Category: News and Politics

Politics – Current Events – Media

[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…

The Future and the Church, Part VI: The Future of Religion Worldwide

“The Future of Religion” is one of those big picture questions that has been addressed by a wide variety of intellectuals such as Freud, Rorty, and basically every European intellectual in the 19th century. (The fact that the end of religion has been right around the corner for more than a century now doesn’t help one’s confidence in predictions of its demise).  While grand narrative, direction-of-history discussions are fun, they should not take the place of more rigorous data-driven estimates when such are available. (Incidentally, this happened with the Democratic Party in the US when they strongly relied on a demographically naive “direction of history” narrative to assume they would effortless dominate US politics in the future without, you know, actually talking to a political demographer, but I digress.) In the past two decades some demographers have started to project religious groups like they would project the population of a country. Projections rely on three forces: births, deaths, and migration, projections of religions just switch out migrations for conversion to or away from “religious switching.”  Unfortunately, Latter-day Saints are too small to really do a demographic projection for without the Church’s in-house data, but there have been various insightful projections for major world religions by Pew as well as other researchers. While there are a lot of assumptions that are baked into these projections, they’re the most rigorous that we have.  To summarize: while many people leave religion, the fact…

[Spiritual Languages] Sad? Angry? Frustrated? Confused? Good.

The Gospel of Mark really focuses, more than any other gospel, on the human experience of Jesus. The reader sees him experience a whole gamut of emotions, particularly negative emotions, like sorrow, anger, frustration, and fear. I am deeply moved by Mark’s telling of Jesus at Gethsemane and his death on the cross. The author of Mark, more than any other gospel author, elaborates on the disciples’ abandonment of Jesus upon his arrest. Only a few hours previously the disciples swore to Christ they would leave behind everything to follow him, only to, at Gethsemane, while he is still reeling from the daze of pain for which nothing could have prepared him and which he begged to end, leave behind everything to get away from him. [1] Jesus then suffers agonizingly on the cross for hours when suddenly, horrifyingly, God leaves him. Shocked, Jesus yells out to heaven, asking God why he, too, has abandoned him. Then, with a loud cry, he dies. This is not a story of a stoic Christ calmy and peacefully enduring. This is the story of catastrophic failure of the community, and of God in lonely agony and distressed confusion. This is pathos at its most tragic. I love the Gospel of Mark for this perspective. I love how the author fully embraces Jesus’ human experience and sees it as being central to who he was. The author does not see Jesus’ weakness and struggles…

Of ProgMos and Pornography, and Latter-day Saints on Only Fans

In progressive discourse, the person (generally either gay or female) who challenges conservative religious sexual strictures is seen as a courageous trailblazer. However, as liberal Mormonism generally tracks the norms and values of progressivism generally, it too inherits the ambivalence of mainstream progressivism towards pornography. This is all anecdotal on my end, but it does seem that many progressive Latter-day Saints (hereafter “ProgMos” for easier reference), particularly the female ones, who bristle at a single woman being told by the Church to keep a lid on their sexual desires, or the gay returned missionary being told to be celibate, are simultaneously okay with the Church enforcing its lines when it comes to male gaze-y pornography among men. There is still a certain charm to the stalwart priest who’s never looked at pornography among the feminist left, as if they want to eat the cake of the sexual revolution and have it too.  The point of this post is not to defend pornography (or the Church’s position for that matter, I’ve done plenty of that elsewhere). Rather I’m questioning the ability to pick and choose the aspects of the sexual revolution that conflict with Church teachings in any overarching, systematic, and non-contradictory way that doesn’t come off as an ad hoc attempt to justify one’s visceral “ick” reaction to somebody else’s sexual preferences or choices, because the fact of the matter is that for some people who score high on sociosexuality,…

The Future and the Church, Part V: When Will There Be More African Wards than North American Wards?

