Category: News and Politics

Politics – Current Events – Media

The Poisoning of Deseret

One biographer of the famed British composer and ethnomusicologist Ralph Vaughan Williams posted a question – how could Vaughan Williams be both a socialist and a nationalist at the same time?  One tended towards trying to eliminate boundaries and differences while the other tended toward glorying in boundaries and difference.  He answered through two different quotes from the composer himself: I believe that the love of one’s country, one’s language, one’s customs, one’s religion, are essential to our spiritual health.[1] Art, like charity, should begin at home.  If it is to be of any value it must grow out of the very life of himself [the artist], the community in which he lives, the nation to which he belongs. … Have we not all about us forms of musical expression which we can purify and raise to the level of great art? … The composer must not shut himself up and think about great art, he must live with his fellows and make his art an expression of the whole life of the community.[2] His approach was a melding of aspects of both sides – embracing and loving your own culture and community, but not at the expense of respect for other people’s culture and making room for them to do the same. As a teenager, I spent a lot of time reading about the history and composers of European art music.  (I know, I’m weird.)  One trend of the…

A Few Questions About That Picture

I’ve now read the John Whitmer Historical Association Journal article that detailed the evidence for the authenticity of the purported Joseph Smith photo, and I am more than 50% convinced that it is authentic. The provenance of the locket combined with the facial match is interesting, but a few points. Even as a statistician I’m a little fuzzy on what to make of the statistical facial analysis. According to the article the specialists “‘noted that between the daguerreotype and portrait images 19 of 21 features (pairwise measurements) fall within the 95% confidence interval.’ Almost all measurements taken from the portrait, and mask photos fall within range the 95% confidence interval of measurements taken from the daguerreotype image.” So basically 19 of the 21 features match, which seems convincing, but still, without some context it’s hard to know what to make of it. A single, pithy statistic that could help put it in perspective would be: what is the chance that a random person (of European or British descent presumably) would match on 19 or more of the 21 features? If they have a population sample it would presumably be quite easy to calculate such a statistic, and could help more precisely quantify the chance that this isn’t Joseph Smith, but some other guy.  Of course, if this is a locket in the Smith family it might not be a random draw, since it could be another relative that has similar…

Family Size is The First Thing Reported about Mission Presidents–and That’s Good

I noticed the other day when looking up a recently called mission president that the mission president bios follow a pretty standard format: name, age, number of children, past church callings, and background.  Now, this is one of those things that was probably decided by a mid-level official in the COB, so I don’t want to read too much into this, but it seemed like in the past occupation was usually included and family size was included later if at all. I like the new emphasis. In a Latter-day Saint context honoring people for their family makes more sense than honoring them for their occupational accomplishments. (While it is true that not everybody can have a family or a large one, the same is true for occupational success, and often for reasons that are just as arbitrary as infertility, but one hardly hears that we shouldn’t congratulate people for their degrees or other worldly accomplishments.)  Recently there’s been some discussion about the mixed messages women in the Church receive when rhetorically childbearing and rearing is emphasized, but professionally successful women, some with small or no families, are put on pedestals whether in leadership positions or the “I am a Mormon” campaign.  In terms of leadership, I’m fine giving those positions to people with managerial experience as long as we move away from honoring leadership as the most righteous by definition; also, I wouldn’t be surprised if the “I am a…

Not Assimilation, But Alliance

I found Jana Riess’s recent post about the President Nelson’s pivot away from “Mormon” interesting but I believe her thesis could be refined. Citing the familiar Armand Mauss retrenchment/assimilation axis, she sees the move from “Mormon” to “member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints” as a swing of the pendulum back towards the assimilation end of the spectrum: We’re in an assimilation phase, a “we’re not weird” phase. Shedding the term “Mormon” helps us to assimilate ever more comfortably because the word, with its accompanying history, is one of the most distinctive things about us… the move makes sense as a piece of the larger assimilation puzzle. Emphasizing denominationalism may not win converts, but jettisoning “Mormon” makes us appear that much closer to mainstream. This analysis might have been sufficient were we still in the 20th century, but the intervening decades have complicated the picture. We are now living through a moment of historically high polarization and tribalism, and these factors call into question the existence of a mainstream “mainstream” into which we could assimilate. What’s more, we’re also in the midst of the Rise of the Nones. So when she says that the new emphasis on our formal name “just makes us sound like everyone else,” who is this “everyone”? There is no longer a simplistic American mainstream to serve as the basis for comparison. Something else is going on, and a couple of paragraphs from Elder…

