FAIR and Me

My Engagement with FAIR

FAIR is an organization devoted to providing apologetic defenses of the Church and its history, scripture, doctrine and practice. I’m not entirely sure when it came into existence; I’m guessing in the mid-90s. I didn’t know of its early iteration, because back in those olden days pre-blogs and podcasts, the internet world of mass communication was divided between message boards and e-mail lists. FAIR’s original form of outreach was via a message board, but I wasn’t much of a message board guy, and I preferred e-mail lists. The big e-mail list back then was Mormon-L, which I was never on. I hung out on several niche e-mail lists: one devoted to history, another devoted to philosophy, but mainly I engaged with Scripture-L, which was operated by Greg Woodhouse out of California. I loved that old list. Brant Gardner was working out the draft of his Book of Mormon commentary there (now published by Kofford), and I first e-met Julie Smith there, author of the excellent Mark volume of the BYU New Testament Commentary series.

The name FAIR was originally an acronym for the Foundation for Apologetic Information and Research. That name was always problematic, because while most Christian churches have an apologetic function, the word “apologetics” was not native to the Mormon tradition, and the organization would always get e-mails asking why they were apologizing. Eventually they did away with the acronym with FairMormon, but when RMN threw shade at the word “Mormon” that was no longer going to work. So they went back to FAIR as an acronym, but this time for Faithful Answers, Informed Response, which I thought was pretty clever.

My first actual engagement with FAIR was in 1999 when they decided to put on their first conference. Someone (at this late date I forget who) reached out to me and invited me to be one of the speakers. It sounded like a fun adventure, so I agreed. That first conference was held in Ben Lomond, California. We had some time to kill before the conference, so a group of us were taking a scenic drive in someone’s rental car through the redwood covered mountains. In the middle of nowhere we happened upon a Greek bookstore. We were all bibliophiles, so of course we had to check it out, and we all left with an armload of books. That was a magical experience and my favorite memory from that trip. 

The conference itself was held in the Relief Society room of the local stake center. My little joke was that there were—almost—more speakers than members of the audience. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the experience. You may read my presentation here: https://bycommonconsent.com/2019/04/13/a-tale-of-two-restorations/

I enjoyed that first conference so much that I made the effort to attend every year. The next conference was at Snowbird, then there were several at the Provo Women’s Center (who knew Provo had a Women’s Center?), then a classroom at UVU, then the Southtowne Exposition Center in Sandy. Starting in 2015 (the last conference I attended) the conferences have been held in a conference center in Provo.

In 2003 we held several mini-conferences in Europe; one in Germany and two in Italy (Milan and Rome). That was a wonderful experience and remains the only time I’ve been in Europe in my entire life. (Yes, I know, I’ve lived a too sheltered existence.) My presentation was on the Book of Abraham, which you may read here: https://bycommonconsent.com/2013/06/27/the-book-of-abraham/

At some point they asked me to join their (small) Board, which I was happy to do. I don’t remember exactly how long I served on the board; probably something like 10 years.

Probably my favorite part of being engaged with FAIR was my participation in “Ask the Apologist.” That was an email address where people could write in with questions. I loved responding to those questions; I think it reminded me of the old Scripture-L. FAIR has canned answers to many difficult questions on its website, but nuances matter, and I liked being able to tailor my thoughts to the specifics of their concern. My method was to read the question, think about it, and ask myself whether I was bothered by that issue. Usually, my answer was that I was not. So I would poke around in my brain and try to articulate why that issue didn’t throw me for a loop. That didn’t always work, but more often than not it did, and my correspondent was usually very grateful for the perspective.

An Ecumenical Approach to Mormon Studies

For most people who attend a FAIR Conference, that is their sole extracurricular Church activity, unless they attend something like BYU Education Week. In contrast, I’ve always had my fingers in a lot of pies, of which FAIR was but one.

Back when Sunstone was an actual magazine, I would often attend the Sunstone Symposium one weekend and the FAIR Conference the following weekend. And I presented at Sunstone several times, at least twice on the subject of apologetics.

