Next month, I’m flying to Salt Lake City to attend the Annual Meeting of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion to present some of my work about social media, religion, and the far right. I’ll be presenting on three different projects at SSSR—this was biting off more than I could chew, but since two of them connect with Mormonism, Salt Lake suggested the possibility of a larger-than-usual audience for that work, so there you go. Of the three projects, one that I’m particularly interested in is some analysis I’m doing of Mormon groups on the far-right social media platform Gab. This has turned into an interesting exploration of what boundaries are firm and what boundaries are porous in Mormon (social and religious) spaces. For example, many of the posts in these Mormon groups are unobjectionable on their own, simply sharing Mormon humor or memes; yet, what’s most interesting about these posts is the implicit compatibility betwteen Mormon groups and the undeniably far-right nature of the overall Gab platform. Even if they don’t say it out loud, these folks clearly see no objection or tension between being a faithful Latter-day Saint and participating in a social media platform that has no interest in policing its users when it “establish[es] LGBTQ+ individuals as abonimations” and otherwise leans hard into the contemporary far right. In contrast, there’s also activity in these groups implicitly criticizing Latter-day Saint leaders (who are traditionally revered as “prophets, seers, and revelators”) for encouraging Latter-day Saints to wear masks and get vaccinated against COVID-19. So, prosocial pandemic behavior crosses a firm line, but spending time on Gab does not.
This is still a work in progress, but what I’ve seen so far isn’t terribly surprising. In my most recent (and, well, first) publication on far-right online Mormonism, Amy Chapman and I wrote the following:
if the affinity space framework refrains from certain observations, it is only to draw attention to other phenomena. Thus, we set aside the question being asked by many DezNat observers to ask other questions that we argue are more important for understanding the movement in the context of (online) Mormonism. Whatever the ontology and purpose of the DezNat movement or its individual members, the presence of meaning-making practices common to both red pill communities and to mainstream Mormonism suggests that this hashtag is a space in which the affinity spaces associated with both groups overlap. While this conclusion is limited to discussions about a single Twitter hashtag, our framework also invites us to ask about other shared practices and overlapping spaces. For example, when BYU religion professor Hank Smith used his Twitter account to call a gay BYU student “Korihor” (a reference to a Book of Mormon anti-Christ; see Tanner 2021), it was in implicit approval of DezNat participants’ criticism of the same student. Smith’s seeming support for a DezNat argument thereby raises questions about the extent to which mainstream conservative spaces on Mormon Twitter overlap with DezNat—which, in turn, clearly overlaps with far-right and aggressively anti-feminist spaces on the internet.
Elsewhere in the paper, we briefly call attention to the ways that Latter-day Saint leadership has contributed to this by setting firm boundaries in some areas but declining to do so elsewhere. The past couple of weeks have provided an excellent example of this—one that I can’t help but write about now and may work into my SSSR presentation. As history professor Benjamin E. Park recently wrote for Slate:
the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints shocked people who follow American conservatism after a spokesperson issued a statement distancing the institution from Tim Ballard, the founder of Operation Underground Railroad and subject of the breakout summer hit film Sound of Freedom. Ballard had “betrayed his friendship” with a prominent LDS leader, the statement to Vice declared, and his fundraising activities were deemed “morally unacceptable.”
It was a rare and stunning rebuke for a church that rarely speaks out about individual members. It was also a blow to Ballard, a rising star rumored to be eyeing the Utah Senate seat that is opening up due to Mitt Romney’s decision to retire. Then, on Monday, Vice revealed that Ballard’s resignation from Operation Underground Railroad earlier this year came after an internal investigation into claims of sexual misconduct involving seven female employees.
Yet, the LDS Church’s statement—as harsh as it was—was only delivered to Vice for its reporting on the subject. It was not released through the official (and rather active) Church Newsroom site run by Latter-day Saint PR. This has led to unfounded speculation that Vice made up the Church’s statement, that it was a PR employee gone rogue, or something else. While there’s no basis to this speculation, and while an official news release from the Church might not change the minds of Mormons who are more committed to the far right than to their own church leaders (see above, re: vaccines), it’s not hard to see how the Church’s decision to make the statement to reporters but not through its own PR people creates space for far-right Mormons to continue to think that Ballard is still in the good graces of Latter-day Saint leaders.
What makes this example all the more compelling is what was recently published as an official news release: President of Hungary Katalin Novák’s recent visit to Utah, where she addressed students at BYU and met with the governing Latter-day Saint First Presidency. I don’t know a lot about Hungarian politics, and I know even less about President Novák, but even a quick skim of Wikipedia suggests that she’s a close political ally of Viktor Orbán: a member of his party, a minister in one of his previous governments, and his nominee for the presidency. It would be ignorant—and misogynist—to assume that Novák takes orders from Orbán and thinks just like him on every issue, but I think that Orbán is enough of a bad guy that someone with this proximity to him ought to raise a yellow flag.
As an example, given the LDS Church’s positions on gender and sexuality, it’s not surprising to see a passage like this in the official news release:
Hungary’s constitution promotes traditional marriage between a man and a woman. “We have a constitution which stands for the family values,” President Novák said.
In fact, as Park discussed with hosts Peggy Fletcher Stack and Dave Noyce on this week’s excellent episode of the Salt Lake Tribune’s Mormon Land podcast:
I don’t think it’s rare or unheard of for the church to get specific on issues. How frequently do they denounce LGBTQ legislation or issues like that? I think that the fact that the church is often more specific when denouncing, “progressive causes” and more general when denouncing conservative problems is one of the factors that led to the present moment.
Indeed, “promotes traditional marriage” seems to be a whitewashed look at LGBT rights in Hungary, including a 2021 anti-LGBT law that Novák presumably supported as a member of Orbán’s cabinet. Does the LDS Church understand “family values” in the same way that the Fidesz party does? Is it (still) in favor of a U.S. constitutional amendment defining marriage between a man and a woman (as it is in Hungary)? Is it in favor of constitutional amendments barring same-sex individuals or couples from adopting children or stepchildren (in the way that the Hungarian constitution does)? Maybe not! The LDS Church is conservative, but it’s also usually pretty savvy, and at least in an American context, it seems to have conceded that these kinds of steps aren’t going to get a lot of traction. Yet, for implicit praise of Katalin Novák to appear on the LDS PR website and explicit criticism of Tim Ballard to not appear so continues the same kind of boundary maintenance practices that lead to Latter-day Saints on Gab. The pattern here is being set at the highest levels.
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