Category: News and Politics

Politics – Current Events – Media

Latter-day Saints and Extraterrestrials

I was asked to present a bit on the Latter-day Saint perspective on extraterrestrials for an “exotheology” reading group I’m a part of that’s mostly composed of British academics. The following are my thoughts I put together for the lecture.   I was asked to present because the Latter-day Saint (AKA Mormon) tradition has had a long history of believing in multiple planets and non-earth life.  I’m talking to an educated audience I assume most people know the basics but just in case I’ll go over them briefly. Mormonism, or more properly the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saint, is a restorationist movement that believes that the authority for the primitive Christian Church was lost sometime after the Apostles died out in what it terms “the Great Apostasy” and was restored through divine and angelic messengers through Joseph Smith, a day laborer in Northern New York in the early 19th century. From the earliest congregation, which was basically Joseph Smith’s and a few other families in New York, it kept growing while getting driven West with the expanding frontier, and now it is headquartered in Utah with about 17 million members.  There’s obviously a lot more but that’s sort of the elevator synopsis.  To first set the stage a bit at a meta level: the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is similar to Catholicism in that there is a scriptural canon, but there’s also an authoritative priesthood…

You’re Probably Not as Edgy as You Think

  “Subculture deviance” is a theoretical perspective in the sociology of deviance that, in response to the question of why people deviate from societal norms, posits that people simply adhere to the norms of a subculture that is at variance with the broader culture. In other words, people who think they’re being radical, edgy freethinkers are often actually just following another crowd that has its own set of norms and values.  As somebody who grew up in the 1990s Utah sacred canopy I’ve seen this play out many times in the Latter-day Saint context. Person is a super strict Latter-day Saint, goes to graduate school or otherwise immerses themselves in some other environment whose norms and values are at tension with those in the Mormon belt, they convert and are still vehement warriors for the truth, but in a different direction.  For the purpose of this post I’m not questioning their conversion: they may be right, but what they aren’t is edgy, unique, or independent thinking, and in certain subcultures within Mormondom the iconoclast label comes part and parcel with its identity. However, true iconoclasm, where you think everybody but you is going crazy, is incredibly uncomfortable; it’s not an experience people usually revel in. Years ago I read the letters of Thomas More as he was traveling down the pathway that eventually led to his execution, and I was struck at how non-martyrish it felt. If there was a way…

General Conference as a “Peaceable Thing of the Kingdom”

The Listener, by James Christensen I’ve been as guilty as anyone of, subconsciously and in the back of my mind, looking forward to General Conference more for the big announcements or controversy than the spiritual nourishment. Reading about the controversy and ensuing outrage (and counter-outrage) in particular are kind of an emotional crack cocaine for people like me. There’s a very momentary feeling of exhilaration, but it gives you a gross feeling inside that you don’t need a lot of discernment to know is not of God. If you are listening to General Conference in the spirit in which it was intended, and do plan to make social media commentary part of your experience, some people have put together Twitter lists of less polemical commentators. And if listening to General Conference isn’t your thing, I wish you a spiritually capacious weekend hiking, listening to music, meditating, or whatever else you do to commune with deity.    

General Conference and Our Shrinking Attention Spans

As the father of a lot of small, messy children, I easily listen to two hours of podcasts a day while cleaning (how my parents’ generation cleaned before podcasts I have no idea). The other day a movie producer on a podcast made a comment about how, in the days before streaming, television producers would look at what other shows were running during their same spot to know who they were competing against, whereas now movie and television producers are faced with the fact that whatever they make is competing against everything that was ever made.   For the most part, I think this development is good. I think it has democratized our attention spans; no longer are we beholden to the views of a few middle aged guys on the large news networks, and the intense competition has forced the entertainment industry to sharpen their craft (I won’t launch into the whole argument about whether things were better back in the day, suffice it to say that for me personally a surprising number of the classic films of yesteryear seem like B-grade Netflix releases now; their appeal is more from nostalgia than objectively high production quality).  While it is common to bemoan what Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat have done to our attention spans (the irony of writing this on the now aged medium of a blog is not lost on me), the narrowing of our attention spans has forced content…

