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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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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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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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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$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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The Role of Reconciliation

Photo by D. Clark on Unsplash

M. David Huston lives and works in the Washington DC metro area. He is a husband and father of four who has previously written for poetry, international affairs, and LDS-related publications.

Pope Francis’s visit to Canada in July was a lesson in the importance of acknowledging and accepting responsibility for past missteps as part of moving into world of a new possibilities.  As has been widely reported, Pope Francis’s visit was seeking to address the abuse of indigenous/first nation groups at the hands of Christians generally and Catholics specifically.  Though news reports earlier this year of the discovery of nearly 170 unmarked graves on the grounds of a residential school for first nation children might have been the catalyst for this specific visit, the history of Christendom’s mistreatment of indigenous peoples (in the Americas, but also in many other parts of the world including Africa) is undisputed.  Many Christian colonists and explorers terrorized and subjugated those with whom they came into contact, and often committed these terrible acts on the basis of now-discredited theological ideas. 

Now, to be clear, Pope Francis did not directly do the things for which he apologized, nor did the Catholic church over which he now presides.  He did not authorize the colonization of Canada by Catholic adherents. He did not dedicate funds to the building of the now-closed boarding schools where the graves were found. All those actions were before his time.  And yet Pope Francis still sought reconciliation?  Why?

The answer is, I believe, found in the Sermon on the Mount. 

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Bishops on Abortion

Chris Kimball is a friend of BCC and former bishop.

INTRODUCTION

Abortion is controversial. Controversy presents an opportunity and challenge for hard thinking. This is one small corner of the hard thinking, focused on the role and practice of a bishop in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. This is not a global statement or manifesto, and not intended as an invitation to debate all the issues with abortion. 

As an introduction, here is the LDS Church’s position from the General Handbook of Instructions as of September 2, 2022, followed by my personal views and position.

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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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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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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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Chariots of Fire

Jessica Moss is a Ph.D. student at Claremont Graduate University

And when the servant of the man of God was risen early, and gone forth, behold, an host compassed the city both with horses and chariots. And his servant said unto him, Alas, my master! how shall we do?

And he answered, Fear not: for they that be with us are more than they that be with them.

And Elisha prayed, and said, Lord, I pray thee, open his eyes, that he may see. And the Lord opened the eyes of the young man; and he saw: and, behold, the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire round about Elisha.

2 Kings 6:15-17

The few times that I have heard the story of Elisha and his servant, found in 2 Kings 6, the servant is likened unto us – the members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints or to Christians in general.  The narrative is often as follows: we are a small and oppressed group that is being persecuted by the big bad world, out there. I understand the draw of this position. It helps us build solidarity, it motivates faith in the divine, but it also sets us up as innocent.  We are not always innocent.

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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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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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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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Gender and the LDS Church in the Global South, Part 1

Women dancing, Fiji, photo by author

I didn’t suspect that inviting the missionaries for dinner would launch a research project.  

While we were eating, the Fijian missionary mentioned that showing good table manners in her home meant that her dad (the LDS bishop) and brothers ate first. After the men and boys had eaten, her mom and sisters ate the leftovers. 

Because I was interested, I wrote down her exact quote: “I have four sisters and three brothers. My brothers are good at eating. I wished there to be enough.” With good humor, she made this comment with a laugh and her head held high. 

“I have four sisters and three brothers. My brothers are good at eating. I wished there to be enough.”

Talking with this missionary about the gender-based rules and traditions in her culture made me wonder how the gendered practices of the church are interpreted in places like her Latter-Day Saint home and her Latter-Day Saint ward.

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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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