Avoiding Affinity Fraud: The Las Vegas Mormon Ponzi Scheme

Today, the Washington Post published a story detailing an alleged Ponzi scheme that targeted Mormons. (It’s worth noting that one of the alleged fraudsters—the one who seems to have thought up the scheme—was not Mormon. The rest? Yep. Mormon.) Ultimately, Mormons and others lost hundreds of millions of dollars.

Avoid Blaming the Victims

Before I go any further, I want to make something clear. Because I’ve been on the internet long enough to know that people are already formulating comments painting the victims of this fraud as greedy or as overly naive. Both reactions, while appealing, are wrong. The victims of this Ponzi scheme were, in fact, victims of people committing fraud. Blaming the victim of a crime for their victimhood is psychologically natural. But natural doesn’t mean right, morally or substantively. And blaming crime victims is neither right nor moral.

But also, both accusations miss the mark. Were the victims naive? Maybe. But remember Bernie Madoff? His investors/victims included banks, investment funds, charitable foundations, universities, pension funds, and plenty of other sophisticated people and entities. So dismissing victims as simpletons and naïfs doesn’t work.

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Guess I’ll Go Eat Worms

About a month ago, YouGov released the results of a poll asking how Americans feel about various religions. Respondents were asked a simple question: “Do you have a favorable or unfavorable opinion of the following groups, organizations, or belief systems in the United States?” They were given a random sample of 17 out iof a list of 35 religions and could choose one answer to the question:

  • Very favorable
  • Somewhat favorable
  • Neither favorable nor unfavorable
  • Somewhat unfavorable
  • Very unfavorable
  • Not sure

Among the religions in the poll was “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Mormon Church).” And how did we fare?

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Say It Again, Sam (a Plea to Bishops)

You know that moment: the person blessing the sacrament looks at the bishop. The bishop shakes his head. And, instead of standing up and handing the trays of bread or water, the person repeats the prayer. The congregation may be puzzled the second time through. By the third, fourth, or fifth time, they’re holding their collective breath, praying that this time he gets through it.

The first time, his voice is clear, notwithstanding the small error. The second time, if you listen closely, you can hear it begin to shake. And every subsequent time, the shaking gets worse.

So what’s up with that? Well, some combination of tradition and the Handbook. But we should back up a little: the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints doesn’t have a lot of liturgical prayers. By and large, we’re devotional prayer people. But we have a couple liturgical prayers. The big ones are the sacrament prayers and the baptismal prayer, two prayers that we get from our scriptures.[fn1]

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Profits, Bonneville, and the Church

Once upon a time,[fn1] a couple wealthy alumni left all of the shares of the Mueller Pasta Co. to NYU’s law school. The donation kinda freaked people out: a pasta company owned by a tax-exempt organization presented a possibly existential threat. Because the company didn’t have to pay taxes on its profits, it could charge less per box, undercutting other pasta companies and driving them out of business. (How? Well, in 1947, the top marginal corporate income tax rate was 53%. Imagine a pasta company charged 20 cents for a box of pasta and made 10 cents of profit per box. After taxes, they would have about 5 cents left. If Mueller didn’t have to pay taxes, it could charge 15 cents, a 25% discount. As long as it had similar quality, you’d probably buy the Mueller pasta!) Alternatively, it could charge the same amount, make twice the profit, and use that profit to buy competition and otherwise act as a monopolist.

Neither was, in many people’s mind, a good result. So Congress enacted the unrelated business income tax. What is the unrelated business income tax? We don’t need to go into a lot of detail, but in broad strokes: to the extent a tax-exempt organization earns income not related to its exempt purpose, it pays taxes on that income at ordinary corporate rates. The unrelated business income tax is meant to take away any unfair advantage that tax-exempt organizations would otherwise have competing with for-profit entities.

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Light, Dark, and St. Lucia

Last week, my family and I went to the St. Lucia services at Ebenezer Lutheran Church in Andersonville. We’ve meant to go for several years but, since a friend’s sons were participating, we had the perfect excuse.