Scams in Zion, Part II: MLMs and Utah Socio-Religious Elites

It’s sort of an open secret that Utah has a pyramid scheme multilevel marketing problem. MLMs prey on financially vulnerable people and get them to weaken their personal connections–the most important thing in life and during a time when such precious connections are in increasingly short supply–for very little money, and some MLMs layer dubious, snake-oil type medical claims on top of their immoral distribution approach. It’s nauseating on so many levels.  While I have no reason to doubt the conventional wisdom of Utah having a lot of MLMs, I decided to back-of-the-envelope quantify it. We don’t have access to the internal “independent distributor” numbers, but we can look at how many of the large MLMs are based out of Utah. I looked at the 75 MLMs listed in Wikipedia (I know, I know, but for stuff like this Wikipedia is usually pretty good, and I figured that being listed in Wikipedia was a basic threshold for size and importance). Of the 75 listed, 12 of them are from Utah or are clearly LDS connected (e.g. LuLaRoe), or 16%. Given that Utah and Latter-day Saints are both about 1% of the US population each (with a lot of overlap, obviously), we are very overrepresented.   So yes, we have a problem. Also, I’m aware, as I’ve said many times, that Utah does not equal the Church, but it’s harder to argue against some underlying connection with Utah-Church culture when a lot…

Scams in Zion, Part I: Do Latter-day Saints Tend to Be Gullible Fraud Victims?

I just finished reading the Bernard Madoff biography Wizard of Lies that, in part, details how Madoff ingratiated himself with and defrauded a significant chunk of the East Coast Jewish community. Of course that sparked my thinking about parallels in our own religious community, as it has become sort of a truism that Latter-day Saints are particularly susceptible to fraud. Consequently, I decided to dive into the numbers. I couldn’t find anything empirically testing whether high Latter-day Saint areas tend to be more fraudulent, so I did my own analysis. The 2010 American Religious Census has an indicator for number of Latter-day Saints for thousand in a county, and the Uniform Crime Reporting System shows the number of frauds committed in each county in the year 2010.  I merged the two datasets by their fips code, generated a “fraud per thousand” measure using the county population numbers in the UCRS, looked at whether Latter-day Saints per thousand is associated with frauds committed per thousand, and found that more Latter-day Saints= fewer frauds. (As always, my code is on my github).  The graph is below (sorry I didn’t take time to make it pretty; I’ve already spent too much family time on this).  For the wonks, the correlation was -.07, so it’s not much, but it was statistically significant (I’d log the values in the graph, but for our purposes here I’m trying to keep things simple). From a regression approach,…

BYU Professors Calling the Brethren Autocratic Fascists is Not Going to Help Anybody

At a recent post over at BCC, a tenured BYU-X professor communicates some anxiety about CES’ new direction, which is certainly their right, but in doing so the author calls the people who made this decision (i.e. the brethren, if that wasn’t clear from Elder Holland’s talk) autocrats, and prominently displays the fasces at the top of the post. Now, I don’t know if this is a weird attempt at a “they who have ears to hear” thing, but the fasci is a well-established symbol of fascism. Implying that the people who actually have the power to do anything about this are autocratic fascists isn’t going to help their case.    While as a matter of principle I think non-inflammatory rhetoric is generally best, for what it’s worth I’m on the other side of this. However, I’m actually skeptical that the new direction will achieve much, although I might be wrong. It doesn’t matter if all the deans are on board with the church’s “teachings on marriage, family, and gender” (which they aren’t, in at least one case I’m aware of); I suspect that the faculty who fundamentally disagree with the Church on hot button social topics and are in part at BYU to “reform” the Church through its institutions will just lay low and continue to hire the kind of people who also fundamentally disagree with the Church and are trying to reform it. I suspect that the concern over…

Rest in Peace Rodney Stark 

I was recently informed that Rodney Stark passed away. For the uninitiated, Rodney Stark was a force of nature in the sociology of religion. His interests ranged from early Christianity to UFO movements, and agree with him or not, he was a giant in every field he engaged. His theories helped shape the strategies of the Church’s research division for a while, and he always had a soft spot in his heart for Latter-day Saints.  He didn’t win any popularity contests in sociology as an institution, but frankly that’s more to his credit in a field that doesn’t brook a lot of heterodoxy (either ideologically or in terms of subject matter). He blazed his own path and didn’t care one wit what others thought; he was a true iconoclast, and people will read Rodney Stark years after his more mainstream contemporaries are footnotes to footnotes.  As I’ve mentioned before, I believe I’m the last postdoc or student who had the opportunity to work with him. I don’t want to exaggerate our connection; he didn’t come into the office that much, and my memories involve a handful of meetings. As he was independently wealthy both from his textbook sales (as a former journalist he knew how to write, and disdained academic gobbly-gook) and his wife’s business, he could have retired decades ago, but he kept working even as his health started to decline.  A lot of anecdotes are being passed around…