Worlds Without Number

The James Webb telescope just dropped its first “deep field” image. This is as far back as we have ever been able to see, and soon we will be able to peer back to some of the first creations that formed after the Big Bang. A time to come in the which nothing shall be withheld…if there be bounds set to the heavens or to the seas, or to the dry land, or to the sun, moon, or stars. All the times of their revolutions, all the appointed days, months, and years, and all the days of their days, months, and years, and all their glories, laws, and set times, shall be revealed in the days of the dispensation of the fulness of times—According to that which was ordained in the midst of the Council of the Eternal God of all other gods before this world was,  

I am not a natural “Mormon”

              A common narrative one hears is something along the lines of the following: “I love the Church, it has so much potential, it could go a long way even if it dropped, changed, or soft-pedaled [insert major, foundational truth claim].” And honestly, to me many of the people who make that argument come off as being very “Mormon.” For them Mormonism without the truth claims makes sense precisely because cultural Mormonism is such a natural fit for them in terms of the community and religious aesthetics.  However, this sociocultural Mormonism only applies to those for whom Mormonism is a natural fit. For example, for me my membership in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is very theological and functional: a God either reflecting or embodying some eternal metaphysical reality came down, saved us and provided the way for us to be exalted to Godhood, worlds without end. I’m not terribly nostalgic about my Mormon upbringing or Mormon community, and I would not act Mormon at all if I didn’t buy the claims. While some cultural Mormons have a hard time distinguishing being off and on the iron rod because they’re sort of wandering in the same general direction anyway, I would be four-wheeling in the mists of darkness if I ever let go, so for me the Church with and without the actual Tree of Life is a pretty stark contrast. …

Experiences of Latter-day Saint “Virtuous Pedophiles”

A version of this was first published in the online journal SquareTwo in 2016. At the time I was more cautious than I am now, so I published it anonymously, but with permission I am republishing it here. This is a side-project from a paper I published in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion. In recent years, a scholarly literature has developed suggesting that—like other sexual proclivities—pedophilia is a condition similar to sexual orientation in that it’s likely to last for a long time and in some cases, cannot be changed with therapy (Seto 2012). In the midst of these recent developments, a community of individuals called “Virtuous Pedophiles,” (or individuals who are sexually attracted to children but who see adult/child sexual contact as wrong and who desire not to act on their pedophilic proclivities) have established an online presence. This “Virtuous Pedophile” phenomena is now also garnering increased discussion in popular and other publications. This idea of the “Virtuous Pedophile” is a very interesting development from an LDS perspective. Mormons are told it is possible there are “thorns in the flesh” that God will not remove. This recent discussion concerning “virtuous pedophilia” suggests that pedophilic tendencies are one such struggle. In the course of research for a paper on religiosity among Virtuous Pedophiles, I interviewed, two Mormon Virtuous Pedophiles. Here, I am discussing and posting part of the transcripts from these interviews. The purpose of doing so…

Anti-“Utah Mormon” Bigotry

  A few scattered thoughts on both anti-“Utah Mormon” and anti-Latter-day Saint bias in general. (Sorry to mix the two but they are often synonymous and I don’t want to write two posts.)  I still remember the first time I met a socially awkward non-Utahn, and my surprise at my surprise. I realized that I had been conditioned to see Utah Mormons as weirdos, and non-Utah Mormons as living some Seinfeld-esque, fun life filled with attractive, erudite, and witty friends and coworkers. Of course, I’m hard pressed to think of a time when that was said explicitly, but growing up in Utah I had realized that the thousands of little slights about Utah had built up.   There is a double standard on the part of some people who would never be caught dead critiquing, say, New York Jews, but feel absolutely no compunction about saying rather cutting things about Utah Mormons.    I occasionally see a hesitancy by some inside the Church to push back against anti-Latter-day Saint sentiment in cases where they feel the antipathy comes from our purportedly backwards social history. If you believe that you need to be consistent and grant a pass to antipathy towards other religious minority groups that don’t exactly score high on social justice issues such as religious LGBT acceptance (e.g. Muslim immigrants). Of course I don’t think one should dismiss anti-Muslim sentiment because of their beliefs on hot button social issues,…