St. Lucia Day, we learned, is a huge deal in Sweden. It celebrates Lucia, a 5th century martyr and saint, who, according to legend, brough food to Christians hiding in Roman catacombs, lighting her way with a wreath of candles on her head. The service included attendees singing Swedish hymns and carols, two choirs, some Swedish folk dancing, and a procession of this years St. Lucia, wearing a wreath of candles on her head, with her attendants, carrying their candles in their hands.

Ultimately, this is a festival of light, held on what, in the Julian calendar, would have been the darkest day of the year. And it’s an appropriate marker of the Christmas season. Jesus is, after all, the Light. He leads us out of darkness and allows us to see.

Darkness has been particularly salient since we moved to Chicago. My city sits almost on the eastern edge of the Central time zone. That means that today, the winter solstice, the sun set at 4:23. It’s not the earliest place to get dark, of course, but that is pretty early. If I were still in New York, the sun would have set 9 minutes later. Where I grew up, tonight’s sunset will be at 4:45. And for those of you in Salt Lake, the sun doesn’t go down until 5:03. And while it’s never entirely dark in my city, the setting sun makes it harder to see and, as a massive cold front approaches, harder to stay warm.

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BYU and Cryptic Standards

A couple weeks ago, the Salt Lake Tribune reported that BYU-I was declining to renew[fn1] instructors’ contracts based on nebulous and unexplained criteria.

And yes, I understand that the BYUs have odd and specific contractual provisions, one of which is that employees’ employment is contingent on getting an ecclesiastical endorsement from their bishop. But here’s the thing: the bishops of the two instructors the story interviews did provide ecclesiastical endorsements. That is, the people in question went to their bishops. They answered the questions bishops are supposed to ask. Their bishops endorsed them. They had current temple recommends. They had done everything that the BYUs say they needed to do.

But they were told they weren’t renewed because they didn’t get “ecclesiastical clearance” and therefore didn’t qualify to teach at BYU-I.

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Sorrow and Thanksgiving

On Election Day, I woke up to my daughter freaking out. Our cat had fallen down her sister’s ladder and was unresponsive. Almost instantly awake, we did a quick Google search and discovered that there was a 24-7 vet emergency room a mile or so from our apartment. Ten minutes later, we had Lemonade there. They rushed her to the back; she was severely dehydrated because of what we eventually discovered was a Lego head blocking her intestine.

Long story short, one surgery, two veterinary hospitals, and almost seven days later, we brought Lemonade home. That was a tough week—sometimes we thought she was almost better. Sometimes we were steeling ourselves for our young cat’s death. (2:00 am that first Thursday night—when we transferred her from the pet hospital where she had surgery to the pet hospital that had a kidney specialist was possibly the darkest moment.)

The day before we took her in, I’d been listening to Roy Ayers’s recording of Bill Wither’s “Ain’t No Sunshine.” And for a significant portion of the week, that song was on a constant loop in my head. It perfectly performed how I—and my family—felt. (A friend on Twitter suggested that my goal should be to have his “Lovely Day” replace it, which happened when I got her home.)

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The LDS Church Supports the Respect for Marriage Act

You may have heard that yesterday the church came out in support of the Respect for Marriage Act. For reasons I’ll describe in a minute, this support is, in my humble opinion, a big deal.

But before we get to why it’s a big deal, it’s probably worth looking and what and why the Respect for Marriage Act is.

In broad strokes, the Respect for Marriage Act is a replacement for the Defense of Marriage Act from the 1990s. (And I mean that literally—Section 3 of RfMA repeals a provision of federal law added by DOMA that expressly allows states and the federal government to decline to recognize same-sex marriages enacted in other states.)

RfMA replaces that with its opposite: under the RfMA, states must give full faith and credit to marriages performed in other states, and cannot deny marriage benefits on the basis of the “sex, race, ethnicity, or national origin” of the married persons.

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Church Finances in Canada and Australia

Over the last week or so, a number of people have pointed me to investigative journalism regarding the church’s finances in Canada and Australia and asked my opinion on them. Which is flattering but, unfortunately, right now I don’t have a ton of spare time. So rather than go through in detail, I’m going to try to contextualize a little bit of what I think is going on.

And what I think is going on is two things. First, the church thinks of itself and, to the extent it legally can, operates as a single economic entity. Over the last several decades or so, it has consolidated its finances in Salt Lake (which significantly diverges from most religious organizations I’m familiar with, including other hierarchical religions like the Catholic church).