Latter-day Saint Book Report on “The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara”

In 1857 officials raided a home in the Jewish ghetto in Bologna, Italy and forcefully removed a 6-year old child based on the testimony of a servant that he had been baptized as an infant and was, therefore, Christian. At the time Bologna was under the direct rule of the Pope (back in the day the Pope ruled over a chunk of Italy as a sovereign). While Catholic canon law stipulated severe penalties for baptizing a Jewish child without the consent of their parents, once a baptism did take place it was considered valid, and sometimes that child was removed to be raised in a Christian home or religious house. Jewish children being abducted because of surreptitious baptisms had happened before, but this particular case happened after a tipping point in small-l liberal sentiment in Europe, and became exhibit A for the perception that the Church was increasingly out of touch. A diplomatic storm arose as emperors, prime ministers, and the newly liberated European Jewish community all put immense pressure on the Vatican to release the child back to his parents. However, Pope Pius IX wouldn’t budge because of his sincere religious interpretation, and there’s some evidence that the capture of this Jewish boy was one of several straws that broke the camel’s back, eventually leading to the invasion of the Papal States and the destruction of the Pope’s temporal power in Italy.  On a personal level, Edgardo was adopted…

Book Report-Veritas: A Harvard Professor, A Con Man, and the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife

This is a well-written journalistic account of a scandal that happened in the biblical studies community in 2012 when a purportedly ancient parchment surfaced that contained the words “Jesus said to them ‘my wife.’” Despite some red flags such as bad Coptic grammar, Professor Karen King, one of the preeminent scholars in the field, became excited about its potential to undermine traditional Christian narratives (not ours of course, since, as Chad Nielsen’s excellent post points out, Latter-day Saint theology tends to be open to Christ being married) and widely promoted it until (and a little bit after) some smart amateurs working out of their basement exposed it as a fraud.  As Latter-day Saints (and religious people in general) we’re often told that we need to watch out for our biases in analyzing historical or scientific evidence. Fair enough, but it’s also naive to think that there aren’t biases among more secular scholars speaking to their desires (although most such scholars recognize this). Throughout Veritas the author makes it clear where Professor King’s biases were, and painstakingly documents how they led to her overlooking blatant red flags in the papyrus. At an acceptance speech for one of her teaching prizes she said “to those who walk in with their faith firm (whatever that faith is), with their convictions sure, their moral standards in good condition, I try to take away some of that surety, some of that conviction, some of that confidence”…

How Bad is Salt Lake City’s Sexual Assault Problem?

Utah doesn’t do so great when it comes to its ranking of reported rape. However, as any sexual assault scholar will tell you, most rapes are not reported (and an even smaller fraction lead to a conviction). Low official rape numbers are sort of a Rorschach test, and can be interpreted as evidence of stigma against reporting as much as evidence of low sexual assaults. Therefore, self-reported victimization (asking people if they’ve been assaulted) is considered a much better way to measure sexual assault. The major survey that has national self-reported victimization data, the National Crime Victimization Survey, generally doesn’t include sub-national level estimates in order to protect confidentiality. However, the Census Bureau has recently released a special public-use file that allows researchers to generate estimates at the Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) level.Among the 52 MSAs is the Salt Lake City area, so the first time we have the chance to look at where a Utah location falls in terms of good, self-reported sexual assault data. One qualification: I’m on the record as pointing out that Utah does not necessarily equal the Church. (This is particularly important when considering the old canard about high Utah porn use, since for some reason the non-Latter-day Saint heavy Utah counties are into paid porn).This is doubly true for the Salt Lake City area, which is even less Latter-day Saint than Utah as a whole. The NCVS survey is quite complex; thankfully, the provided codebook included…

In Memoriam, In Mourning: Kate Holbrook (1972-2022)

Times & Seasons friend and guest blogger Sam Brown has shared with us the obituary of his wife, eminent Latter-day Saint historian Kate Holbrook. We are honored to remember Kate’s contributions to LDS women’s history as co-editor of, among other volumes, At the Pulpit: 185 Years of Discourses by Latter-Day Saint Women, The First Fifty Years of Relief Society: Key Documents in Latter-Day Saint Women’s History, and Every Needful Thing: Essays on the Life of the Mind and the Heart. Kate is remembered also for bridge-building between academic and civic communities, and for fostering rich social connections in the field of Mormon history. Finally, she is remembered as a gentle genius in the kitchen, a soul with a rare gift for friendship, and a radiant wife to Sam and mother to her three daughters. Here is Kate’s description of the heaven-on-earth she spent her life building: There is a pasture I love which I visit every summer. Horses and cows graze there. The sky, mountains, meadow, trees, and streams are beautiful. The air is clear. The animals have all that they need and they are safe there. To have all of us in a safe and beautiful place where we are known, seen, and cared for—I want to be in that place and I want to help others to find it. We weep and rejoice that she has found safe pasture.     Kate Holbrook (born January 13, 1972) died August 20, 2022,…

