persecution or good governance?

In Canada today, the biggest news story of the day is the arrest of two Mormons for polygamy. These men are the heads of rival factions among a Mormon sect in Bountiful, BC. There have been numerous stories about these men, their wives, their children, their feud, and on and on over the last few years. With the arrest of two of the principles yesterday, our news media has exploded with stories and opinion articles concerning the matter. news says there are 599 related articles when I clicked on this link, but once you arrive at the link, it says 89 related articles. I am not quite sure how that works, but the story is undeniably a big story here in Canada and is surely of interest around the world, especially in places where there are many Mormons.

One of the men arrested yesterday was on TV today claiming religious persecution. Now… is this religious persecution, or is this a matter of good governance?

In other words, what should Christians think of this arrest? Should we applaud our provincial attorney general for finally having the courage to prosecute, or should we be ‘friends of the court’ and lend support to the Mormons in this cause on the basis of our own interest in freedom of religion?

It seems to me that this is not an entirely easy question.

Christians particularly have a consciousness of the oppression that comes when one’s beliefs are unpopular or considered antagonistic to the community interest. Although most of us have not experienced physical violence, most have experienced the scorn of outsiders, the belittling speech, the hard faces, and even slammed doors. We have a collective memory of hardships faced by courageous Christians of days gone by who were willing to suffer for things we hold dear. Baptists in particular remember such hardships heaped on their forebears even in North America.

So religious freedom is something we hold dear. We ought to. It was not won cheaply.

But should the principles of religious freedom apply to men who hold multiple wives to be a tenet of their religion? Should we, in a country like Canada, decide to forbid this practice? Can we claim to have religious freedom if we do?

Consider as another example another religion, not much in the news lately, but one that made headlines a few years ago. The Rastafarians insisted on using marijuana as a sacramental substance in their rites.

According to many Rastas, the illegality of cannabis in many nations is evidence that persecution of Rastafari is a reality. They are not surprised that it is illegal, seeing it as a powerful substance that opens people’s minds to the truth — something the Babylon system, they reason, clearly does not want. They contrast their herb to alcohol and other drugs, which they feel destroy the mind.1

Would we defend Rastafari’s and their use of marijuana as a matter of religious freedom? I think not.

What then is religious freedom? We would insist on it for ourselves and our own beliefs, wouldn’t we?

When we recall the hardships endured by Baptists in early America, we realize those hardships were perpetrated largely by Christian people who came to America in search of religious freedom. Some of them, to be sure, were more interested in freedom for their religion than in freedom of religion. Since the Baptists were outside their religion, they weren’t eligible to enjoy freedom.

Let’s consider polygamy and marijuana use together. These involve actions taken by an individual that are external and impinge on the freedom or rights of others. The use of marijuana is rightly deemed illegal in our country because it isn’t merely an individual’s choice and the effects on himself and his own body alone, but rather it is a substance that alters the mind, impairs judgement and can thus cause devastating consequences on others.

Polygamy could be said to be the choice of consenting adults, but its consequences reach far beyond the emotional/spiritual impact on a set of consenting adults (not to mention the allegations that often the consent is one way or that some parties involved are not adults when the consent is alleged to have occurred). The fact is that polygamy affects the children of polygamy who are unable to choose the ‘lifestyle’ for themselves. There are attendant problems as some of these young people grow up and the boys in particular are said to be shut out of the selection process.

Our state has an interest in protecting the innocent against the actions of others, especially actions that hold a significant potential of harm to others.

There are some who would restrict Christian freedom using this kind of reasoning. They would suggest that the teaching of Christian dogma to children in Christian homes is a similarly deleterious activity, just like polygamy. Terms like ‘psychic abuse’ might be used.

However, it seems difficult to quantify such abuse. Who could raise their own children at all if somehow the belief systems of parents could not be transmitted to one’s own children? Would our state advocate abandoning all moral training? Would our state have any such overwhelming community interest?

On the other hand, if physical abuse (objectively quantifiable harm) were to be occurring in any home, Christian or not, our community would have a duty to protect the victims and restrict the perpetrators by whatever means deemed judicially necessary.

It seems to me that religious freedom, then, is the freedom to believe, to associate, to speak, but it is not a freedom to do everything someone might deem to be required by his religion. Just as my liberty to swing my arm through space ends when your nose occupies the space I am planning to swing my arm, so too religious freedom ends when ‘religious acts’ can objectively be seen to cause harm to other individuals. On these grounds, then, we must side with the state in this case and support the prosecution, conviction, and judicial punishment of our news-making polygamists.



  1. see Wikipedia link above for more []


  1. The question of religious liberty is a big part of this, something I haven’t yet wrestled through myself. I think you’re heading in the right direction.

    Have you seen my post on the polygamy story here? I think the legal case may turn out to be a sad testimony to the logical results of post-biblical thinking.

    • Very good, Dunky-boy. I think you are a genius. (no bias!! eh?)

      For any who might be reading this, I recommend you head over to the link Duncan provides and read his thoughts as well.

      And Duncan, back to OTI, eh?

      Don Johnson
      Jer 33.3

  2. Dad, you are biased and I love you. If you ask me, my argument in my followup comment over there is terrible. I need to think for a week and write another.

    If anyone does follow my Dad’s advice, I’d appreciate it if you would add some comments there that make more sense than mine.

    Now I’m off to OTI (a correspondence course that I have to finish this week).