Season two of Unfinished takes us to Short Creek, a community on the Utah/Arizona border divided by much more than a state line. On one side are fundamentalist, polygamous Mormons who believe the town should be run by God — and his prophet. On the other are ex-believers who want democracy — and the right to believe (or not believe) as they want. We spoke to the hosts of season 2 to explore what telling this story meant to them.
Q: What does this season mean to you on a personal level?/Why were you interested in choosing this topic to report on?
Sarah: I’ve always been interested in stories about religion and faith, especially in orthodox or fundamentalist spaces. I started reporting on Short Creek in 2016 while I was working for the NPR station in Phoenix, and I realized the community wasn’t anything like I thought it would be. It was changing rapidly, and it was so much more complex and multi-dimensional than I had ever seen reported. Over the last few years, there have been many ideas that resonate with me about Short Creek, but I’ve felt most personally connected to stories about family, forgiveness, and home.
Ash: I grew up a mainstream Mormon in Salt Lake City, and was always interested in the Short Creek community. Mormon fundamentalists are sort of my theological cousins, so I wanted to understand the community better. I followed the Warren Jeffs story when it came out, but I really became interested when I learned that the city of Hildale was hosting its first free and fair election in the community’s history. I was fascinated by the idea that a town that had functioned for decades as a theocracy — where the church controlled everything from the government to the police force — was now transitioning to democracy. I wanted to understand what that meant to the people of Short Creek — who were very split down religious lines — and what, if any, sort of future they could forge together.
Q: What are the major themes of this season?/How do you think they connect well with Season 1?
Sarah: This season explores the line between freedom of religion and freedom from religion, the question of who has the right to call a place home, what it really means to have a democracy, what motivates people to stay faithful or to leave a faith, and whether it’s possible to live and work alongside people who have diametrically opposed views to your own. Of course, you can’t talk about any of these things without talking about power, oppression, and disenfranchisement. Both seasons of Unfinished are about communities that are reckoning with a painful past that has had a ripple effect on the towns and their people. They’re about divided communities that are grappling with many of the same issues that America is grappling with. And they’re about what happens when power and authority are challenged.
Ash: So much of our season focuses on freedom of religion and where to draw the line between practicing your constitutional rights and violating someone else’s. The people of Short Creek used this very American idea — that faith is protected under the Constitution — to set up a town that was essentially a theocracy, which violated the Constitution. And I think that shows that every American freedom is sort of a contradiction, and trying to draw the line between freedom and oppressing others is tricky. On a bigger level — and one that relates a lot to the first season of Unfinished — is this idea of vigilantism, or declaring yourself above the law. Season one dealt a lot with what happens when white people operate outside the law — or when the law is on the side of violence toward people of color. And I think that Short Creek is also an example of an entire community who — in the name of American freedoms — operated above the law and did deep harm to people who didn’t believe the same way they did.
Q: By the end of the season, what would you want listeners to take away from it?
Sarah: My hope is that people see this community not just as a fringe space on the outskirts of American life, but instead as one part of a bigger picture of America. I also hope listeners get a much more complicated, messy sense of a place that is often painted in broad strokes, and that throughout the season they find themselves sympathizing with people they didn’t expect to, questioning their own ideas about what is just, and seeing a piece of themselves in a story about people who on the surface, may be very different from themselves.
Ash: I think that a lot of times people very easily other or exoticize fundamentalists or people in Short Creek. And in many ways Short Creek is an extreme place. But in so many ways, Short Creek is struggling with many of the things that America at large is struggling with — the fallout from a deeply authoritarian and damaging leader; extreme polarization; heated debates about who is an insider and who is an outsider; a sort of persecution complex nursed by people who have always had power but are in some ways losing it; and how to draw the line between competing ideas of freedom.
Q: What is the most unique thing about the storytelling used in this season?
Sarah: I’m really proud of the fact that we spent as much time as we did in Short Creek. As part of our reporting, I lived there for three months so that we could get a deeper understanding of a complicated place. I sat at people’s kitchen tables, hung out at community barbecues, watched city council work sessions, and went to church meetings. Getting to know a community in this way and for this amount of time is a rare thing in journalism. Our whole team made a commitment to not taking any shortcuts, and allowing ourselves to get lost in the story. It is our hope that listeners will be able to do the same.
Ash: A lot of journalists have covered Short Creek over the years, but many of them have focused almost exclusively on the sort of click-bait, sensationalists aspects of the story. In our reporting, we set out to figure out the bigger story — the history and the belief system that allowed someone like Warren Jeffs to rise to power, the complex reasons people in the community chose to leave or stay, and the psychological consequences of living in such a divided and painful place. To do that, we visited Short Creek many times, and Sarah even embedded there for a summer. As a result, I think we’ve produced a story about Short Creek that many people might be surprised that they can relate to.