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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Lafferty, Posse Comitatus and Mormon Remix Culture

Yesterday, Hulu released the first two episodes of Under the Banner of Heaven, an Andrew Garfield-led adaptation of Krakauer’s book by the same name.

And honestly, I don’t have anything to say about it. I haven’t had time to watch it and, in any event, I’m not a television critic. (If you want a set of insightful and sophisticated responses, Juvenile Instructor has you covered!)

But its renewed salience brings up something that I think Krakauer gets wrong about Mormonism. But the thing is, it’s also something most Mormons get wrong about Mormonism: there’s a sense that Mormonism exceptionalism. For critics of the church, that can mean that the bad things about Mormonism are unique to Mormon beliefs and culture. For members, it can mean that the good things are revelatory and unique to us, the result of direct revelation.

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It’s Not Taxes

A popular legal Twitter personality has an evergreen tweet: “It’s not RICO.” See, RICO (the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act) has become a super-popular rhetorical crime. Trump violated RICO; antifa violated RICO; I’m probably violating RICO just by posting this!

The thing is, RICO is a very narrowly-tailored law. There are specific criteria a crime has to meet to violate RICO and basically, if you hear someone say that somebody else violated RICO, you can be about 99% sure not only that they’re wrong, but that they have absolutely no idea what they’re talking about.

I thought about that the other day when a friend pointed me to a clip from a popular Mormon-themed podcast.[fn1] In the clip, the podcaster makes a blockbuster announcement: the podcaster has just discovered why the church builds so many temples. Specifically, the podcaster was told by an “inside source”:

It turns out that for the church to maintain its tax-exempt status, for the Mormon church to maintain its tax-exempt status as a charity or as a church, it has to do something with its money. And so building temples is one of the major ways the church can spend a boatload of money with all this cash that it keeps collecting and stay in business and be perceived as a charitable institution.

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Celebrating BYU’s Dr. Ray Smith

When I was 2 or 3 years old, my grandparents gave me some money for my birthday. My parents took me to a toy store and, they tell me, I disappeared. Ten minutes later I was back with a plastic toy saxophone.

My mom started giving me piano lessons when I was 5 and, eventually, I transitioned to a professional teacher. Then, in fifth grade, I picked up the saxophone. My dad had played briefly when he was a kid and I started on his alto.

I absolutely fell in love with the saxophone. (I still love it, to be honest.) In middle school, I joined the 0 period jazz band, directed by Glenn Miller superfan (and eventual convert to the church) Karl Fitch. (Thanks, Mr. Fitch!) At a jazz band concert I heard a classmate a year ahead of me play a solo on tenor and I became a tenor sax player.

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Molech, Transgender Children, and the Idol of Politics

The Hebrew Bible does not mince words about the worship of Molech. Per Leviticus, anybody in the land of Israel who gave their children to Molech was to be put to death; not only that, God would “set my face against that man, and will cut him off from among his people.” In fact, two chapters earlier we read that one reason God expelled the Cananites from their land was because the Cananites let their children “pass through the fire to Molech.” Leviticus 18 makes clear that the expulsion is not just in the past tense; if the Israelites offer their children to Molech, they too will be spewed out of the land and cut off from God.

So who was Molech? According to the notes in my Jewish Study Bible, Molech was the Hebrew name for a Near Eastern god associated with the netherworld. Biblical tradition is uniform that worshiping Molech involved the sacrifice of children. Milton paints a devastating picture of Molech, an abomination and “horrid King besmear’d with blood/Of human sacrifice, and parents tears,/Though for the noyse of Drums and Timbrels loud/Thir childrens cries unheard, that past through fire/To his grim Idol.”

Today, of course, we don’t literally kill our children to worship various deities. But also, we don’t limit our reading of scripture to the narrowest, most literal interpretation possible. Famously, Pres. Kimball virtually canonized[fn1] the idea that the biblical injunction against idolatry isn’t merely an injunction against worshiping gods other than God. Rather, “[w]hatever thing a man sets his heart and his trust in most is his god; and if his god doesn’t also happen to be the true and living God of Israel, that man is laboring in idolatry.” He expressly points to the wealth we have accumulated as our new false god.

