When is Somebody’s Belief a Valid Question?

Jack Dempsey Having Some Fun with Harry Houdini

The term “Jack Mormon” was popularized by world champion boxer Jack Dempsey who, while born in the Church and remaining friendly towards it, wasn’t a practicing Latter-day Saint (sidebar, while a certain segment of Mormondom gets super excited every time one of us makes it into the A-list, relatively few people know that the Michael Jordan of the 1920s was a Latter-day Saint). 

Whether Jack Dempsey actually believed in golden plates, I don’t know, and besides being an interesting piece of trivia, I don’t particularly care. He was a boxer first, and his Church membership was very much a minor appendage to everything else in his life. 

However, people who are involved in Church-y things is a more complicated question. Occasionally some controversy will arise when a claim is made about what some visible figure in the Mormon space–not just somebody in the public space who happens to be Mormon–actually believes. Some people say it’s nobody’s business, while some people say that we all have our own biases and we should be transparent about them. 

While thinking through this question recently I came across a heuristic one of my friends posted that seemed to make sense: if you yourself invoke your Latter-day Saint status (or, I would add, you appeal to in-group frameworks), then the consumers of your opinions have the right to know what that means.  

How many times do we see something along the lines of “as a Latter-day Saint…” [insert criticism of the Church]”? The very fact that they are invoking their in-group status (often to leverage against the Church) means that they themselves think that it adds something to their argument, so it is disingenuous to cry foul when people critique or interrogate their use of the in-group markers that they are relying on. This is especially germane since I, along with others, sometimes suspect that the coyness about whether they actually believe is simply a transparent ploy to grant their opinions more cachet with the orthodox TBMs who constitute the primary fuel line for the Church. 

For point two about frameworks, I could in theory learn enough about Catholic canon law or Muslim theology to make an internally coherent, self-consistent argument about this or that particular of Catholic or Muslim theology, and while that’s fine as an exercise, if I’m trying to convince true believers of that point the fact that I don’t accept the underlying premises is not irrelevant, and if I don’t do it carefully it could come off as patronizing (although there may be a way to inoffensively do it as long as I’m upfront of my premises). Instead, since my actual belief about the issue is clearly grounded in something external to Catholic or Muslim theology, why don’t we have the discussion there? This is doubly true in the Latter-day Saint case because we don’t have anything nearly as systematic as, say, Muslim, Jewish, or Catholic law, so the line between internal law and outside ideological influences is more fuzzy, so non-believers can play the game for longer and be more Schroedinger’s Cat-like about where their arguments are coming from when discoursing with TBMs. 

Conversely, if you’re making a technical, empirical argument in, say, an academic forum, then it does seem in poor taste to make a point about the religious beliefs or lack thereof of the person you’re arguing with. This sword cuts both ways though. In my admittedly anecdotal experience it seems like independent scholars are more prone to fall into the habit of slandering people as “apologists” instead of addressing their arguments on their own merits (the fact that Robert Ritner at University of Chicago did so in a peer-reviewed journal was very off-kilter for that kind of publication). 

There’s a school of thought of “nothing about us without us.” For more narrowly tailored, empirically based research I’m not a fan of the sentiment. If I’m a population geneticist writing a paper arguing for a particular ancient migration pattern based on a new DNA technology, I don’t think it matters at all whether I’m part of the group I’m writing about. However, if we take several large steps back and start talking about, say, what the future of the Navajo Nation should look like, then yes, I do think an opinion on the subject coming from a Navajo is a different thing than one coming from a non-Navajo, and I would extend the same sentiment to communities predominantly formed by beliefs as much as to those predominantly formed by ancestry.

Once people start trying to influence a body of believers using internal language or identifiers, where they are actually coming from is a legitimate question, and when such people exhibit extreme sensitivity about their actual beliefs it sometimes leads me and others to assume that it’s so sensitive precisely because if they were fully open it would hurt their ability to influence the people they’re trying to influence.


16 comments for “When is Somebody’s Belief a Valid Question?

  1. Stephen, I’m curious to know what you think of mormonr’s use of “bias tags” to alert readers of their posts of the possible “bias” of the authors of the sources they quote. See https://mormonr.org/bias_tags. mormonr is a project of the B. H. Roberts Foundation. To me, the use of such attempts to simplify people seems problematic.

