Getting Life: Elizabeth Smart case shows best and worst of religion's influence

Published: Thursday, Dec. 23 2010 11:45 a.m. MST

Brian David Mitchell represents the worst of religion's influence on humanity.

As his trial recently made headlines, thoughtful people worried about religion's role in creating this pedophile and kidnapper. In fact, when Mitchell used his quasi-religious beliefs to justify victimizing Elizabeth Smart, religion itself came under fire.

While we decry the negative influence of religion on Mitchell, we must also marvel at religion's positive influence on Smart.

In the aftermath of extreme abuse, her religious beliefs and faith in God helped her to cope, heal and transcend. If Mitchell represents the worst of religion's influence on humanity, Smart represents the best.

In stark contrast with Mitchell's quirky courtroom antics, Smart demonstrated a courage and composure on the witness stand that amazed reporters. Many wondered about the source of her remarkable strength. She has been quick to credit her loving family and her faith in God while epitomizing resilience, perspective and hope that mature religious faith can confer.

In the local press, some commentators compared Mitchell to Joseph Smith, founder of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, asserting that Smith also used claims of religious authority to victimize others.

If some people have trouble distinguishing the likes of Mitchell from Smith, Smart does not. In her testimony she denounced Mitchell as an evil hypocrite. Yet outside of the courtroom she currently serves as a volunteer missionary for the LDS Church, testifying to others of her trust in the church's teachings and founder.

Dennis Charney, M.D., Ph.D., dean of research and a professor of psychiatry at Mt. Sinai School of Medicine, summarized research on prisoners of war who thrived instead of being destroyed by their experience. One of 10 resilience factors he found significant is "a personal moral compass or shatterproof set of beliefs." Daily prayer helped some of the most resilient POWs endure.

Other factors included humor, optimism, caring about others, active coping skills, exercise, social support, cognitive flexibility, facing one's fears and focusing on a hero or role model.

When my children were young I shared every mother's nightmare of something horrific happening to them — something akin to the abduction of young Elizabeth Smart. I hoped that if something bad were to happen it would happen to me, not my child. For one thing, I assumed that as an adult I would have a better chance of coping. I realize now that resilience is not merely a product of age but also of factors like a "shatterproof set of beliefs" that provide moral clarity and courage in the face of evil and confusion.

Apparently even a sheltered 14-year-old can acquire such faith.

Smart may yet face challenges in sorting out all she has been through, but both her legal testimony in the courtroom and her spiritual testimony in the mission field have been clear. While Mitchell used his distorted religious ideas to justify kidnapping and abuse, Smart's religious faith and family support have helped her thrive in the aftermath of her long ordeal.

Religious faith does not necessarily protect us from violence. In fact, among all the names for Deity — Creator, Savior, Messiah, Shepherd, Lamb, Mediator, Judge — God is never called "Preventer."

Faith in God helped Smart cope with violence, even violence hypocritically perpetrated in God's name. When asked by KSL-TV why she chose to serve a Mormon mission, Elizabeth said she wanted others to know what she knows:

"Whatever could happen to me, whatever happens to me, I will always be with my family," she said. "I know that there is a God and he loves us, and that no matter what people can take from you or do to you or harm you, they can't take that away from you."

Wendy Ulrich, Ph.D., MBA, psychologist, author, and founder of Sixteen Stones Center for Growth (sixteenstones.net), most recently co-authored the New York Times bestseller "The Why of Work."

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