Second, the church is obsessed with being financially opaque. It values its financial privacy to a degree that it can be harmful to the public’s perception. (I’m sure I’ve blogged about this, but I’ve also written about the history of the church’s varying levels of financial transparency/opacity for Dialogue.)

And these two things, I believe, underlie the stories coming out of Canada and Australia. And frankly, my quick blog post (written between getting kids up for school, getting them breakfast, and getting ready for work) may or may not be satisfying. It’s not meant to convict or exonerate the church. And pretty much everything I know about this comes from two articles. And I believe that the church should be more financially transparent, and that such transparency would be good for it in both the short and the long run.

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A Church Ombudsman

Several years ago, while we were waiting for the church to build a building in downtown Chicago, my ward met in a rented public school on Sundays. And honestly, it was a great location–the nursery was in the gym, with its basketball hoops and plenty of space to run (and/or toddle) around. Primary and adult classes met in classrooms, some with class pets you could watch if the lesson was less-than-completely interesting. And kids could play on the playground out back once church was over (and—shhh!—sometimes when their primary class took them out).

But, like many Chicago public schools, this school didn’t have air conditioning. Now for real, that’s not a big deal in Chicago. It doesn’t get super-hot here, and, when it does, the heat only lasts a few weeks. (Also, those few weeks of heat tend to be in the summer, when school’s not in session.) But it could be uncomfortable, especially in the gym.

And one day, the gym was air conditioned. How? What I’m told is that a member of our ward who was related to a general authority in Salt Lake mentioned the heat and, because of that personal connection, the church provided air conditioning.

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Rethinking Plagiarism

Last week, in the wake of General Conference, there was a mini-scandal: it appears that in Elder Bednar’s talk “Put on Thy Strength, O Zion,” he borrowed his interpretation of a parable from a 2016 article, sometimes even using that author’s precise words. He didn’t flag his intellectual debt in the oral version of his talk, though, and the original published version also failed to use quotation marks or footnotes for many of the ideas.

Now, I realize I’m idiosyncratic, but the first person who comes to mind when I hear about a plagiarism scandal is my friend and colleague Brian Frye, Dogecoin Professor of Law & Grifting Spears-Gilbert Professor of Law at the University of Kentucky Rosenberg College of Law.

Professor Frye is the preeminent plagiarism apologist in the legal academy. And his apologia pro plagiarism forces us to confront the question, why is plagiarism wrong? While the answer seems self-evident, he makes it clear that the question of the wrong of plagiarism is a lot murkier and harder to pin down.

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$906 Million

The church recently released its 2021 Annual Report. The church’s Annual Reports detail its humanitarian and social safety-net endeavors.[fn1] These endeavors should come as no surprise: as in years past, the church has been tremendously active in providing food, clean water, education, and vaccinations, among other things. It engages in these activites on its own and it partners with other charitable organizations.

The aid it provides is unsurprising because it’s the same kinds of things the church has highlighted in previous Annual Reports.

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Oman, A Possible Theology of Same-Sex Marriage Sealings

This morning, Nate Oman posted what may be the most important and consequential piece of Mormon theology I’ve read in a long time over on his Substack. In it, he explores whether and how same-sex sealings could fit in Latter-day Saint theology.

Those of you who know Nate will be unsurprised to find that it is a thoughtful, careful, insightful, empathetic, and fundamentally faithful exploration. He takes as his cue D&C 9, which both describes a stupor of thought as evidence that what we do is not aligned with God’s will and instructs us to study questions out in our mind to figure out what is right, then present our findings to the Lord for confirmation.

Nate also doesn’t let ideas off easy. While acknowledging that the church’s treatment of the LGBTQ community does not feel just or fair, he doesn’t consider that, of itself, a compelling theological argument for same-sex sealings. At the same time, he finds our assumption of “heterosexual exaltation” equally baseless.

Instead, he advocates what I will call a theology of humility. He sketches the gaps in our understanding and application of sealings both today and through church history, how those gaps undercut our easy assumptions, and why those gaps allow for same-sex sealings.