I took the recent congregation numbers by continent reported by the Church and extrapolated the growth by continent to look at the likely composition of the Church in the future. Now, this is not a sophisticated projection (to put it gently). All I’m doing is estimating the starting point in 2010, deriving the percentage change to 2021, then applying this percentage change across multiple 11-year increments.  With enough elbow grease I could get more precise (I have to estimate the numbers from eyeballing the figures), but for basic take-aways it would probably look close enough to what I have here. A growth rate extrapolated this far is undoubtedly an oversimplification. I suspect that proselytizing a country follows a similar epidemiological dynamic as a pandemic (not that religion is a virus). At some point proselytizers have been in an area long enough that most people who are susceptible to conversion have done so, and the high, initial growth “burns out.” Also, if Africa becomes more developed economically that may affect its baseline religiosity, which would affect conversions. It’s anybody’s guess, but these extrapolations are a fun, simple look at what the Church will look like globally if current rates are extrapolated forward. If we do this, then Africa will surpass North America in terms of congregations around the year 2050. This is pretty far in the future, so it’s highly speculative, but the globalization of the Church, and the shifting of its…

The Constitution of the Council of Fifty

What is the Kingdom of God? If it were a political entity, how would it be organized? What sort of charter would it have? In a recent interview with Kurt Manwaring at From the Desk, Nathan Oman discussed an early effort to think through these types of questions in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints known as the Council of Fifty. What follows here is a copost to the full interview, which is available here. Believing that the Last Days were at hand, “Latter-day Saints expected secular governments to fail and that religious community would form the nucleus of a divinely inspired government to replace them,” Oman explained. The Council of Fifty was intended to be that nucleus–a shadow government of sorts to step in and take the place of existing political systems as they collapsed in the final days.  While that sounds like a conspiracy that could lead to some dramatic stories, the reality was much more tame.  “Practically, the Latter-day Saints were facing rising persecution in the United States and needed a forum in which leaders could discuss plans to deal with that persecution—and ultimately to relocate beyond the then-borders of the United States,” and they spent most of their time discussing “practical and political matters related to the Latter-day Saint community, particularly plans to quit the United States and settle someplace in the western interior of North America.” Still, one interesting aspect of this Council…

Under the Banner of Heaven: Review of First Two Episodes

I suspect a fear among some conservative Latter-day Saints is that a blockbuster, widely viewed movie will come around that presses on uncomfortable pressure points in a sophisticated way, and the 1-3 things that people know about the Church offhand will include whatever seeped into the public consciousness because of said blockbuster film. Similarly, a hope of the antagonist community is that said blockbuster film will gain a lot of traction and everybody will at last know the Truth about the Church, painting it into a corner.  Either way, the first two episodes of the new Hulu miniseries Under the Banner of Heaven isn’t it.  Besides Andrew Garfield’s performance, these were pretty standard B-grade Netflix style episodes of which there are thousands already in a crowded market. While there was a lot of historical license taken with some of the scenes (although part of me did enjoy seeing a more aggressive Joseph Smith), that’s expected given the lack of documentation in some cases.The writing was pretty mediocre. (I enjoyed Lance Black’s Milk and the episodes of Big Love that I watched, but not so much his biopic on J. Edgar Hoover, and this is definitely more in the latter camp). I very much doubt this will become a major cultural reference point for Mormonism in the non-Mormon corridor, or that it will penetrate into the public conciousness as far as its namesake book or Big Love.  Production quality aside, in terms…

The Future and the Church, Part IV: China

Like US exporters eyeing a potential 1.4 billion person market, the Church entering China is one of those white whales for hopeful, growth-minded Latter-day Saints (except with the everlasting gospel of the living God instead of widgets, but you get what I mean).  Every so often (sometimes rather sophisticated) rumors will spread about how China is in the process of opening up and the MTC is revving up to train missionaries in Mandarin full speed. There have been enough of these rumors that hopefully people have learned to take them with a grain of salt. However, on a deeper level the fundamentals just aren’t there, and probably won’t be for a while. First a caveat: I’m certainly no sinologist. While the track records of area specialists are notoriously bad for predicting major, disruptive political events, I have no reason to think I’m any better, so here we go… First, the on-the-ground political reality is that, even if they play by all the legal rules (like the Church is scrupulous about doing), the PRC simply does not allow religions the kind of freedom necessary for a religious opening up. If even the Vatican still doesn’t enjoy full freedom in appointing its own bishops, I’m not super optimistic about mission calls to Beijing any time soon, no matter how skilled the Church’s government affairs people are.  Ultimately, in a very centralized, authoritarian government like the PRC, there’s only one person that matters.…

Is the Song of Solomon Scripture?