I started my subscription to Dialogue immediately when I got my first career job and could afford it, and I have subscribed ever since. I did a stint on the Dialogue board for I think five years; I’m guessing I’m the only person to have served concurrently on both the FAIR and Dialogue boards.  In addition to publishing in other journals, I have also published five articles in Dialogue over the years.

I started attending MHA conferences (and later JWHA) in 2003. I always had a great time and would usually liveblog the conferences here; a search on the blog for MHA will find many of them.

Famously FARMS and Signature were at each other’s throats in the 90s, but I never bought into that. When I bought a Signature volume it was to see what I could learn from it, not how I could destroy it. Take, for example, Todd Compton’s In Sacred Loneliness. Todd is an old friend of mine; we studied classics together at BYU in the early 80s, so I already knew he was a fine scholar. And I enjoyed and appreciated the book. The Church needs to understand that there is no such thing as hiding the ball on polygamy. If the Church is still a thing in the year 2525, what will be the number one thing people associate with it? Polygamy. If Joseph didn’t want that to be his legacy for all time, maybe he should have thought twice about doing it. Even apologetically oriented scholars like Brian Hales and Greg Smith acknowledge Joseph had wives numbering in the mid-30s. (I get a chuckle out of Todd counting 33 and Brian counting one more for 34.) While I’m on this topic, I have some free advice for the Church. I have never been bothered by the topic of polygamy, and the reason for that is clear to me. My parents were both born in Idaho and both descended from Mormon polygamy. Was that shameful to them? Did they try to hide it? Certainly not. They were extremely proud of that heritage and would talk to us kids about it. If you learn something like this when you are young, you don’t freak about it later. Or at least that was my experience. If you don’t want the membership to freak about, say, the stone in the hat, include it in the Primary curriculum, or at least youth Sunday School. The kids are already so bored that maybe they would lift their heads off the desk and pay attention.

At a conference once someone (I forget who) came up to me and told me how much s/he admired my “ecumenical” approach to Mormonism. I had never heard it put that way before, but I immediately knew what s/he meant. In addition to the above, here’s a further illustration: I like Dan Peterson. He’s hella-smart with a wicked sense of humor. I know he’s widely perceived as the boogey man, but you need to have dinner with him sometime before you draw any conclusions. (He relishes what I call “engagement” apologetics; rhetorical battle in the Octagon, two enter, only one leaves, that sort of thing. I’ve never had the slightest interest in that, so I just ignore that kind of stuff.) But you know who else I like? Brent Metcalfe.  I consider him a friend. He is also hella-smart and has made several notable discoveries in church history. (I hope he doesn’t mind me saying this, but I think he became a better scholar after marrying his wife. Imagine having high level peer review sitting next to you on the couch! I wouldn’t know what that is like, as my wife has never read any of my church related publications, because she doesn’t care about that stuff. Her passions are art and music, as I described in this post: https://bycommonconsent.com/2009/12/13/rock-chick/

It’s true that Brent’s an atheist and I’m a theist. So what? My best friend on the planet (apart from close family) is a guy I first met in third grade. He was raised Catholic but has been an atheist his entire adult life. That doesn’t keep us from being friends. I’d take a bullet for that guy if I had to. I took him to Nauvoo for a long weekend of touring the sites a few years ago, and we had a great time. We recently attended our high school reunion together, and in the car he initiated an interesting conversation about the legal nuances involved in modern polygamy (we are both lawyers by profession, although he is now retired). I care less that someone agrees with me than that someone is both interested and knowledgeable about the topic, because then I have a chance to actually learn something. I can have a pleasant conversation with the guy on the pew behind me at church, but it’s highly unlikely I will learn something from him about the church I didn’t already know, whereas I’m highly likely to learn new things talking to someone who is both passionate and knowledgeable about the subject. And I really like to learn new things.

My Disaffiliation from FAIR

In 2007 I think it was I became a perma here on the blog. And I’ve had a great time blogging here. One thing I learned early on is you’ve got to be honest with your readers. Blogging doesn’t work unless you’re real about it. I’ve posted many hundreds of blog posts here, and in every case I’ve endeavored to be honest and genuine about my experiences and what I think about things.