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Faith, Reason, and CES

Last week, the Deseret News published an essay by Elder Clark Gilbert, the commissioner of CES. (Remember, CES is over the church’s secondary education system, including the BYUs and Pathways.) In it, he argues for the distinctive—and critical—role religiously-affiliated colleges and universities play in our broad network of secondary education.

And honestly, I found the essay deeply troubling.

Not, let me point out, because I disagree with Elder Gilbert’s premise. I’ve spent my entire academic career teaching at the Loyola University Chicago School of Law. We’re a Jesuit school, and our sense of Jesuit identity is central to our mission and to the way we educate our students. This mission encourages us to center justice, as well as the well-being of our students, faculty, and staff. It motivates and permeates the education we provide.

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Religious Liberty and Short-Termism

On Wednesday, a Texas district court found that the ACA’s mandate that insurance cover PrEP violated the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. (Opinion here.)

A couple quick explanations before we go on: the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) was a law passed by Congress to essentially overrule a Supreme Court decision. It was meant to provide religious practice with a higher level of protection than the Court was affording it. PrEP is a drug that significantly reduces the chance that a person will get HIV from sex or injection drug use.

A handful of people (and one corporation) challenged the mandate that insurance cover PrEP, claiming that their religious beliefs and practice required them to have access to insurance that didn’t cover PrEP, either for themselves or their employees. And, in the first instance, they won.

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Anti-Racism, the Bystander Effect, and BYU

Friday night, a racist BYU fan harassed a Black women’s volleyball player playing for Duke. Among other things, he threatened her and called her a racial slur that is arguably the most offensive word in the contemporary English language. And nobody—not the students surrounding the racist, not the game officials, not BYU’s athletic director, nobody—took actions to stop it.[fn1] (And it’s not like BYU officials didn’t know—Rachel Richardson, the Duke player at whom the racist invective was aimed, said that BYU’s coaching staff was told what was happening. And I’ve been to volleyball games at the Smith Fieldhouse—you can definitely hear what people shout.)

Utah’s governor expressed his “disgust” and sadness at the story, and rightly pointed out that we need to fix society so that “racist a**holes like this never feel comfortable attacking others.” And Sunday night, BYU’s women’s volleyball coach issued an apology and a promise to do better.

But the thing is, this wasn’t an isolated incident. And it’s going to happen again.

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Happy Birthday, Sister Jean!

In 2018, when the Loyola Ramblers burst into the NCAA basketball Final Four, my school burst into the national spotlight.

But it wasn’t just Loyola University Chicago: it was also the Ramblers’ chaplain, Sister Jean. She became a fixture on TV, on the internet, and even in the National Bobblehead Hall of Fame and Museum.

Today, Sister Jean celebrates her 103rd(!) birthday. Among other things, the plaza outside of the main Loyola Campus has been renamed in her honor and, on Tuesday, she’ll throw out the first pitch at the Cubs game.

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Two Things the Church Can Do Now to Improve Its Response to Child Abuse

My cobloggers have offered excellent commentary about the disturbing news about child abuse coming out of Arizona. Everything from suggestions about how we could better help abuse survivors to systemic changes we can make to reduce the incidence of abuse to discussions of confidential confession itself to how the church could have better drafted its first press release.

All of these discussions are crucial as we attempt to protect our children and limit (or better, eliminate!) abuse. But the church’s most recent press release[fn1] crystalized something in my mind, and suggested two things that the church could do in the short term, as we work toward a long-term without abuse.

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Yearning and Trane

Yesterday I watched Chasing Trane, a documentary on jazz luminary John Coltrane. (I mentioned Coltrane my introduction to Coltrane in my tribute to Dr. Ray Smith.)

The documentary is a perfectly acceptable review of a fascinating life. And what really struck me was Coltrane’s spirituality. He was a religious seeker and, like Bach, he sought to elevate his listeners through his music, to bring us closer to the transcendent and the Divine.

And his approach toward religious transcendence is nowhere as explicit as in his suite “A Love Supreme.” (Jason K. wrote about “A Love Supreme” in a Mormon Lectionary Project post seven years ago.)

“A Love Supreme” is a different approach to religion than we as Mormons usually take, in our music or in our rhetoric. Our hymns are generally composed in four-part harmony with classic voice-leading. The lyrics comfort. The harmonies and melodies are familiar and comfortable. Any dissonance ultimately resolves.

