ago, when the sects were defining their practices), and they apparently do exercise communal pressure to enforce compliance.  The FLDS fits the classic definition of a cult: It is charismatically led, authoritarian, puritanical, intolerant, and totalistic.

In many ways, then, the FLDS undeniably does stand out as a significant legal problem, but that does not necessarily justify the draconian intervention by state authorities.  The recent crisis began when a 16-year-old girl told a family-violence shelter that she had suffered sexual and physical abuse at YFZ.  Although this lone report justified activating the overwhelming machinery of law enforcement, the story told had dubious elements.  For one thing, the husband who is allegedly involved lives on the Utah/Arizona border and was never even in Texas at the times alleged.  Of course, none of these caveats featured prominently in the subsequent media accounts of “children rescued from cult sex den.”

But, for the sake of argument, let us pretend that the process was legally justified.  What does one then do with the 400 FLDS children, these supposed “cult victims”?  Not for the first time in modern American history, the official response to such a case involved treating their new captives in exactly the same way that the most extreme cults are accused of doing with their troublesome recruits.  Among the first agents of officialdom on the scene were therapists and mental-health professionals, who unabashedly stated that all FLDS members were by definition suffering from an incorrect worldview, from which they would have to be deprogrammed.  After all, the evidence of monstrous deviancy was plain to see.  In the appalled words of an Associated Press report, the children

have been told the outside world was hostile and immoral. . . . Most of the sect’s children have never attended public schools or worn modern clothing.  The girls wear long, pioneer-style dresses and keep their long hair pinned up in braids.

My God, we’re talking braids here!

Here, acutely, we see the familiar therapeutic principle that anyone upholding an unpopular or passionate religious belief must be suffering from some form of mental illness or brainwashing, which demands an appropriate psychiatric response.  In support of those goals, patients must be isolated from any access to friends or family, who might provide support or reinforcement.  Just keep those recruits disoriented, and they will all be ready to receive your new programming.  Hence, the astonishing decision of local judges to forbid FLDS members any access to cellphones.  Otherwise, they might even be able to organize resistance to state efforts to terminate parental rights and to end permanently the ties between children and families.  And that would never do.

In 1953, Short Creek became a byword for state excesses and the violation of family rights.  Why does El Dorado not attract the same anger?