In 2015 the Church was dealing with the POX (Policy of Exclusion) having to do with rules regarding the baptism of children of gay parents. I strongly disagreed with that policy and thought it was a terrible idea for the Church. So I posted at the blog “Were I Ever to Leave the Church,” which you can read here:” 

Basically, I said you can’t trip me up with most traditional arguments against the Church. The CES Letter isn’t going to work on me because I already know that stuff. Heck, as a missionary I bought and read Mormonism: Shadow or Reality? because I didn’t want to be blindsided by anything.

But I’m not invulnerable; I do have my own personal Kryptonite. And for me that’s the Church’s approach to social issues; in particular, race issues, women’s issues, and LGBTQ+ issues. I love the Church, and so I hate to see it taking positions that to my thinking will certainly become losers over time.

To illustrate my thinking, take LGBTQ+ issues. I actually can relate to where our top leaders are coming from more readily than many of our readers, because instead of being two or three generations younger than our top leaders, I’m only one generation their junior. Which means my experience growing up was closer to theirs. My kids, both 40-ish now, went to high school with lots of gay friends, a gay-straight student-alliance, trips into Chicago to watch the Pride parade. My experience growing up was much closer to that of our senior leaders. The word “gay” had not yet come into popular usage, it was strictly the more clinical “homosexual.” How many out gay students attend my high school of about 1500? That’s easy, the answer was zero. We surely had gay students, probably at least 100 or so, but there was no such thing as an out gay student at my school, for good reason. Being out in that environment would have invited near daily beatings. 

It wasn’t until maybe five years after high school that I began to change my thinking on this issue. I had a very good friend from my neighborhood, who was married and had a child. He finally came out as gay. That was the first person I knew well and personally to come out. (I don’t know whether they ever formally married, but he has long been with his partner.) That threw me for quite a loop. What helped me come to terms with it was the thought experiment where you imagine your own orientation is the minority one. I would know that I was straight; no amount of therapy would ever change that. If my only choices were to marry another man or be celibate the rest of my life, I would leave the Church and marry an actual woman. Flipping the situation helped to give me compassion for our gay brothers and sisters, and I fully support their rights to be with someone they actually love and want.

So anyway, about a week after I posted that at the blog, I got a call from the Chair of the FAIR Board. He asked me about the post and let me know a lot of FAIR volunteers were upset that a member of their Board had come down pretty hard on the Church on these issues. Now, you’re all going to think I’m an idiot, but I never even thought of how this would play with the FAIR audience; I was just openly expressing my feelings on the subject. So, I immediately resigned from the Board, and have had zero interaction with the organization since. I didn’t want the organization to be tainted by my (very liberal) personal views. 

My reason for posting this is that I have worried that people would think I have something against FAIR and that that is the reason for my disaffiliation. I still support FAIR’s mission, and so I am posting the full story here so that no one will think I have any ill will toward the organization; I do not, and I wish it well. 

Comments

  1. Thank you for posting this Kevin. FWIW I’ve always viewed you (and continue to view you) as one of my primary intellectual mentors regarding LDS topics. I appreciate all the many things you’ve written and the ways you’ve expanding my understanding on a number of issues.

  2. Raymond Winn says:

    Thanks to Mr Barney for his continued contributions to Mormon thought – and thanks today for this thoughtful explanation of his position. My own immediate negative response to the POX in 2015 makes me appreciate somebody who – at the time – had the courage to publicly state his similar
    opposition.

  3. Loved this. We are so prone in todays religious and political world to polarization. This thought is exactly what we need! Thanks

  4. What I wouldn’t give to have politicians like Kevin. I suppose, the next best thing is having him in the church. Disagree with your fellow congregants and yes, even leaders, tell them why, then love and respect them like a dear friend. Thank you Kevin for adding just a bit of humanity and love to our increasingly hateful world and to our divided church.

  5. FAIR’s failure over many years to establish any semblance of BoM historicity seems to have brought us to the present situation: We just don’t talk about it any more. I don’t know how that eventually plays out.