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The Clergy-Penitent Privilege–Questions and a Suggestion

At this point, I assume most of our readers have seen today’s AP story. If not, you can read it here (but be warned: it’s disturbing and disgusting and the church—rightly, imho—comes out looking terrible).

What underlies this miscarriage of justice is the clergy-penitent privilege. And what is that? It’s a legal privilege that protects confessional communications between clergy and a person who goes to the clergy for spiritual counselling.

It’s a state-level privilege, meaning it’s created and governed by state, not federal, law. And in every state it differs at least a little. And honestly, privilege broadly—and clergy-penitent privilege in particular—is outside of my area of expertise. I understand it broadly, but the contours are tough and specific.

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Christian Nationalist Is Incompatible with Mormonism

Yesterday, this piece on Christian nationalism ended up in my Twitter feed. In it, Amanda Tyler, the Executive Director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty explains why it is absolutely critical for Christians to step up and expressly denounce Christian nationalism.

What is Christian nationalism? The BJC describes it as explicitly promoting the idea that Christianity should explicitly infuse the U.S.’s “public policies, sacred symbols, and national identity.” Implicitly (and sometimes explicitly) it also holds that the only true Christians/Americans are white, conservative, and born in the U.S.A.

It is critical to point out here that there’s a difference between saying (as a voter or a politician), “My values influence my policy preferences” and saying “The laws of the country should codify [my version of] Christianity.” The former, Tyler points out, allows for some work across the aisles, some vision of a better society. She points to Georgia Democratic Senator Raphael Warnock, a Baptist pastor, and Oklahoma Republican Senator James Lankford, a former Baptist youth pastor, among others.

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On “Laws Related to Abortion”

Several weeks ago, in the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision, the church made a change to its official statement on abortion. Reaffirming its political neutrality, the church gave explicit permission for members to “choose to participate in efforts to protect life and to preserve religious liberty.”

What does that mean? Well, the church explicitly permits abortions in cases of rape, incest, in cases where the pregnancy imposes a serious risk to the mother’s health or life, and in cases where the fetus has serious defects and will not survive.

That is, the church recognizes that there must be some kind of balance between the rights of a pregnant person and the rights of a fetus. In at least some circumstances, that balance favors the pregnant person. Which makes sense—in Mormonism, we don’t have any theological commitment to when life begins. We have, of course, scriptures that suggest it may be sometime before birth (John leapt in Elisabeth’s womb when Elisabeth heard Mary) and scriptures that suggest maybe not (Jesus spoke to Nephi the day before He was born). And from a policy perspective, stillborn children are not recorded as births or deaths on church records and no temple work can be performed for them.

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Girls Should Be Passing the Sacrament. Full Stop.

I’ve written about this twice before, but this time I’m going to be completely blunt: the church needs to allow women and girls to pass and prepare the sacrament. Like yesterday. The Doctrine and Covenants expressly prohibits deacons and teachers from administering the sacrament, which means passing and preparing it are not administering it. Thus, the only grounding for requiring priesthood to do those things is tradition.

And here’s the thing: if we’re arbitrarily preventing women and girls from doing something on the basis that we’ve always prohibited them from doing it, we’re sending them a message. And that message is, “You’re second class, and your contributions are less important.” It doesn’t matter how many times we tell women and girls that they’re important, because our actions and policies send the second message.

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Homesteading Utah

My family and I just got back from an extended road trip. And one of our first stops on that road trip was Homestead National Historic Park in Nebraska. It was actually our second time visiting and, seriously, if you get the chance to visit, you absolutely should. (It’s only about an hour and a half from Winter Quarters.)

The Homestead Act was fascinating. Signed by Abraham Lincoln in 1862, it allowed heads of household or anyone over 21 to claim a 160-acre parcel of land, provided they were, or intended to become, a citizen.[fn1] To get the land, a homesteader had to live on the land for five years, built a home, make improvements to the land, and farm it. At the end of five years, for only the cost of a filing fee, a successful homesteader would own the land.