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Tomorrow Is Ash Wednesday

Pączki from Familiar Bakery in Chicago

Which means that today is Fat Tuesday.

I’ve written before about how, since moving to Chicago, my family has wholeheartedly embraced the Chicago-by-way-of-Poland Fat Tuesday tradition of Pączki Day. And, in fact, I’m sitting at home[fn1] with six pączki in a box on my counter, with however many more my wife is bringing home after work (she was going to hit at least two Polish bakeries on the way to and from work).

But I’m not posting this to boast about how many pączki I’m going to eat today (or, at least, I’m not posting this solely to boast about how many I’m going to eat); rather, I spent this morning thinking about the tension in Christianity between asceticism and consumption.

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88 Keys and the Limits of “Chopsticks”

I thought I’d do one last post on Brad Wilcox’s now-infamous youth fireside. Tuesday I wrote about his offensive take on race and the priesthood (for which he has since apologized, though on the question of its sincerity ymmv). Yesterday I posted about the problems with his expressed views on gender. And today I’m going to look at what he said about other religions.

But today’s post is going to be a little different. Because at one point, he invoked a metaphor. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, he said, is like a piano keyboard.

Some churches play a few notes, some churches play several octaves, but we’re the only church that has a whole piano. So when we are saying, “We’re the only true church,” we’re just inviting people to come and see what we can add to the truths that already fill their lives.

A few seconds later, he adds that he doesn’t “want to lose a whole piano. You walk away from the church, say goodbye to the whole piano. Have fun playing ‘Chopsticks‘ the rest of your life.”

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Brad Wilcox and Institutional Problems, Part 2

Monday night, I saw a clip on Twitter of Young Men general presidency member Brad Wilcox making a tremendously racist statement in a youth fireside. I posted about it yesterday and, in the comments, people told me it wasn’t just racism. There was misogyny and religious bigotry mixed in too.

So last night I looked at a little more of his address and, well, it too is not good. So today I’m going to add a little. I’ll note that I still haven’t watched the whole thing and today’s post will be a lot shorter, in large part because I have to do actual work that I get paid for; thus, I’m going to pull out one or two parts.

Today’s post won’t be overshadowed by questions of the sincerity of the apology though because, unlike his statements on race and the priesthood, there has been no apology.

And with that, here we go:

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“Lead Out in Abandoning Attitudes and Actions of Prejudice”

Note: between when I drafted this post and when I scheduled it to go live, Bro. Wilcox apologized for his statement. And it’s a real-deal kind of apology, not a squishy avoiding-blame one; in fact, it’s a model for one step of precisely what I hoped for. I’m still going to posting for two reasons. First, while apology is a critical part of repenting, it is not the only step. And second, I don’t think this was primarily an individual problem–there is an underlying institutional problem that his comments highlighted and his apology didn’t and couldn’t change. But I’m making some changes to what I previously wrote in light of his apology.

Last weekend, Bradley Wilcox, second counselor in the Young Men’s general presidency and associate teaching professor of ancient scripture at BYU-Provo, gave a youth fireside in Alpine, UT. Somewhere in the fireside he asked, rhetorically, why Black church members didn’t get the priesthood until 1978. (To be clear, his framing of the question is wrong: in the first decades of the church, a number of Black men received the priesthood; it wasn’t until 1852 that Brigham Young imposed the priesthood-and-temple ban on Black members.)

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Handbook Changes: Music at Church

When I was in high school, I volunteered to have my saxophone quartet play a special musical number in sacrament meeting.

My offer was declined.

I suspect it was declined on church policy grounds. The 1989 Handbook—the one that would have been in effect when I was in high school—didn’t have explicit policies on the types of music and the types of instruments permitted in sacrament meeting; rather, it limited its guidance to the requirement that “[m]usic and musical texts are to be sacred, dignified, and otherwise suitable for a Latter-day Saint meeting.”

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Butts in the Pews(?)

Photo by Drew Murphy on Unsplash

Over the last month or so, I’ve heard from several family members and friends that their wards are trying to wind down online church. There are variations, of course, everything from announcing that there will be no more Zoom church to making the link available only to people who get approval from the bishop (presumably because of health or familial issues).

