How Religious Fundamentalism Enables Sadists Like Elizabeth Smart's Kidnapper
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This week, the testimony in the riveting Elizabeth Smart kidnapping case drew to a close and the jury prepared to deliberate. As Smart--who is currently living abroad on mission for the LDS church-- took the stand nearly a decade after her infamous kidnappings, she revealed herself to be an incredibly strong, resilient young woman. She served as an uncompromising witness to her own brutal victimization at the hands of her captors: Brian David Mitchell and Wanda Barzee, a pair of breakaway fundamentalist Mormons who captured Smart to “seal” her to them in plural marriage.
Over the years, the Mormon community and its critics from within and without have debated whether Smart’s upbringing in the mainstream Mormon (LDS) church--which emphasizes male authority and prophecy and holds the belief in “direct revelation” from God--preconditioned her to a kind of brainwashing by a kidnapper who knew the tenets of her faith inside and out, and even dressed himself in the white robes reminiscent of those worn in the LDS temple in Salt Lake City. It took Smart considerable time to confess her true name to police officers who found her, and she finally admitted her identity to them by quoting 'Thou sayest,' which is what Jesus said to Judas. There’s compelling anecdotal evidence for Mitchell’s ability to influence younger people using his religious theology. Julia Adkison a young woman--who had left a polygamous cult-- had been approached by Mitchell to be his plural bride, before he abducted Smart. Adkison admitted to reporters and in court testimony that while she immediately refused his proposal, she sat and listened to him for hours because “everything he said was stuff I was raised on.”
Still it’s important to note that on the stand, Smart has made a point of refuting these theories, saying she stayed with Mitchell for one reason only: because she feared his violent retribution. During her testimony, she called him “Evil, wicked, manipulative, sneaky, slimy, selfish, greedy, not spiritual, not religious, not close to God” and has said that his cruel, and self-indulgent behavior (including drinking heavily and watching porn) demonstrated to her, even then, that he wasn’t truly holy.
Putting the issue of exactly what kind of fears motivated Smart’s compliance under such unimaginable circumstances aside, religion still plays a crucial role in the behavior of her rapist and abductor, Mitchell. Throughout the ordeal, he claimed he was acting on God’s orders and that he was the “one mighty and strong” a messiah-like figure who Mormon fundamentalists believe will reinstate plural marriage within the church. Journalist Jon Krakauer notes in his book Under the Banner of Heaven that over twenty fundamentalists, among them notoriously cruel polygamists, murderers and common criminals, have all claimed to be this holy man. Krakauer’s book documents the story of the Lafferty brothers, Dan and Ron, who, like Mitchell, claimed to be getting direct revelations from God when they carried out the truly brutal murder of their brother’s wife Brenda and her baby, Erica. In fact, when Krakauer interviewed Dan Lafferty in prison during the Smart case, Lafferty correctly guessed that her kidnapper was a fundamentalist LDS polygamist.
Just as in the trial of Dan’s brother and accomplice, Ron, the main issue at stake in the Smart case is whether Mitchell (who calls himself Immanuel David Isaiah) was clinically insane. He has been deemed unfit to stand trial for years, which is why the testimony is only occurring now, almost ten years after the abduction happened. Each morning, Mitchell has entered the courtroom singing hymns and has had to be removed to watch on closed-circuit TV from another room, and he insists on being called “Immanuel.” Krakauer documents how Ron Lafferty acted quite similarly during his own trial, behaving, as many observers believed, “crazy like a fox.”