Update on Bisbee Case

Since I last posted on this, 1) Mormonr published the testimonies of the two bishops involved in the Bisbee case, and 2) the Church came out with their follow-up statement. For point # 1,  contrary to the testimony of the law enforcement agent, both bishops indicate that they only knew about a one-off case of abuse. Given that we now have the two bishops (plus the Church, although their information might be based on the bishop testimony) vs the agent who was relaying second-hand information, I think the evidence weighs more heavily away from the scenario implied in the AP article, which is that they were aware of ongoing rape, recording, and broadcasting across seven years but didn’t report it because of some pharisaical adherence to a no-report rule. (Incidentally, the journalists had access to the bishop’s testimonies, so with the curious omission of their side of the story the AP article does start to look more sensationalist). However, it does appear that they were at least aware of one one-off case (and it goes without saying that any case of sexual abuse is egregious, even if it was a one-off) and did not report that. While a “no-report” order is still highly arguable in that case, it is much less clear cut than in the scenario promoted by the AP article where the bishops were aware of the ongoing sexual assaults for seven years and allowed them to continue…

The Ubiquity of Temple Worship Among God’s Children

I was privileged to attend the recent dedication of the Washington, DC temple, during which I got thinking about the common themes in temple worship across time and cultures. I’ve always been vaguely aware of these similarities, but I went down the Wikipedia rabbit hole and spent so much time down there that I thought I might as well record my findings. Below are spreadsheets that show various Wikipedia quotes  about temple worship across time and cultures (yes, I’m aware that it’s Wikipedia, but Wikipedia is actually more accurate than people give it credit for, and suffices for this purpose here). Specifically, here I look at Ancient Mesopotamian, Ancient Egyptian, Hindu, Catholic, Ancient Greco-Roman, Ancient Jewish, Modern Jewish, Muslim, Zoroastrian, Chinese, Jain, Sikh, Mesoamerican, and Shinto temples or temple analogues. In drawing out these parallels I’m not trying to subtly make the argument that the modern endowment is an updated version of Adamic temple worship, and that the parallels are due to dissemination and modifications of these rituals across time and space (although I’m not opposed to the idea either). These parallels may have more to do with Jung and CS Lewis than Nibley, as it is likely that there is some primal religious impulse in Homo sapiens that God has spoken through, and that these parallels have as much to do with God speaking to different people in their own way as it does a direct genetic relationship to…

The Early Church, Social Networks, and Conversion

One of the core tenets of modern Latter-day Saint missionary strategy is that missionary work through members’ friends and family is much more efficient than cold-calling approaches like knocking on doors. This approach has its roots in the Rodney Stark hypothesis that religious movements largely grow through networks, and that even apparent cases of mass conversions through teaching such as the early Latter-day Saint British missions or the Day of Pentecost were probably more network-driven than they appear at first glance.  (A non-sequitur sidebar about Stark; I had the privilege of being maybe the last postdoc or graduate student who had the chance to work with Stark, although it ended up being limited to a few meetings. Also, one of the ironies of Stark’s theory is that, if I’m remembering correctly, according to Armand Mauss’ intellectual autobiography Shifting Borders and a Tattered Passport, Stark’s own parents converted to the Church through tracting, but I read the book a while ago, don’t have a copy on hand, and Google Books doesn’t appear to be allowing the search option for that book, so somebody will have to confirm).  The Church’s in-house numbers do indeed show that a discussion through a member is much more effective than a discussion from cold-calling (source, my Mission President), and for the most part I agree with the Stark hypothesis. However, all of the work on this has looked at measures of single ties, nobody has made…