The Church’s New Statement on Abortion

As mentioned previously, I’m very pro-life. As far as we could tell, we were the only “Latter-day Saints” for life sign at this year’s March for Life, and living in the DC area I’ve had the opportunity to do pro-bono work for pro-life organizations. However, I also have no desire to consume the remainder of my weekend with some grand Latter-day Saint Pro-life versus Pro-choice fight (fellow blogger Nathaniel Givens has already done much of that), so instead this post is about something much narrower: the Church’s new statement on abortion. (For a more general take on the Church’s stance the abortion question, along with primary sources, etc., see Mormonr’s great synopsis of the subject). I say new because it is in fact different. The new statement replaced the line The Church has not favored or opposed legislative proposals or public demonstrations concerning abortion which is a clearer statement of neutrality, with the somewhat ambiguous: The Church’s position on this matter remains unchanged. As states work to enact laws related to abortion, Church members may appropriately choose to participate in efforts to protect life and to preserve religious liberty. Of course, this is ambiguous because, while not going all-in on pro-life activism, it is clearly tilted towards the pro-life side of the scale, and it leaves unsaid whether Church members may appropriately choose to participate in contravening efforts. It kind of sounds like a compromise document. Latter-day Saint Vaticanology is…

The First AI Church Art Show

I have grade school offspring that can draw better than me, and because of the accident of God ordained gifts (or lack thereof), I’ve been a little envious of those who are in a position to create meaningful, powerful art.  Several posts ago I discussed how art creation is on the precipice of being radically changed by AI. As mentioned in that post, AI has the potential to create art from descriptions, opening the door to us rubes to participate. It still has a ways to go, but we have an early version that can actually give some good results.  The use of AI raises all sorts of philosophy of art questions about attribution. By having the idea, getting a sense of the process, and selecting descriptions that I think will yield good results, am I the artist? Even if the process itself had an automated, lifeless, component? A seminal moment in art history was when accomplished artist Duchamp submitted a urinal with the signature “R Mutt” to an art show, after that point everything was fair game for being considered “art,” and the use of AI could fall in the same camp. But in terms of attribution, who is the artist? Nobody hunted down the urinal maker that created the piece to give him or her credit, but perhaps the code writers or image generators online that supplied the raw material have more of a claim to being the “artist.”…

Faith Demoting Rumors and Mormon Sexual Urban Legends

This last semester I taught a class on sexuality and statistics (the Chair’s idea, not mine, but it turned out) at Catholic University of America, which is the closest thing to a Catholic BYU since it is directly owned and managed by the US Catholic Church.   Trying to be a good university citizen, I carved out some space on the last day to address sexuality from a big picture, Catholic theological angle and had come prepared to discuss Humanae Vitae, basically their version of a First Presidency Statement that solidified the Catholic Church’s theology on sexuality and reproduction, including birth control.  However, we hadn’t gone too far into the discussion when one of my students, probably emboldened by it being the last day, took the opportunity to ask about the Mormon sexual practice of “soaking.” For those of you who missed that day in seminary, “soaking” evidently consists of a couple and a helper trying to circumvent chastity regulations by engaging in intercourse, with the helper under the bed pushing it upwards, thus facilitating the act of intercourse without any movement on the part of the participants.  After the one student mentioned it several other students’ chimed in saying that they too had heard about this on Tik Tok; furthermore, some had ex-Mormon friends who swore that they themselves had engaged in soaking when they were members (the “friend” or “friend of a friend” pattern should sound similar to other…

[Spiritual Languages] The End of the Beginning

I apologize for the long gap between my last post and this one. My husband is one of those *religious scholars*, and he supervises an archaeological dig in Galilee and just had to go back after two years’ Covid hiatus. This has kept me busy at home; too busy to write, but has still given me time to think. I’ve been trying to decide the best way to end this series, but it’s been hard to know how to do it. Endings and beginnings are often the hardest, after all. There is no conceivable way that any amount of writing could begin to cover all the ways that we can experience the spirit. But that leaves us still having the problem of knowing whether what we are experiencing is actually the spirit or not. How do we know it’s not just us? This can be an important question, but underneath it is almost always one deeply problematic assumption: that something cannot be from both us and God. We have this compulsive need to make sure we firmly understand exactly where we end and God begins. Apparently there is a fixed line of demarcation and there can be no bleed over. We use terms like being a window or a door or letting go so God can take over or letting God write our story to remind ourselves of this distinction and the importance of keeping it safe from any human…

