Taylorsville • Eli Cawley believes his hometown taught him American values.
"We were raised to be patriots and love our country," says the director of Utah’s Minuteman Project, a hard-line group opposing illegal immigration and calling for the protection of "American culture" and rule of law.
That hometown is Colorado City, Ariz., where Cawley was raised in a polygamous household. Although polygamy is against the law, Cawley makes a distinction between it and the behavior of the undocumented immigrants he and his Minuteman brethren rail against.
"If you stop making a fetish over the physical relationship between men and women, it’s a religion," Cawley said of the polygamists living in Colorado City, "and the First Amendment guarantees the freedom of religion. There is a massive difference between the First Amendment and the invasion of our country."
Cawley, 45, says his little-known upbringingwas just one factor that influenced the views he espouses as leader of a group that has made its voice heard in Utah’s ultra-conservative political circles, despite having only about a dozen active members and rarely more than a few hundred dollars in its bank account.
The largest influences for Cawley were his studies in Vietnam and encounters at the South Salt Lake school his son attended.
Like many who have left the twin towns of Colorado City, Ariz. and Hildale, Cawley is guarded about his life and family there.
During an interview at a Taylorsville coffee shop, Cawley said his family belonged to Centennial Park, the community of polygamists that split from the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in the 1980s. One of Cawley’s full brothers, Ben Cawley, said their father has four wives. Cawley, who has one wife, said his father has more than four.
Compared to the FLDS, whose leaders and members have been dogged by convictions in Utah, Arizona and Texas related to marrying underage girls, the Centennial Park community has spent the past 25 years living peacefully and free from criminal allegations. The split from the FLDS was a fight over governance. The FLDS wanted its prophet to have supreme power within the sect while the group that formed Centennial Park wanted authority to rest with a council.
The split from the FLDS, which occurred over a number of years and was finalized in 1986, pitted friends and families against one another. Cawley recalls going from attending church with the rest of the Colorado City community in a school auditorium to attending church in private homes. Cawley also recalls feeling as though those who stayed with the FLDS abandoned their principles.
Still in his early teens, Cawley said he reacted by drinking and staying out late with other boys.
"Suddenly living that religion doesn’t seem as important as your friends," Cawley said.
His mother objected, and at age 15 Cawley joined his father in Salt Lake County. While Cawley said Colorado City had a only a minor influence on his politics, Ben Cawley thinks growing up among so many who held such strong beliefs molded his brother’s personality.
A simple question about immigration or politics can have Cawley raising his voice, tightening his face and gesturing with his body like a preacher giving a fire-and-brimstone sermon.
"That characteristic," said Ben Cawley, "is kind of inherent in fundamentalism — that kind of do-or-die mentality."
Cawley and his father worked together at a Salt Lake City company that manufactures seals for a variety of machines and household products. Cawley said the company hired immigrants from Laos and Vietnam.
That exposure made Cawley curious, and he began studying those two countries. Cawley says the sources he read were "left wing" and made him angry about the U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Cawley would go into "tirades" about the injustice of the Vietnam War with friends and coworkers.
"We used to get in knockdown drag-out fights about political views," said Ben Cawley, who remembers his brother as liberal back then.
Cawley graduated from Granite High School in 1984 and enrolled at the University of Utah that fall while still working full time. He received a bachelor’s degree in 1991 and that year took a trip to Hanoi. Cawley and a group that included faculty, students and former soldiers who had fought in Vietnam spent 11 days in the country. The trip inspired Cawley to continue studying Vietnam.
In 1993, Cawley returned to Vietnam to work on a master’s thesis on post-1975 economics there. Cawley never finished that thesis, but he said he embraced everything about the Vietnamese culture, including attending birthday parties celebrating communist leader Ho Chi Minh.
Mel Halbach, a documentary filmmaker who was with Cawley on the 1991 trip and later returned with him and became his roommate in 1994, remembers Ho Chi Minh being one of Cawley’s "heroes" back then. That began to change, Halbach said, when he and Cawley started teaching English in Vietnam.Next Page >
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