The Gospel, Psychopathy, and the Executioner’s Song

I just finished the Norman Mailer true-crime book The Executioner’s Song, an account of the murders and execution of Gary Gilmore in Utah. The Gilmore case received a lot of attention because 1) it was the first death penalty carried out after capital punishment was re-legalized in the US, and 2) Gilmore himself refused to try to fight or delay the execution, going so far as to send out cheeky invitations to his execution. The combination of 1 and 2 led to a bizarre situation where anti-death penalty activists fought tooth and nail to get his execution dropped or at least delayed while Gilmore himself kept telling them to bug off. (And, fun sidebar, his almost-last words were the direct inspiration for the Nike slogan of “Just Do it.”) Despite winning the Pulitzer Prize and being suffused throughout with Latter-day Saint themes (plus, holding up on its own as a historical account of mid-century Mormon Utah), for some reason The Executioner’s Song isn’t usually included in lists of the canon of “Mormon Literature.” This oversight is especially pointed because this is one of the few accounts written by outsiders that didn’t give into the temptation to sensationalism. Mailer is observing Mormonism in its natural habitat like a naturalist who doesn’t make opinionated commentary in her notes. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and Mormon culture are there and are interwoven with the narrative, but naturally and on its own…

The Bisbee Case: Where Was the Failure Point?

Like a lot of you, I felt nauseated after reading the AP article that recently dropped, and have been following the story since. There’s always a temptation when something like this happens to give an off-the-cuff hot take, but it was clear that there was a lot to this story to unpack and I didn’t have the time to slodge through and compare/contrast the different accounts, so I waited until somebody came up with a clear outline of everything to see where exactly in the process the ball got dropped.  The Mormonr website has now put together such an outline. After reading it, there appear to be two potential failure points. First, there are conflicting accounts for whether the bishop was told it was up to him to decide or whether he was explicitly told not to report. If the latter, then the Church either gave the wrong legal advice, since the Arizona statute clearly allows for reporting, or this was a matter of laser-focused lawyers building up hedges around liability. (The idea that they were doing this to protect the Church’s image doesn’t make a lot of sense, as by all accounts the perpetrator here was the ward weirdo, not some authority figure; the liability concern makes more sense even if you assume the worst about the Church). Even if it was the latter, there is some fuzziness as to how much the bishops knew. Perhaps there is a risk that…

Three More Points About That Picture

After the initial splash of the purported Joseph Smith photo being revealed there have been various strands of takes, two of which I thought worth briefly addressing. Also, there’s one more point I haven’t seen anybody address but thought I should raise. He’s too old! I’m surprised at how many people, some of them rather educated and sophisticated, are pointing out that the picture clearly shows a man who is older than Joseph Smith’s 38 years at the time of his death. The fact is that in a world before SPF-50, air conditioned offices, and relatively low maternal and infant mortality, people aged faster. As an example, Dorothea Lange’s famous depression-era photograph The Migrant Mother showed a struggling woman later identified as Florence Owens Thompson. In the 21st century I would guess her age as somewhere in her mid-40s or even early 50s. She was 32.  By the time of his death Joseph Smith had suffered through half a life of abject poverty as an outdoor laborer, Zion’s Camp, Liberty Jail, the death of several children, plus all the spiritual stressors outlined in D&C. While there are other grounds for skepticism for that photograph, age is not one of them. 2. Hubba Hubba As various people have pointed out, the photo is much more attractive than the paintings and our popular image of Joseph Smith. At first glance this helps resolve a discrepancy between the collective visual image of Joseph Smith based…

Siring Gods

In my last post I noted that a paper I wrote on pre-Utah fertility rhetoric and theology for the Maxwell Institute’s Summer Seminar was no longer available on their website, and that this was discouraging because I hadn’t kept a final copy because I assumed it would always be available on their site. After scrounging around my email I found what I think is a final copy, so I am posting it here so that it has some online presence. It is meant to be a prototype first chapter for a book on Latter-day Saint fertility norms, theology, behavior, and rhetoric that I’ll probably get to sometime after I retire. It was written a while ago now, so forgive the occasionally cringe academic-ese writing.  Siring Gods: The history of Mormon fertility patterns and theology Chapter 1: Then shall they be Gods, for they have no end: The roots of Mormon fertility theology and the beginning of polygyny. Pre-Nauvoo The pre-Nauvoo LDS Church was theologically conventional relative to its later manifestation. During their time in New York (1830-1831), Ohio, (1831-1838) and Missouri (1838) Mormons had particular beliefs about the theological disputes of the day such as the gifts of the spirit or baptism by immersion, but these positions were within the realm of acceptable variation for the general religious milieu of the day (with a few obvious exceptions that helped contribute to tensions with the surrounding environment such as a new line…