I’m not clear on whether these are ward, stake, area, or general church initiatives. But I am clear that this is a terrible idea, made more terrible because nobody has explained the underlying reasons to restrict or eliminate online church.

The most immediate reason it’s a terrible idea is the current omicron wave, which sickened as many as 1 million people Monday alone, is quickly filling up our hospitals, and is just as quickly shutting our schools.

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The Church, the State (of Utah), and Welfare

On Thursday, ProPublica and the Salt Lake Tribune published a fascinating article detailing a link between Utah, the church, and welfare payments. I assume most readers here have already read it. If not, you really need to read it. Maybe before reading this post but, if not before, definitely right after.

The tl;dr of the article is this: since about 2009, Utah has underspent on its social safety net. Also, based on an MOU (Memorandum of Understanding) it signed with the church, it has counted volunteer hours performed for the church in calculating how much it has spent.

Reading the article the first time, though, left me with questions. And it turns out I’m not the only one who didn’t entirely understand what was going on: on Friday, the Editorial Board of the Tribune published an unsigned op-ed, the heart of which were these three paragraphs:

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Religion and Abortion

As I type this post, the Supreme Court is listening to arguments in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. In that case, JWHO is challenging a Mississippi law that bans [updated] most abortions in the state after fifteen weeks of gestation (with no exception for rape or incest). Mississippi, on the other hand, is asking the Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade (and,, in fact, appears to have passed its law precisely because it thought the Supreme Court would do so).

There’s a popular narrative in the U.S. that there is a single religious view on abortion: that it’s wrong and should be banned. But that view is both overly-simplistic and wrong. There is an enormous range of religious views on abortion. On the one hand, Catholicism opposes abortion, along with capital punishment and the death penalty, as part of its dedication to the sanctity of human life.

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Vaccines Approved for 5-11-Year-Olds in the U.S.

Last Friday, the FDA authorized the emergency use of the Pfizer vaccines for children ages 5-11. Then, Tuesday night, the CDC recommended the vaccine for children.

Unfortunately, that approval happened simultaneously with a bunch of closely-watched elections. Wednesday morning, most news sites did mention the vaccine’s approval, but those stories were buried underneath breathless election stories. I found them but I only found them because I actively looked for them.

So just so our U.S. readers don’t miss the news: if you have a child five years old or older, your child can now get vaccinated against Covid!

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“Severe, Pervasive, and Objectively Offensive Race-Based Harassment”

Photo by Rolande PG on Unsplash

Yesterday the Salt Lake Tribune reported on the end of a Department of Justice investigation into the Davis School District in Utah. And frankly, its findings were disgusting. You can (and should) read the DOJ’s report here, but in summary, but in summary, the DOJ found “severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive race-based harassment” in Davis schools by students and staff. A taste of the kinds of harassment Black students had to deal with: white students called them

monkeys or apes and said that their skin was dirty or looked like feces. Peers taunted Black students by making monkey noises at them, touching and pulling their hair without permission, repeatedly referencing slavery and lynching, and telling Black students “go pick cotton” and “you are my slave.” Harassment related to slavery increased when schools taught the subject, which some Black students felt was not taught in a respectful or considerate manner. White and other non-Black students demanded that Black students give them an “N-Word Pass,” which non-Black students claimed gave them permission to use the n-word with impunity, including to and around Black students. If Black students resisted these demands, they were sometimes threatened or physically assaulted.

(Note that the report also discusses anti-Asian discrimination.)

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Do Church Members Have a Scriptural Obligation to Revere Christopher Columbus?

That’s quite the lengthy post title, right? Fortunately, the answer is far more succinct:

No.

Of course, I can elaborate too. I base that no on two considerations. First, there’s no textual reason to believe that Nephi sees Columbus in the vision he recounts in 1 Ne. 13. Second, whether it refers to Columbus or not (and see point 1), it doesn’t say anything about the person being an exemplar or in any way worth of our respect, emulation, or celebration.

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Mitt Romney, the Expanded EITC and Marriage Penalties

On Thursday, Utah Senator Mitt Romney sent a letter, signed by him and 34 of his Republican colleagues, to Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Finance Committee Chair Ron Wyden. In the letter, he objects to marriage penalties built into the House’s reconciliation bill, marriage penalties, he claims, that are exacerbated by the changes made to the earned income tax credit (the “EITC”). He concludes his letter saying, “We believe that marriage is a vital social good. It is misguided and unfair for the government to build bigger barriers for couples to marry.”So is Sen. Romney right? Does the reconciliation bill (available here) increase marriage penalties and disincentivize marriage?