Fetishizing Doubt

While some in the Church fear or are anxious around religious doubt, I feel that in some circles the pendulum has swung too far the other way, so I thought I’d directly address what I personally consider to be some takes that I think are problematic.  Periods of doubt are required to develop a stronger faith.  Yes, doubt can strengthen faith once you come out the other side, but this isn’t strictly required. For me personally the aspects of the gospel that viscerally feel right remain the least doubt-ridden parts of my testimony. Of course, some beliefs may be affected by premises that are later shown to be incorrect, and a period of doubt might help “inoculate” one’s self, but again this isn’t required. There are some people with informed testimonies who just haven’t ever had a problem with doubt, and their testimonies shouldn’t be implicitly viewed as less developed than people who have passed through seasons of doubt, although people with a history of doubt could have a unique ability to minister to those that do doubt.  Nobody can actually know the Church is true I do think we throw the “know” verbiage around too much. My undergraduate epistemology course taught me you can spill a lot of ink on the actually not so simple concept of knowing, but to wit the validity of knowing and the surety of knowing aren’t the same thing or even necessarily connected. I…

Are Latter-day Saints Disproportionately Gay?

Anecdotally, it has seemed to me for a while that Latter-day Saint families in particular tend to have a lot of gay family members. I don’t know of any hard data that has done any kind of comparison-of-means by religion (the sample size would have to be huge, since we’re dealing with a minority within a minority), and I generally assume this perception of mine has to do with the fact that I’m a Latter-day Saint that has done research on sexuality issues, and hammers and nails and all that. However, lately I’ve wondered if we could theoretically expect more homosexuality in Latter-day Saint families because of our larger family sizes.  Why would family size matter? One of the more idiosyncratic findings in human sexuality in the past several decades is that the number of older brothers one has is strongly correlated with male homosexuality (as far as I know there are no established biological correlates of female homosexuality). There are a variety of speculative embryological explanations that have been proffered, but it’s still unclear why this pattern exists. According to some estimates, about 15-30% of gay men owe their homosexuality to this effect.  Anecdotally, the gay men in my life almost all tend to have a lot of older brothers. More rigorously, large studies suggest that every additional brother increases the chance of male homosexuality by about a third. In the data used to derive the “fraternal birth order effect,” any…

What Are The Odds of Being A Church Leader?

An issue that came up in my last post on church leadership as a marker of righteousness is that people are occasionally told that they are going to be the future bishops and stake presidents of the Church. There are a variety of problems with this: 1) it clearly implies a hierarchy when in theory hierarchy isn’t supposed to matter, 2) it can cause spiritual anxiety if that person does not, in fact, get called to be a leader, and 3) it’s kind of pyramid scheme-ish, since most people are not called as leaders. Point 3 made me think: about what what percentage of priesthood holders will at some point be called as bishops? Now, I’m about to layer speculation on top of speculation, but I suspect these numbers are in the correct ballpark. However, if something is off let me know in the comments.  According to the Church, at a minimum a ward requires at least 20 temple recommend-worthy Melchizedek priesthood holders, and a stake requires at least 180 of the same.  Now, this is a minimum. Many of us have been both in wards that flirt with this line as well as wards with, for example, multiple quorums of deacons that are bursting from the seams. Since I have no hard data to go by, let’s assume that the average ward globally is 25% bigger than the minimum, which would give us an average ward size of 25…

Church Leadership Callings as a Marker of Your Standing Before God

  In one of my recent posts I talked about the connection between wealth and Church leadership; one of the issues that naturally rose to the surface in the comments was the connection between Church leadership and one’s standing before God.  On this issue there’s a somewhat uncomfortable tension between different truisms in Church teachings and culture. On one hand, we generally recognize that righteousness isn’t irrelevant to church position. All things being equal, the higher up one goes the more righteous the individual is, to put it bluntly. I’d expect more from an apostle getting cut off in traffic than I would my local bishop. (I suspect having your reaction during a moment of weakness on your worst day becoming part of a multi-generational lore about what Elder so and so did is a stressor; it certainly would be for me). On the other hand, in theory we recognize that God needs all types, and that the calling of nursery leader isn’t any higher than the bishop. This is especially true when we layer gender issues on top of all this, since we limit leadership positions with priesthood keys to about half the Church, the only way this is not discriminatory is if we honor the female roles as much as the male leadership roles. (I’m fine with the current setup, think we should honor both equally, and do see it as discriminatory when we don’t, but this is…