  2. Gary, you didn’t ask me, but I don’t like those bias tags at all. I can evaluate the source myself, thanks. Within any one of the tags, the amount of bias can vary from a straight shooter who considers all sides and calls it like they see it, to someone who can be counted on to praise or eviscerate the church no matter what. Putting a tag on a source encourages a snap judgement, rather than expecting us each to do the heavy lifting of really evaluating the source.

    The introduction suggests that the “LDS” tag indicate formal membership, but the definition in the table says it means they are an adherent, which is not the same thing. Given the other clarifications in the Comments column, the “Excommunicated” and “Resigned” tags should clarify that they refer to formal membership, and do not say anything about belief or degree of participation. Lots of excommunicated members have a testimony and attend every Sunday. But the biggest problem is that being excommunicated (or “LDS”) by itself doesn’t tell me a dang thing about a person’s bias. Also, it bugs me that adherence to or affiliation with other branches of the restoration are not considered at all.

  3. First of all, full disclosure, I sometimes do side work for BHR (although it pays so little given my skillset that it’s basically volunteer work, so I’m not exactly in it for the cheddar and the financial conflict of interest is negligible), and I don’t speak for BHR, yadda yadda.

    I was there “at the beginning” as it were when we were figuring it out. The “bias” tags idea was designed around primary sources and are supposed to rely on publicly available information. For example, if somebody is recording that Brigham Young transmuted into Joseph Smith, whether that person is a member or not is a relevant piece of information. We also tagged date of the source, whether it’s firsthand or second hand, etc., all relevant pieces of information. If people want something to outrage about, then fine, but it’s clear to anybody who actually spends time on the site in good faith and understands the context of the tagging scheme that it isn’t some nefarious plot to invalidate a perspective or police the faith, and anybody who reads too much into that is probably protesting too much frankly.

    So is it worth having? I think so. Does it presume to get at every little iota or contour of somebody’s belief? No, and it would take more time than it’s worth to do so.

  4. Stephen, it sounds like you’ve been arguing with annoying people on the Internet.

    Aboout “Nothing about us without us,” sometimes I’ve seen it go the opposite direction: “Great work, but this thesis on an obscure topic of 19th-century western U.S. history needs to cite non-LDS scholars too.” This was after failing to recognize the cited non-LDS scholars as such – the assumption seemed to be that non-LDS scholars are simply being objective, but LDS scholars can’t be 100% trusted.

  5. Judge the writing (better: trust the reader to discern it), not the writer. Anyone whose faith or membership status or sincerity has ever been miscategorized in public can tell you how destructive mislabeling can be.

    mormonr and all other such bias taggers should take a lesson from Leonard Arrington’s shock upon discovering the miscategorization in the the bias tagging of the old Historian’s Library. If the experts can’t get it right, what makes anybody think we should trust some random pseudonymous judge?

  6. I don’t know, Stephen. mormonr tags Peggy Fletcher Stack as both “Critic” and “LDS.” Same with Ben Park. Greg Prince is “LDS” and “Disaffected.” I’m tagged as “Resigned,” “Disaffected,” and “Critic.” I’ve never resigned from the church. And I personally don’t consider myself either “disaffected” or “critic.” I’ve never published on how I may or may not define myself in regards to the church. But clearly someone else, who doesn’t know me, feels comfortable reducing me to an adjective/noun. I honestly don’t know how this is helpful or even well intentioned. (I hope I’m not protesting too much.)

  7. I don’t know enough about the people you just listed to engage in some back-and-forth on particulars, but generally speaking re the critic issue: a critic is somebody who criticizes. Of course it’s a matter of gradation between somebody who points out things occasionally and somebody for whom it’s more a active part of what they do. So if someone were to go through all that you, Benjamin Park, Greg Prince, and Peggy Stack have written and conclude that they don’t actively criticize the Church (whether its policies or doctrines), then you’re right that that’s in error (and if it’s really bothering you, BHR has an email and considers suggestions/corrections).