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James Huntsman Lawsuit Dismissed

A quick follow-up to one of my previous posts: a federal judge dismissed James Huntsman’s fraud lawsuit against the church on Friday.

This may not have been an absolutely forgone conclusion, but it comes pretty close to one. Remember, Huntsman was suing to get his tithing money back from the church. That’s a tough ask in the first place because, other than conditional gifts, US law treats charitable donations as belonging to the recipient. Just because you later regret having made the donation doesn’t mean you can rescind it.

So Huntsman alleged that the church had fraudulently induced him to pay tithing. He relied, he said, on several statements from the church that it did not using tithing money to build City Creek when, in fact, it did use tithing money to build City Creek.

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On “Hot Drinks”

I suspect that we’ll never find a definitive explanation of how the proscribed “hot drinks” in D&C 89 came to be interpreted by the church as referring purely and solely to tea and coffee. Today, of course, that is the church’s official interpretation of what “hot drinks” means, but early in the history of the D&C that wasn’t entirely obvious.

In fact, in January 1838—almost five years after Joseph’s receipt of the revelation—prominent members of the church on the high council disagreed about whether the Word of Wisdom’s invocation of “hot drinks” referred to tea and coffee. During a high council meeting, W.W. Phelps said he had not broken the Word of Wisdom. Oliver Cowdery, by contrast, said he had drunk tea three times a day during the winter as a result of his poor health. David and John Whitmer piped in that they didn’t drink tea or coffee, but also that they didn’t consider either to be hot drinks as referred to in Joseph’s revelation.

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The Texas Abortion Ban and the Death of Constitutional Rights

Got your attention? Great!

As I’m sure you’ve heard, the Supreme Court didn’t stop a Texas law that bans abortions performed by Texas physicians after six weeks from going into effect.

The Texas law is clearly unconstitutional. Whether or not you think the right to abortion should be a constitutional right, there is no question under Supreme Court jurisprudence that it is. And the Supreme Court has never allowed a six-week abortion ban to go into effect before, even temporarily.

So what’s different about this Texas ban? Enforcement. Usually statutes that prohibit abortion are enforced by the state government. That means that procedurally, pre-enforcement challenges are straightforward: you sue the government, which would enforce the law, and your case works its way through the court system. If the courts think you have a reasonable chance of winning, they can issue an injunction, preventing the law from going into effect until there has been a full hearing.

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I Want It Back

There are two recent lawsuits filed against the LDS church that are worth taking a look at. Both lawsuits demand that the church return donations to the donor (or the donor’s heirs).

And both face a major impediment: as a general rule, if you make a charitable donation, you can’t get that donation back. And that’s the case even if the you have a falling out with the charitable organization. In fact, that’s the case even if the charitable organization uses your gift in a way that you, personally, find offensive. (In that case, you can certainly stop making charitable donations in the future, of course. But you don’t get your prior donations back.)

There are exceptions to this general rule, of course. And the plaintiffs in the two cases try to get around the rule by using two different exceptions.

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Let’s Talk About Money

I don’t have any idea if $100 billion is a good amount for the church to have in its endowment. Personally, I tend to think, given its revenue and expenditures, that the number is high. At least as long as it continues to bring in a significant amount of tithing annually, it feels to me like it doesn’t need a cushion quite that big.

But the thing is, I don’t know. Church leaders are completely opaque in how they’ve made their investment/spending decisions. And to be honest, I suspect that it has been a decision only in the loosest sense. Inertia is a powerful force and decisions made 20 years ago carry a lot of weight.

But arguably the church should communicate its financial thinking better. And I don’t mean that the church needs to tell members exactly how much it has in assets (though it certainly could). But I believe that if the church viewed members as stakeholders, it could and would communicate its thinking to us. What considerations has it made in deciding whether to spend or invest? How did it decide how much it needed for current expenditures and for future expenditures.