Is the Song of Solomon (also known a The Song of Songs) scripture for Latter-day Saints? It’s an interesting question, given that it is included in the Old Testament, but has also been dismissed as not inspired by Joseph Smith. Dana Pike recently discussed this question with Kurt Manwaring at From the Desk. What follows here is a copost to the full interview (a shorter post with quotes and discussion). In the interview, Dana Pike discusses the origin of the Song of Songs: The Song of Solomon is a biblical book comprising eight chapters of poetry, primarily the words of a female and a male lover describing their own and each other’s bodies and their feelings about and sensual desires for each other. Although authorship of the Song is traditionally ascribed to Solomon, the general academic consensus is that Solomon is not really the author. The Song shares several features with ancient Egyptian love poetry, and most scholars see the Song as originally an example of ancient Israelite love poetry. A major factor in the Song’s inclusion in the Bible is that some early readers began to allegorize the male and female lovers, seeing God and his people as represented in the Song. While that allegorical reasoning for including the book has some validity, the book is also controversial because it is an erotic love poem, sparking debate about whether it is appropriate reading. Dana Pike shared his perspective as…

[Spiritual Languages] Mistakes, Messes, Screw-ups, and Other Forms of Perfection

We have this unique Latter-day Saint doctrine that Jesus had to learn line upon line, just like we do. [1] That is all fine and good, but here’s the problem. We also believe that Jesus was perfect, and these two ideas just don’t mesh. If you do not know everything you are liable to make mistakes, and mistakes mean imperfection. Don’t they? When we were in Egypt before our tour guide took us to see the pyramids of Giza we were taken to see several other cool but far less impressive pyramids first. On our way to Giza he told us the reason why was because tourists always wanted to know how the pyramids were made and how long it took to make them. He explained that answer couldn’t be given without first taking into account the other pyramids that went before them. Instead of seeing all these pyramids as separate projects interspersed across hundreds of years he explained that it was really one, massive, cross-generational building project, culminating in the great pyramids. Without those previous, messy pyramids there would have been no “great” ones. They were one. I’ve wondered a lot about the concept of perfection, as, (based on how much it gets brought up in church and conference), I think we all have. It was in the Sermon on the Mount that Jesus says to be perfect as God is perfect, but there is an interesting word in…

The Church Should Not Be Your Project

In Latter-day Saint parlance “making somebody your project” is the act of approaching your relationship with them mechanistically; only viewing your relationship with them through your ability to get them from point A to point B spiritually, and generally it’s frowned upon because the friendship is insincere.   On a similar note, I sense that some people problematically approach their relationship with the Church as a “project.” For the purposes of this analogy, these people are primarily interested in the Church as a potential vector for their personal ideological or political views. Given the influence the Church can have on its members (which I think is less than commonly believed on both the right and the left, but another post for another day), capturing the General Conference pulpit or First Presidency Statement is highly appealing to people who want to vector it towards their own ideological or political ends.  These people may be members. However, although they may tout things like their pioneer ancestry or mission experiences to show off their cultural bona fides, as a shibboleth to say I’m one of you and gain admittance into the realm of the orthodox, you often get the sense their affiliation is mostly sociocultural or familial rather than stemming from actual belief in the truth claims.  However, their attempts at reformation are often incredibly paternalistic to the targets. In the same sense that ward council projects often treat people as two dimensional statistics,…

Spiritually Moving “Great Art”

I don’t really get art. I couldn’t tell you whether a painting was done by a renaissance master or the local community college art teacher. While some of this is probably due to sort of an emperor’s new clothes style tastemaking by elites, I’ll concede that some of it may be due to my tastes being lowbrow.  That being said, below are the handful of works of “great art” that move me spiritually, even if Picasso or Degas don’t really do anything for me. These aren’t all the works of art that move me spiritually–like I mentioned earlier this week I especially love the Church’s International Art competition for this reason–but are specifically the “great works” that do so.  Agnus Dei Especially appropriate for Holy Week, Agnus Dei simply shows a bound lamb, but the calm expression on that lamb’s face reminds me of a point an MTC teacher made about her sheep-butchering father. When it comes time to slit the sheep’s throat, the lamb doesn’t fight, it just kind of looks at you with big eyes as you get the knife out and keep it calm right before the knife goes in. I couldn’t tell you why, but the image and the expression combined is a powerful depiction of the sentiment behind the Atonement.  The Creation of Adam A lot of church art from this time is rather dark, focusing on the pains of martyrdom and the battle against…