Author: Stephen C

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…

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…

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…

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,…