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Russell Stevenson: #DezNat philosophy is damaging to the LDS Church

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Here are some of the Twitter postings by #DezNat users, who claim they are defending The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints from “apostates.”

Brigham Young University has recently released its report on Race, Equity, and Belonging, with hopes of producing a campus environment that proactively seeks to welcome those from ethnically minoritized communities. In this report, the authors take particular care to identify a specific movement that has proven to be unsettling, unwelcoming, and often hostile to ethnic minorities at Brigham Young University.

Many ethnic minorities, the report observes, experience “a lot of stress regarding the rise of alt-right movements (e.g. DezNat)” and experience “worries about things that might be said or done in classrooms, at church, etc.”

Known by the hashtag #DezNat, this alt-right-style movement brands themselves as “unapologetically” Latter-day Saint, with a commitment to church leaders that is articulated in terms of bowie knives and the rhetoric of violence. The hashtag’s founder, J.P. Bellum, bills his movement as straightforward: “While the questions, conditions, and problems of the world may be myriad, our response is simple — we follow the prophet.”

But those who watch this movement know that its roots run much deeper than this slogan.

While #DezNat is not the only faction worthy of critical inquiry, its efforts are ongoing, present and damaging. But respectable Latter-day Saints ought to know better than to affiliate themselves with factional movements within the faith. It will, not may, come with costs. It alienates Black people, celebrates violence (the movement’s symbol is a bowie knife), and undermines the church’s claims to political neutrality.

The occasional chestnut #DezNat offers to its readers falters in the face of the extremities to which its adherents are willing to reach. And these are not outliers from people projecting their own beliefs onto the movement. A #DezNat tweeter appropriated the infamous “14word” white supremacist slogan coined by David Lane as an article of his faith. Another tweeter has declared that “those who think Church doctrines, policies, and prophets were racist” should, “Get outta my church.” Others join together to use the n-word to provoke Black commenters.

When presented with an account he considered to be”fake,” #DezNat founder J.P. Bellum snipped that they should “Blood atone fake #DezNat accounts.” Such voices are as angry, as bitter, as ill-informed as the enemies they claim to fight. These voices are not the heroes they tell themselves — and Twitter — that they are.

Some might have us believe that the whole #DezNat enterprise is a capital and elaborate joke — a Potemkin village built on grievance solidarity and nothing more. Whatever words of thin wisdom occasionally the movement’s founder musters up, the resounding echoes of their online rivalry render their loyalties clear. As even a cursory awareness of Latter-day Saint doctrine makes clear, these positions stand in stark contrast to positions taken by church leadership. The church has publicly “condemn[ed] racism, including any and all past racism by individuals both inside and outside the Church.”

Elder M. Russell Ballard has condemned “racism, sexism, and nationalism” of all kinds. As recently as November 2020, the First Presidency has celebrated that “principles compatible with the gospel may be found in various political parties.”

Responsible and respectable Latter-day Saints carry an obligation to follow BYU’s lead: renounce #DezNat factionalization, in all of its forms. Many of this community offer up nothing more than a cheap mechanism for grievance solidarity, which many are more than happy to exploit in order to curate the passing validation of online praise. The rich smorgasbord of life-affirming teachings within the Latter-day Saint tradition offers more than enough to experience a fulfilling journey as a faithful Latter-day Saint.

Russell Stevenson, Ph.D., Brigham City, is the author of “For the Cause of Righteousness: A Global History of Blacks and Mormonism.”

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