Religious leaders discuss Brian David Mitchell

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SALT LAKE CITY -- Elizabeth Smart's testimony about the way Brian David Mitchell used, or abused, religion stirred both outrage and inspiration among leaders of various faiths.

Smart testified that Mitchell was a hypocrite who used religion only to get what he wanted -- mainly sex, alcohol, and drugs. Under questioning from prosecutor Felice Viti, she said Mitchell never used religion to reach out and help other people.

"That's not what religion is about," said The Rev. Lee Shaw of St. Stephen's Episcopal Church in West Valley City. "That's not what churches do. We pray for people. We don't prey on people."

On the other hand, people of faith were encouraged by another portion of Smart's testimony. She said she never believed Mitchell's religious pronouncements because of her own sense of what God might have wanted. "There is strength in religion, just as Elizabeth has been saying. It works both ways," said Rev. Ivan Cendese, executive director of the Salt Lake Interfaith Roundtable.

Shaw said he reacted with disgust to testimony about Mitchell's abusive use of religion.

"As Christians we're told that there will be false prophets," he said. "This is probably one of the most dramatic and tragic signs of a false prophet preying on an innocent person."

He said Mitchell is an extreme example, but religion is often a tool for financial scammers, sex abusers and power grabbers. It's a warning sign when their teachings are aimed at themselves.

"What's the fruit of their labor?" Shaw said. "Is it for their own benefit, their own gratification, their own wealth? Or are they in it really to help people?"

"To me, this was abuse, not faith," said Elaine Emmi, of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers).

That thought was echoed by Rabbi Ilana Schwartzman of Congregation Kol Ami, who said, "True faith doesn't tell us to hurt other people. True faith tells us to love other people and to take care of each other and the earth."

Rabbi Schwartzman acknowledges that even some mainstream religious views can seem wacky to outsiders, so it may not be fair to judge someone's beliefs on that basis.

"What I'm saying is, if it's hurtful, stay away from it," Rabbi Schwartzman said.

The religious leaders took heart, though, from Smart's strong statement in court that she never believed Mitchell had a calling from God.

"Everything that he did to me and my family," Smart testified, "I know is something God would never tell someone to do."

Indra Neelemeggham of the Hindu Temple of Utah said, "Here is one abusive person using faith as a crutch, if you will, to abuse. While here's another person, with strong faith tradition, to be able to see the evil in that."

Emmi was also impressed with Smart's testimony.

"To me," she said, "Elizabeth Smart is an absolute inspiration. She is amazing because she didn't let her abuser win. She won."


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John Hollenhorst


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