    But yes, its shortcomings notwithstanding I think the “critic” label is worthwhile. If something is written by Thomas Sharp or ED Howe, I think it’s fine having a tag pointing out that they’re critics, and if somebody is attacking the Church’s policies in the same vein that a Sharp or Howe criticized its religious precepts, then yes, I think they’re in the same category as “critics.” Whether you think that criticism is warranted or not is up to the reader. For example, I think early very stage Godbeites had some good points about Brigham Young needing to let up off the command-and-control economy (although you’d know more about that than I would), but they were still “critics” by any reasonable definition.

  8. The reality is that the church claims 16 million members. They don’t caveat this in any way, shape, or form.

    The church also polices the memberships via the excommunication process.

    So if someone’s name is on church records, then they are a member. Even if that includes someone that shot people in a CO night club, someone you disagreed with on the internet, or someone who did not follow the prophet’s counsel to get vaccinated and wear a mask during a global pandemic.

    If you would like to apply for the strengthening the members committee, I’m sure the church is always taking applications.

  9. gary – thanks for the correction. our database of primary source records is in its early stages, and we are anxious to correct mistakes. i’ll send you an email to get this sorted out. cheers.

  10. There are some weird ideas out there and you seem to be saying a person can’t question those ideas unless he believes them?
    We had a testimony on Sunday where a person said that using numbers on vanity plates instead of letters (MY PL8 for example) is deception and equivalent to lying, and breaking one of the big 10.

    How do people who believe trump lies ever get the truth if they only believe other trumpers?

  11. This article and the similar article on public square https://publicsquaremag.org/media-education/social-media/the-wheat-and-tares-parable-in-the-social-media-age/ made me wonder whether “card carrying members” could be issued an actual card as a short cut for the sorts of judgements that need to be made about someone’s LDS bona fides. I’m envisioning a card issued by the church with check boxes for things like “full tithe payer,” “does not watch football on Sundays,” “listens to all sessions of General Conference,” “watches all sessions of general conference,” “avoids energy drinks,” “wears garments during exercise,” “served fulltime Mission,” “served in leadership positions during fulltime mission,” “former AP, etc. There are probably others but you get the idea.

  12. @Jesse – Its called a temple rec. To me “card carrying” has always meant recommend holder. One could assume a certain level of belief knowing they have a recommend but not an exact science as you know.

    @Geoff – Your vanity plate story is why I try to avoid testimony meetings….

    @Stephen – I agree with you and think we must “consider the source” when we are discussing whatever. For example I just read a document written by David Whitmer. Interesting stuff but one must know that he left the church and may have a chip on his shoulder so reader beware. Doesn’t mean I throw out everything DW says, but knowing his history helps make sense of what he was writing/feeling about JS and the church. I still find his view fascinating to read.

    @Gary – I dont think a member with a different view of main stream lds belief should be labeled “Critic” either. Maybe “non traditional” or “different view”. We so called critics could be right about some issues/policy not accepted by the church leaders currently but changed by the church to the critics view and now they are not a critic? Sam Young comes to mind. It appears that the church made changes that he was being critical about, after they ex’d him for being critical. Huh? Head scratcher to me. But I am being critical. :) I am not saying Sam was ex’d only because of this issue, I have no idea the real reason. He was just critical about bishop interviews and the church booted him and then made changes to bishop interview policies.

  13. Whenever I make a presentation at a professional conference or a religion symposium, I think it is important to provide info about my background. Past jobs, academic training, area of expertise, etc. I don’t even mind mentioning my religious affiliation (not active, contemplating leaving) if relevant. That way the other participants can assess my possible prejudices. They can better evaluate my conclusions. I’m human, all writers are impacted by their personal biases. If some pseudo-intellectual group wants to pigeonhole me, I don’t give a dam (I’m a water engineer). If you feel I need a TR to be taken seriously, that’s okay with me.

  14. REC911,

    Regarding Sam Young’s excommunication, your timeline is in the wrong order. When Sam expressed concerns about the interview process with youth, the Church made changes in June of 2018. He was excommunicated three months AFTER those announced changes because he became even more antagonistic. To him, those changes weren’t good enough because he wanted the church to do away with youth interviews altogether (which is highly absurd and unrealistic).

    With him saying things like “my church leaders aren’t on the covenant path” and “the LDS Church is the most extreme, unsafe church in America,” I’m not at all surprised that he was excommunicated. Check out his social media and you’ll see how much of a jerk he has become.

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