Smart case raises old stereotypes, Utah Mormons say

Self-proclaimed prophet's polygamist quest only reinforces `distorted view'

March 24, 2003|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

SALT LAKE CITY - The joy that greeted Elizabeth Smart's safe return recently was tempered here with widespread revulsion for David Brian Mitchell, the man accused of kidnapping the teen and subjecting her to a nine-month ordeal of servitude and sexual abuse.

That Mitchell - a homeless man known around town as a bearded, glint-eyed but seemingly harmless religious crank - might have justified the abduction as a divinely inspired polygamist mission strikes many people here as not only cruel, but also irrelevant.

His supposed justifications for his bridal quest, they say, have nothing to do with religion - certainly not with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which outlawed polygamy more than a century ago and even excommunicated Mitchell and his wife, Wanda Barzee, for their heretical views.

But isolating Mitchell, 49, and Barzee, 57, from their religious milieu may not be quite that simple in a state that is home to tens of thousands of practicing polygamists.

Since the couple's polygamist views came into focus through a rambling treatise Mitchell wrote last year in the voice of "Immanuel David Isaiah," a prophet claiming divine powers and wisdom, many Mormons here say the misperceptions about their church are back.

"When people say Mormons practice polygamy, that really disturbs me," said Carolyn Jensen, a Mormon and junior at the University of Utah. "People still have a distorted view of what we do and don't do, and that view has been perpetuated."

To outsiders, the issue becomes problematic when someone like Mitchell emerges. His treatise made it clear he felt entitled to multiple wives and left the impression that Smart was to be the first of at least seven in addition to Barzee.

Mormons like Rebekah Prisbrey vehemently reject Mitchell's views. "In my mind, these people are sexual predators," Prisbrey said. "They took their ideas from religion and went off on a tangent. That happens a lot. But what they did doesn't justify religious fanaticism."

While prosecutors insisted they were treating the defendants as "predatory sex offenders," rather than as people acting on religious conviction, church officials conceded that the Smart case had put them on the defensive once more, even after disclosing that Mitchell and Barzee were excommunicated from the church several years ago.

"Over the last few years there have been a number of individuals we considered deviant with practices they ascribe to religious beliefs," Richard E. Turley Jr., a senior church official, said in an interview last week, adding that conflicts arise when they "embrace only selective elements of church teachings" that apparently provide them a justification for their actions.

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