  6. “a lot of FAIR volunteers were upset that a member of their Board had come down pretty hard on the Church on these issues.”

    When the church has “come down pretty hard” on various groups *within* the church, it seems to have little problem defending that in terms of “love” — “we want you to be better,” they say, “how could it be anything other than loving to help you live up to God’s word?”

    With this mindset, you would think nearly all defenders of the church would recognize the capacity for love and expressed difference of opinion and even *outright correction* to coexist.

    But for some reason this appears to be quite rare.

    Kevin may be a better man than I am; I would have been tempted to wage war in full-on Peterson Octagon style manner, if not on the problems of the POX, on the damnable treating any dissent or correction as betrayal or hate.

    Perhaps there’s more of the peacemaker in Kevin than me, appreciate what’s on display here.

  7. W: I loved your term “Peterson Octagon”! ROFL. It describes Peterson, Midgely and their “merry band of rapid dogs” perfectly. My compliments.

  8. David Day says:

    I first encountered FAIR back when it was FARMS as a missionary in the mid 90s. They had a catalog and would mail me books and articles. Reading Sorenson’s “Ancient Setting” was foundational for me in understanding just how little about the BoM I actually knew (and I had, unlike most missionaries, probably read it 100 times before my mission). FAIR still has its benefits and on any given topic I’m interested to see what their canned answer is; but I’ve found them to be less useful over time. It’s clear they will defend the church on anything and everything regardless of whether its right or not, and they’ve really morphed into an organization that spends way too much time on the ProcFam.

    DCP might be nice over dinner, but he’s not nice if you go into his Octagon and send him packing bloody and beaten.

    I always search for Kevin’s thoughts on any topics because I love the insight.

  9. it's a series of tubes says:

    Kevin, I’ve greatly appreciated your posts here over the years and have learned much from your perspective. Thank you for sharing.

  10. Kevin Barney has always been a gentleman of the highest order.

  11. Kevin is good people. I know that first hand. But his ability to associate civilly with the FAIR and old FARMS crowd does nothing to ameliorate those circles.

    I’ll be as blunt as I can: the absolute failure of FAIR to produce any falsifiable evidence for the historicity of the BoM is fatal to its mission and aims. And it’s membership and contributors are almost all religiously motivated amateurs who have no standing in any respectable academic discipline bearing on religion, biblical studies, archeology, etc. There are living generations of respected and established scholars of Mormonism, or Mormons who are scholars in the aforementioned fields, who have zero interest in FAIR’s efforts. Why? Because FAIR is simultaneously embarrassing to the intellect and also, strangely, noxious to sustainable faith and interest in Mormonism.

    The Petersons and Welches and their far lesser fanboys are local celebrities only. FAIR/FARMS never delivered on their promise and they have been exposed for what they are: a self-congratulating pack of attack dogs that are too embarrassed to admit their own insignificance to themselves and their groupies.

    One could wish it otherwise, but it ain’t.

  12. I was never much impressed with FAIR scholarship, most of what it publishes seems to be aimed at impressing the church institution, not the church congregation. But when Maxwell Institute shifted to evangelism instead of doctrinal exposition, FAIR did fill in some of the gaps. Then there’s the flippant, mean-spirited stuff that polluted the internet and cast a bad shadow on the Church—that time when FAIR sponsored the obnoxious YouTube videos by the “Midnight Mormons.” That was when FAIR lost credibility in my eyes.

  13. “But when Maxwell Institute shifted to evangelism instead of doctrinal exposition”

    Huh?

  14. Ardis E. Parshall says:

    Kevin is the best, in everything he tackles.

    Perhaps unexpected praise for FAIR: When I need to know what’s up with some bizarre and obscure accusation, I often find material on FAIR. I’m after primary sources more than apologetic explanations so I might not read their “answer” — but they so often link to or embed the text of those sources I’m after. Their best pages are unafraid to present those larger sources, which is often very different from the carefully clipped snippets and misleading paraphrases given by the accusers.