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On Bewaring of Pride

My freshman year at BYU, my Book of Mormon professor took a couple classes to warn us of the dangers of self-esteem. It’s been long enough that I don’t remember precisely how she got to self-esteem being a dangerous concept (except something something less than the dust of the earth). It was dumb and harmful, and I objected to it in class, though as an 18-year-old I didn’t have the language to articulate why it was stupid and harmful.[fn1]

While I’m not clear how she derived the idea that self-esteem was harmful, I wouldn’t be shocked if it found its roots in Pres. Benson’s infamous talk “Beware of Pride.”

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A Quick Note re: the Church and Gun Safety Legislation

I was reading the WBEZ website yesterday, and came across a story about Cardinal Cupich, the Archbishop of the Archdiocese of Chicago. Cardinal Cupich called on legislators to pass legislation to curb gun violence.

“The Second Amendment, unlike the second commandment, did not come down from Sinai,” Cupich told NPR. “There is an understanding that we all have in our hearts, engraved in our hearts, a natural law about the value of human life. And there is no amendment that can trump that.”

So can he do that? Can he speak out about political issues? Is he, the leader of the 3rd largest archdiocese in the United States, with more than 2 million Catholics, risking the Catholic Church’s tax exemption?

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What Can We Do About Gun Violence?

Like so many others right now, I’m numb with sadness and rage about the murder today of at least fifteen people (14 of whom were elementary school children) in Texas, following on the heels of the murder a week and a half ago of one in a California church, following the racist murder of ten in Buffalo. And that’s not to mention the mass shooting that killed two in Chicago (in fact, a block north of my office) last week, or countless other acts of gun violence and murder we and our neighbors endure on a far-too-regular basis.

So what can we, as Latter-day Saints and as U.S. citizens and residents[fn1] do?

We should advocate for better laws, laws that will make these deadly shooting less likely. And I use “should” deliberately; the church encourages us to “play a role as responsible citizens in their communities, including becoming informed about issues and voting in elections” and to otherwise engage in the political process. And while the church has taken no formal stand on gun regulation, Pres. Nelson said, in the wake of the Parkland shooting, that “men have passed laws that allow guns to go to people who shouldn’t have them.” As Saints and as humans, we should recoil at the idea that someone can march in and murder elementary school children, or Black Buffalo residents doing their grocery shopping, or a physician worshiping at church.

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On Faking It

Earlier this week, the Salt Lake Tribune published a column entitled “If You’re Faking Your Latter-day Saint Faith … Why?” The basic gist is, the columnist is puzzled why people who don’t believe in the church still participate, rather than living authentically. He writes about these fakers (and, if he were a Salinger fan, I supposed he would have used “phonies“):

They go to church, they fulfill congregational callings, they pay tithing, they socialize with believers and participate with family members in every aspect of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, except for one.

They do not actually believe it to be the truth.

Call me naive, but this whole concept is tough to fit into my brain.

Why the heck would anyone pretend to believe in a religion that is as demanding, and often outright inconvenient, as the LDS Church is?

The column really got under my skin. In the first instance, it’s because I have no patience for people (inside and outside the church) who insist that, if you don’t buy into their conception of religion, you should leave. (I similarly have no patience for people who insist you have no choice but to stay—I’m equal opportunity impatient!)

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Living Our Values: FTSOY and Tucker Carlson

When I was a teenager, I, like so many of my cohort, had a copy of the church’s 1990 pamphlet For the Strength of Youth. The pamphlet has a section entitled “Media: Movies, Television, Radio, Videocassettes, Books, and Magazines.” It said, among other things:

Our Heavenly Father has counseled us as Latter-day Saints to “seek after anything virtuous, lovely, or of good report or praiseworthy” . . . . Whatever you read, listen to, or watch makes an impression on you. Public entertainment and the media can provide you with much positive experience. They can uplift and inspire you, teach you good and moral principles, and bring you closer to the beauty this world offers. But they can also make what is wrong and evil look normal, exciting, and acceptable.

***

Don’t attend or participate in any form of entertainment . . . that is vulgar, immoral, inappropriate, suggestive, or pornographic in any way. . . . Don’t be afraid to walk out of a movie, turn off a television set, or change a radio station if what’s being presented does not meet your Heavenly Father’s standards. And do not read books or magazines or look at pictures that are pornographic or that present immorality as acceptable.

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