I’m going to try and draw a comparison which might seem stretched to some, but go with me on this weird little journey and let’s see if I can convince you about my grand theory.
Let’s lay some groundwork. This piece comes with some homework but if you’re at all interested in politics, piety, echo chambers, LGBT rights and community wellbeing, the role of education, the pandemic, and why leadership matters… let’s just say there’s bound to be something for everyone in this, even if I use a couple fairly niche case studies to make my argument.
Any reader who has been around for more than a hot minute knows that I was raised Mormon and while I’m no longer practicing and often highly critical of the organization and community, it’s still MY people in there. I still have emotional investment in the health and happiness of way too many people still in the faith to simply not care about what the community does as a collective. I often include Mormon community updates in links roundups and (occasionally) their own posts when I had strong enough feelings on a given topic.
Well, buckle up.
If you follow me on Instagram or Twitter (which I don’t actually recommend unless you have a high tolerance for memes and hyperbole) you might have seen my reaction to some news in Mormon world this week. Here’s what has been living rent-free in my head for two days straight: “Apostle Jeffrey Holland to BYU: Stop aiming ‘friendly fire’ at LDS teachings.” [text of the speech available here]
And of course, the Mormon and Mormon-adjacent internet spaces LIT UP with reaction. I include myself in that tally. While you may scoff or sneer at the use of social media as some sort of echo chamber (and we will get to echo chambers, just you sit tight!), there’s a reason why it is useful to see how specific incidents and statements are landing in real time to different audiences. I saw a wide range of reactions from rage to visceral pain to hopelessness, and I expressed my own disappointment. But also my bafflement.
Because my professional work and personal interests lie very much in the realm of audience-targeting and practical or cultural creation of those audiences – and let’s be blunt, a specific political edge – a few things struck me all at once.
First, some priors
The Mormon faith is small – it claims about 15m members worldwide according to their own public reporting and regularly advise on their numbers. Growth is important to the church, hence its active and well known missionary force. Demographic analysis done by public researchers (like the Cumorah Project, an ongoing research project by active, faithful members compiling organizational updates as they become available) academic researchers, and journalists do a good job at showing rates of growth and change.
There is a key element of activity within the faith that’s worth highlighting. There might be 15ish million people on the rolls, but the rates of participation in the faith (defined by the church itself through specific activities) is much lower than that. A decent estimate would be about 20% of members are regular worshipers, tithe payers, and so on. An even smaller number are “endowed,” which means participate in regular worship in LDS temples, access to which is tightly controlled.
- Ben Park’s piece in the Washington Post does, I think, I fair job of summarizing a lot of cultural shifts in the LDS community in recent years between the faith’s leadership, wider American political landscape, and how these are colliding in the membership in the time of COVID. This is relevant, I promise.
- A 2020 update from the Salt Lake Tribune about the effects of COVID on membership.
- Another 2020 piece from Religion Unplugged examining birthrate trends…and an important point about participation in the faith; i.e. “there are no mediocre Mormons…”
Put a pin in all of these.
The other thing you need to know is that Brigham Young University (BYU) has been something of the flagship institution of the church in the 20th century. It invests heavily in its funding to make it affordable to students, can boast a library collection worthy of academic envy, and has taken great pains to achieve respect for its research, its law and business schools, and its performing arts.
It is famous/infamous for its Honor Code which in addition to academic expectation also enforces personal activities and behavior to conform with the moral standards of the church. No smoking, drinking, drugs, or sexual activity of any kind outside of heterosexual marriage. Modest dress standards for women and specific grooming standards for men. Notwithstanding its magnificently bearded namesake, whiskers for men were prohibited as a counter-counter-culture measure in the mid-20th century and remain to this day. Yeah, it’s strict.
Alongside the usual courses, students are expected to take religious studies classes which, in terms of course credit, amount to Minor degree’s worth of hours and work. These include classes on Mormon history and scripture, as might be expected, but also the King James Bible and religious literature. At least when I was there, the professors of various religious traditions were highly respected and their classes sought after, and interfaith dialog was active. For instance, due to the lifestyle elements compatible with their own, we had a decent minority of Muslim students as well as other faiths.
And then of course, that necessary thing, college sports! BYU fields 21 teams in NCAA varsity sports, often progresses well in championships, and even boasts a national football championship which looms large in the college lore.
What I’m saying is, the church has poured money and time for over a century to build a religious academic institution that can command respect across a number of fields.
Which is why I found this speech as bonkers as I did.
“The Lord’s University”
First of all, this speech was delivered alongside an announcement of the creation of the BYU Office of Belonging (or…BOOB…this could have been thought through better), with a specific mission of combatting prejudice at the university. The juxtaposition is whiplash inducing.