    Kevin may not have originated that candor at FAIR, but he always exemplifies it, everywhere he writes.

  15. Stephen Fleming says:

    Way back in 2008, I felt a strong spiritual prompting to vote no on prop 8 (that would ban gay marriage). I did so, that that really confused me. So I came home and looked at the bloggernacle for some sign that I could do that and still be a good Mormon. I remember reading a post from Kevin, I think it was about some possible good things that came out of Prop 8 including Steve Young’s wife’s stance, and I remember thinking, “Oh, Kevin does apologetics so he must be pretty firmly in the fold.” So that helped. Thanks!

  16. Kevin and a few others on this blog have been very personally meaningful to me over the years. Your kind of Mormonism is my kind of humanity. You have helped me to be kinder and more tolerant in my walk with others. Thank you.

  17. Kevin Christensen says:

    I’ve long enjoyed FAIR as an important resource, and have always gained valuable insights from Kevin Barney’s writings in whatever venue.

    Regarding FAIR and a lack of “falsifiable evidence for historicity”, I have no problem because Ian Barbour observes in the introductory chapter of his brilliant book, Myths, Models,and Paradigms: A Comparative Study of Science and Religion states regarding “the falsifiability of theories. The empiricists had claimed that even though a theory cannot be verified by its agreement with data, it can be falsified by disagreement with data. But critics showed that discordant data alone have seldom been taken to falisfy an accepted theory in the absence of an alternative theory; instead, auxiliary assumptions have been modified, or the discrepancies have been set aside as anomalies. I will suggest that comprehensive theories are indeed resistant to falsification, but that observation does exert some control over theory; an accumulation of anomalies cannot be ignored indefinitely. A paradigm tradition, then, is not simply falsified by discordant data, but is replaced by a promising alternative. Commitment to a tradition and tenacity in exploring its potentialities are scientifically fruitful; but the eventual decision to abandon it is not arbitrary or irrational.”
    Further that:
    “Flew’s demand that the theist should specify falsifying conditions for religious beliefs seems unreasonable if such falsifying conditions cannot even be specified for comprehensive scientific theories. I will submit that though no decisive falsification is possible, the cumulative weight of evidence does count for or against religious beliefs, but with greater ambiguity than in science. Religious paradigms, like scientific ones, are not falsified by discordant data but replaced by promising alternatives. Commitment to a paradigm (understood, again, as a tradition transmitted through historical exemplars) allows its potentialities to be systematically explored.”

    “3. There are no rules for choice between religious paradigms, but there are criteria of assessment. The application of such criteria is even more subject to individual judgment in religion than in the controversies between competing paradigms during a ‘scientific revolution’. Moreover religious faith includes personal trust and loyalty; it is more totally self-involving than commitment to a scientific paradigm. Nevertheless the existence of criteria means that religious traditions can be analysed and discussed. Religious commitment is not incompatible with critical reflection. It is my hope that the new views of science described here can offer some encouragement to such a combination of commitment and enquiry in religion.”

    Kevin Barney’s work as a whole, and his important essay on the Documentary Hypothesis demonstrates that he fully grasps these notions. He’s more persuasive because he doesn’t suppose he’s proved things.

  18. I guess the FAIRisees are still building fences around the law. Too bad. They lost a valuable contributor (and they don’t have too many of those).

  19. David Day, FARMS wasn’t FAIR. They were different organizations with different origins and purposes, even if Dan Peterson and a few others were engaged in both.

    anony, speaking of Peterson, it isn’t accurate to refer to the Welches with reference to either FAIR or Peterson’s pugilistic style of argumentation/apologetics. Jack Welch hasn’t engaged in that but has focused instead entirely on intellectual and scholarly approaches to apologetics about the Gospel.

    Kevin, thanks for this post and your valuable contributions to both FAIR and BCC over the years.

  20. I just stumbled onto this conversation. Some of it is not well informed.
    “Maxwell Institute shifted to evangelism instead of doctrinal exposition.” I know the Maxwell Institute well, old and new, and I have no idea what that sentence could mean.
    FARMS turned into FAIR? Not true.

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