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Masks and the First Amendment

Photo by Kyle Austin on Unsplash

Effective today, the city of Chicago has reinstituted an indoor mask mandate. And we’re not alone: Washington state and Washington, D.C. have them. Dallas appears to have one. Benton County in Oregon has one. And I’m sure there are others and, in light of the Delta variant and the U.S.’s not-so-impressive vaccinate rate, there will be others.

A week ago, the First Presidency sent a letter to all members of the church encouraging us to get vaccinated and wear masks at indoor meetings where we couldn’t social distance.

What does this mean for our church meetings? Well, in light of the First Presidency’s guidance, I would have thought it would be uncontroversial: we’ll return to requiring masks in our meetings, at least in places that have implemented mask mandates.

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Regrading the Church’s Pandemic Response

Or maybe: awarding the Church’s pandemic response some extra credit.

Last week I wrote that the church had done a poor job encouraging members to get vaccinated against Covid. While leaders had shared posts of themselves getting vaccinated and had put out language encouraging vaccination broadly, it had not been as direct as it is capable of being.

But I’m always happy to offer extra credit to bring a struggling grade up and today the church has earned some extra credit. In a message sent to members around the world[fn1] and posted on the Newsroom website, the First Presidency “urge[s]” members to get vaccinated against Covid, pointing out that the vaccines “have proven to be both safe and effective.”

And it goes further: it also urges the use of face masks in public meetings where members can’t distance.

Now it’s on members; the church leadership has made a clear and unequivocal statement that it takes Covid seriously and that, through vaccination and mask-wearing, we can beat Covid back. Will we respond to their clear guidance?

I certainly hope so.


[fn1] It hasn’t hit my inbox yet, but I trust that, at the very least, it’ll be there soon.

Grading the Church’s Pandemic Response

Almost a year and a half into the pandemic, I’ve been thinking about how the church has responded to it. And [deeply fatherly voice]: I’m so disappointed.

It didn’t have to be this way, of course. The church started out great, cancelling all church meetings at the front end of when we (in the U.S., anyway) realized this was a serious problem. But since then, it hasn’t done a lot to deal with this unprecedented (in recent memory, anyway) worldwide issue.

There are two main areas that really stoke my fatherly disappointment: vaccines and the return to the status quo.

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HIPAA and the Church

Just to be clear, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (“HIPAA”)[fn1] does not prevent your bishop from asking you about your vaccination status. It doesn’t prevent your ward from doing contact tracing and informing people who attended church that someone had Covid at a meeting you attended. It doesn’t prevent the ward from asking (or requiring) attendees to wear masks.[fn2]

And look, I guess it’s fair to be a little scared. HIPAA does provide that a “person who knowingly and in violation of this part … discloses individually identifiable health information to another person[] shall be punished” with fines and potential imprisonment.

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The Child Tax Credit and You

The American Rescue Plan, signed by President Biden in March, includes a lot of things. For many U.S. readers of this blog, perhaps the most notable and salient is that it increased the child tax credit and, starting next month, will send monthly checks for a portion of the credit to taxpayers.

I wrote about the details over on the Surly Subgroup, but wanted to highlight a couple things about it for a specifically Mormon audience. It isn’t, of course, particular to Mormons but, falling birthrates[fn1] notwithstanding, we still tend to have (marginally) more children than the average American. Which means that the child tax credit, and its prepayment, are going to be relevant to many of us.

Of course, to understand what’s going on, we need to answer a couple questions.

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Believing in the Big Lie

Almost exactly a month ago, the Public Religion Research Institute released a survey looking at partisan and religious belief in the lie that the 2020 election was stolen from Donald Trump.

To be clear, the assertion that the election was stolen is stupid. The only basis for the assertion is that people can formulate the concept in a (grammatically) coherent way. Donald Trump’s attorneys had dozens of opportunities to assert that there was something illegal about the election in court but were unable to convince judges of any political persuasion. State Attorneys General support the fairness of the election. The Big Lie is, precisely, a lie.

And who believes it? According to the PRRI survey, 61% of white Evangelical Christians. But not that far behind them?

Mormons. Forty-six percent of members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (in the United States) mostly or completely agree that the 2020 election was stolen from Donald Trump.

This represents an existential threat to the future of Mormonism.

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