Now, I was not shocked to see an apostle of a church which has spent the last thirty years defining itself in the public eye through primarily gender and sexuality based positions and teachings say something I consider pretty bigoted and homophobic. Dressing it up in the language of love doesn’t make it less morally repugnant, but it’s frankly right in line with the church’s long established stances. Some of its greatest hits include:
- Objecting to and mobilizing against the ERA, in “defense” of women
- Opposing LGBT rights generally and mobilizing against gay marriage specifically; Prop 8 and its fallout casts a long shadow
- Published proclamations supporting “divinely designed” gender roles and functions that – in my opinion – go far beyond anything to be found in the foundational scriptures or teachings of the faith but instead reflect the cultural expectations and norms of the leadership and cultural panics of the time. Said leader is, of course, revered as a prophet with a direct line to the infinite
- The infamous period of racist doctrine and practice which excluded Black members from full participation in the faith and men from ordination – which while it has been withdrawn, has never been apologized for, denounced, or refuted. Because to do that would expose the leadership who imposed and maintained these doctrines and actions to accusations of being, shall we say, less than prophetic. Which is kind of awkward given the point above
- Half-hearted attempts at “loving outreach” to the LGBT community including the now defunct “Mormon and Gays” platform which attempted to express the doctrines of the church in a way that made them sound less exclusionary than they are. The fact that these efforts have all be shuttered quietly in recent years is important.
But I WAS shocked to hear this man state it was the duty of the faculty and staff of the university to uphold the doctrines of the church, AND that the institution was prepared to lose “professional association and certifications” if necessary to do so. In other words, that the true role of this ostensibly academic institution is not, in fact, academics or education for academia or a profession, but the enforcement of religious orthodoxy.
Anyone who can’t see the potential risk to the value of a diploma, the attractiveness of grad school candidates, or even workforce implications is fooling themselves or willfully blind. It also seems to me to be fundamentally at odds with the sheer amount of money and work that has gone into building the university’s reputation far outside its own religious community.
When is a cigar just a cigar and when is it an existential call to arms?
There was much chatter about the use of the phrase “musket fire” in the speech. There’s a distinctly American tone to this, which deliberately harkens back to the American Revolution and is a well-used metaphor.
But unless you’ve been living under a rock, a lot of American symbols, metaphors and rhetorical devices have taken on some additional layers of meaning in recent years. Think of the flag being co-opted in the culture wars, from Trump physically embracing it and specifically attempting to flip the discourse about anti-police-brutality protests as “disrespecting flag and/or troops, to the “thin blue line” redesign of police officers and their political supporters. On the other side we have flag burning or rejection by activist groups who claim it doesn’t represent them or other left-wing manipulations.
As the meme goes, “WORDS MEAN THINGS.” So of course do symbols and metaphors. Memes are the language of our world in many ways and serve the useful function of being a way to convey large and even multiple concepts in visual shorthand. They are collectively created, shared, agreed upon, and layered with meaning to the point that large groups of people can see a visual cue and all draw roughly the same conclusion from it: the same punchline to an unspoken joke, a shared experience, or a shared fandom.
Or all of the above.
It’s time to introduce a subculture within a subculture: DezNat. Like so much in our times, this is an online community hoping (and in some cases) acting to bring about their preferred utopia. And they are radical in their beliefs. Not everyone ticks every box, of course,
Some of the symbols or language they have created or co-opted include the Bowie knife (a combined reference to historical figure Porter Rockwell and to the concept preached by Brigham Young of blood atonement – which I’m not even going to attempt to unpack! Just read the links)…and guns, including muskets.
Remember, layers. Musket metaphors are a meme that combines specific interpretations of patriotism, equally specific interpretations of resistance, and yet further equally specific interpretations of rights and values. Free speech, religion, etc.. In this context you also have to appreciate that Mormonism is a millennialist faith – it’s in the name: the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. They believe that the US is a divinely chosen land that enjoys specific freedoms which enabled its revelations to come forth and enjoy certain legal and cultural protections in the “last days” before the judgements of God are poured out on the earth.
The militancy referred to in religious speech is often best understood as symbolic; but not exclusively. This is just as true in Mormonism as it is in Christianity, Islam and other sects. And just like other sects there is almost always a minority who see the holy war in real and stark terms and are prepared to posture…or act…accordingly.
So, who was this speech for?
Setting aside the highly relevant subject of coded language, let’s look once more at the explicit text.
In his speech, Holland cites and quotes a letter that bemoans the apparent secularization the writer perceives happening at the university.
“You should know,” the writer says, “that some people in the extended community are feeling abandoned and betrayed by BYU…”
Who, I can’t help but wonder, are these people who feel that BYU is not religious or orthodox ENOUGH? I’ve already gone into some detail about the behavioral standards and education elements, and plenty more writers who are far more eloquent than me can share even more about the curriculum and culture to make thee point, but let me just state unequivocally that BYU IS NOT A SECULAR ENVIRONMENT. Many classes begin with prayer, a religious and even pro-American-quasi-religious ethos is centered in its coursework (including a required course called American Heritage) to say nothing in the faith itself. Religious observance is required, and even hints of unorthdoxy can get you punished or expelled. Believe me, I know; even if that’s a story for another time.
I’m not saying this speech was for DezNat exactly, though the inclusion of the metaphors and language is already doing the work of making plenty of that community sure think it is. You see what you want to see, and plenty of extremists want to see their leaders endorsing, winking at, or even explicitly embracing what they already believe to be true.
But I absolutely do believe that Holland should know enough about his own flock to anticipate how this rhetoric will be taken and used. Not for the “soft” bigotry and “gentle” exclusion he outright states he and the institution should practice, and damn the consequences, but by the militant minority. The zealots.
Okay but what the hell does Trump have to do with this?
Good question, kittens, and that’s why there’s going to have to be a Part Two.