Category: News and Politics

Politics – Current Events – Media

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…

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…