Religious Studies and the Church, Part III: Graduate Training as a Ponzi Scheme

The subject of education that does not pay financially is a sensitive one for me. Thankfully, my graduate training equipped me with enough marketable skills that I’m fine, but I’m close enough to people in other fields (sometimes adjacent to mine) that I’ve seen it not work out, and it can get very ugly.  Somebody puts in years of their life, and sometimes takes out student loans, to only at the end find out that 1) the chance of you getting that R1 tenure track position for some fields is literally similar to your chance of making it in the NFL, and 2) hardly anybody outside of that field actually cares about all the skills picked up in graduate training (which aren’t as vaguely transferable as is often supposed by both faculty and students), so you need to somehow find a way to support your family on entry-level wages, sometimes while trying to pay off student debt.  Admittedly, my perception of graduate training payoffs is anecdotal, but for undergraduates there is enough data to show that some majors really don’t pay for themselves, or at the very most give you a slightly marginal “generic college” salary benefit that is far from enough to live off of. (Tragically, some of these same fields intentionally try to recruit BIPOC students, seemingly unaware or not caring that they are perpetuating intergenerational inequality by doing so, but I digress).  As can be seen in Census data,…

Why Do Church Leaders Tend to Be Wealthy?

An uncomfortable apparent pattern in the US church is that Church leaders tend to be wealthier than average. I say apparent, since I don’t have any numbers, but this pattern is stark and widespread enough anecdotally that I’m going to go ahead and assume it’s true for the purposes of this post.  Assuming this is the case, why is it? I can think of several reasons people bring up, some of which are more ingrained in church culture than others.  1. Prosperity Gospel Hypothesis  According to this model, since God blesses righteous people temporally, then wealth is seen as a sign of God’s favor, and rich people are not only the financial and social elite, but also happen to be the spiritual elite. It’s usually not stated this crassly, but a version of this idea does seem to float around US Latter-day Saint culture (perhaps especially in those socioeconomic strata for which it is convenient), that ballers at work are ballers in everything in life, including God’s favor.  I personally find this hypothesis to be unpalatable (to put it gently), not only because it conflicts with the spirit and letter of the teachings of the Savior about wealth and social status, but also because the logical corollary is that the desperate family who can’t afford the braces their kid desperately needs somehow brought it upon themselves because of their lack of righteousness.  A softer version of this is that certain…

Religious Studies and the Church, Part II: Rabbis in the Marketplace, Celebrity-Scholars, and Firesides

In the Latter-day Saint community the renowned gospel scholar has traditionally enjoyed a lot of social esteem. Much of what I’d say here I’ve already said previously, but to summarize: our attention is being fractured into a million pieces, making it hard for any one figure to get more than a fraction of the attention space. The days of a Hugh Nibley or other figure that could command monolithic respect and acknowledgment are gone. I’m posting on the bloggernacle, which I know makes me a fogey, as the kids these days are posting on Twitter and Tik Tok (or so I hear). The “conversation,” even in such a narrow space as, say Latter-day Saint sexual minorities, is so variegated that it’s difficult to say where it actually is taking place at any given time, and public intellectual types are forced to expend more and more energy producing a constant stream of content or promotional material to capture a  drastically shrinking part of the pie of our attention. Of course, at some point you realize that your efforts are almost worthless in the grand scheme of things, require a lot of energy, and that that time would be better spent throwing a ball with your kids. (Yes I know, pot meet kettle, but for what it’s worth I’m planning on “retiring” from my own slow motion, wannabe public intellectualizing in a year or so).  Latter-day Saint religious studies/CES types (again, here…

Religious Studies and the Church, Part I: Intellectual Authority as a Shortcut to Ecclesiastical Authority

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is somewhat unique in that we don’t have a paid or professionally trained clergy. Nonetheless, there are Latter-day Saints who still pursue high education degrees in fields normally pursued by clergy trainees such as divinity, biblical studies, ancient languages, or religious studies (hereafter, for the purposes of this post, all of these are “religious studies,” although I know this is formally its own field). This is a multi-part series on different facets of this phenomenon.  Because they receive academic training in religion-themed areas, there is an opportunity for those with graduate training in religious studies to have a chip on their shoulder over the fact that they are not on President Nelson’s speed dial. The idea here is that since they have intellectual authority over a particular area of scripture or religious studies, that they should be heavily consulted in the steering of the Old Ship Zion. The devil is in the details, but generally this is wrongheaded in a number of different ways.  1. When you look at Church policy or rhetoric, very little of it deals with or hinges on the kind of technical knowledge that people pick up in religious studies graduate school. Inasmuch as it occasionally does, it is right and proper that General Authorities should consult experts. For example, if somebody is giving a talk on a passage of scripture that relies on a particular phrase, it…