How Religious Fundamentalism Enables Sadists Like Elizabeth Smart's Kidnapper

Extreme and patriarchal religions give people with violent or controlling tendencies a justification to let those tendencies loose.

This week, the testimony in the riveting Elizabeth Smart kidnapping case drewto a close and the jury prepared to deliberate. As Smart--who is currently living abroad on missionfor 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 witnessto 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.”

Ultimately, claiming that Mitchell is insane or deluded or a perverted sadist may all have the ring of truth to it--but it’s also true that a patriarchal religion gave him the entitlementto commit his crime. The practice of plural marriage is still in full flower in fundamentalist Mormon communities (and even on reality TV!), and girls as young as Smart are still chosen to be made into wives by spiritual leaders who, like Mitchell, claim to get their revelations directly from God. According to a CNN article, during Mitchell’s trial,  “A professor from Brigham Young University testified that some of Mitchell's ideas, which on the surface might seem delusional, are logical when considered in the cultural context of the beliefs of the groups with which Mitchell associated.”

In our society, a “rape culture” gives rapists entitlement to hurt women: a recent survey of men who raped in South Africa affirmed that entitlement, not lust, was a primary motivator. A misogynistic worldview which treats women's bodies as public property gives harassers a sense of freedom to bother women on the street. So by the same token, extreme and patriarchal religions give people with violent or controlling tendencies a justification to let those tendencies loose. And more disturbingly, the belief that they are directly commanded by God also gives them a lack of remorse and cuts off their conscience. Krakauer explains this distinction in Under the Banner of Heaven, writing, “if all self-proclaimed prophets are narcissists, few narcissists believe they are prophets of god. And fewer still are murderers [or in this case, abductors and rapists].” In other words, religion grants people the license to act on their bad impulses. In the world of both mainstream and fundamentalist Mormonism, that means the belief that men (and not women) can receive a revelation directly from Heaven, and women and children are required to obey.

Mormons are not alone. In fundamentalist branches of all the major religions, crimes against women take place egged on by the patriarchal tenets of the religions themselves. If you think religion had nothing do do with Mitchell’s actions against Smart, just imagine if he were a fundamentalist Muslim (or even an Hasidic Jew) who had captured a young woman to be his child bride in the United States of America. The outrage in such a case would probably focus too much on the religion and not enough on the individual. But religion can't be factored out. What motivates criminals like Mitchell and Lafferty--and even fanatics George W. Bush and Osama Bin Laden, a weapon-wielding settler on the West Bank or a suicide bomber--to do so much lasting harm is the belief that God is on their side and will actually reward them.

As Krakauer writes in his prologue explaining why he tracked down these fundamentalist Mormon murderers: "Faith is the very antithesis of reason, injudiciousness a crucial component of spiritual devotion. And when religious fanaticism supplants ratiocination, all bets are off. Anything can happen. Absolutely anything. Common sense is no match for the voice of God, as the actions of Dan Lafferty [And one might add, Brian David Mitchell] vividly attest."

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Sarah Seltzer is an Associate Editor at Alternet, a staff writer at RH Reality Check and a freelance writer based in New York City. Her work has been published in and on the websites of The Nation, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Wall Street Journal. She can be found at