“I’ve done a lot of bad. I inspired Genghis Khan. I’m behind the Lincoln and Kennedy assassinations, terrorism, corruption, systemic inequality, the entire state of Alabama — I’m behind it all,” the red-caped Prince of Darkness, complete with horns and a pitchfork, says in one of the videos. “...I’m honestly offended when people say I inspired the ‘CES Letter,’ I’m way smarter than that.”
In other words, some critics of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — including Jeremy Runnells, who compiled a lengthy litany of problems with the faith’s history and practice into a “Letter to a [Church Educational System] Director” and posted the book-length diatribe on the internet — are easily mocked.
“This book,” Satan says, “is worse than a Draper, Utah, teenager’s moral compass.”
To many, though, the 2013 “CES Letter” is no laughing matter.
Runnells’ collection — with its emphasis on problems in the church’s signature scripture, the Book of Mormon, with founder Joseph Smith’s account of how it came to be, and myriad other discrepancies — has caused many to question their faith.
Participants, each with expertise in aspects of Mormonism, tackled controversial issues such as polygamy, the role of women in the church, homosexuality, the exclusion of Black members from the faith’s all-male priesthood until 1978, and problems with the Book of Mormon’s historicity. The group has held conferences and written whole tomes on these topics, including a point-by-point rebuttal to the “CES Letter.”
That may satisfy scholars or baby boomer Latter-day Saints, Gordon says, but such volumes do not reach millennials or Generation Z members who find themselves unprepared to face these questions.
And so FairMormon has embraced a new approach in its “This Is the Show” video series (meant as a play on the iconic “this is the place” statement reportedly proclaimed by pioneer-prophet Brigham Young), written by a younger team involving comedy and caricature, sarcasm and stereotypes to combat what the group believes are ridiculous claims by Runnells, who resigned from the church in 2016.
“We are not trying to mock the people who are affected by the ‘CES Letter,’” explains FairMormon chairman John Lynch of Santa Clara, Calif. “We are mocking the letter itself and signal to people that this is a deceitful document, not to be taken seriously.”
But lots of questions remain about the style, tone, audience and ultimate success of these snarky videos.
This is the start
More than 18 months ago, three young men approached Lynch with a pitch to produce a set of videos that would defend the church to those in their generation with a cross between “Saturday Night Live’s Weekend Update” and TikTok-type sketches.
College is such a transition period for so many and the dubious “CES Letter” claims are “harmful to our latter-day youth,” Lynch says. “We had to do something on their level that they would listen to.”
Kwaku El, a Brigham Young University student and convert to the faith, became the actor-writer, joined by fellow actors Brad Witbeck, a theater graduate from the Provo school, and Cardon Ellis.
They broke the “CES Letter” into more manageable pieces, producing 16 videos on everything from anachronisms in the Book of Mormon to the lack of archaeological confirmation, from DNA to plagiarism.
Though there are few women in the videos, many did help behind the scenes, says Witbeck, and all the scripts were approved by FairMormon’s board, which includes women.
El has been involved in such efforts before, developing an online following for a YouTube program called “Saints Unscripted” for the More Good Foundation, a nonprofit supporting online Latter-day Saint messaging.
He’s also been controversial.
In September, El helped organize dance parties in Utah County, with a partnership known as Young/Dumb, which brought throngs of unmasked students together during the COVID-19 pandemic.
More recently, El retweeted a clip from “Inglorious Basterds,” in which a Nazi is brutally beaten, with the name of John Dehlin photo-edited onto the German soldier.
(Rick Egan | Tribune Ffile photo)
John Dehlin and his wife, Margi, arrive at the North Logan LDS Stake Center for his disciplinary council in 2015. Dehlin, host of the "Mormon Stories" podcast, was excommunicated.
FairMormon asked El, who declined to be interviewed for this story, to remove the movie tweet, which the young man did, and then the group issued a statement, saying, “FairMormon abhors violence in all of its forms and condemns anything that would invite or incite violence towards anyone — including our critics.”
Lynch concedes that El’s “judgment may not always be the best, and I would not endorse all the things he has done.”
But, the FairMormon chairman insists, “he is a rock-solid, good kid.”
The video creators have received lots of support as well as pushback, especially from the ex-Mormon community, and Witbeck, for one, welcomes it.
“This helps us,” he says, “to know our boundaries.”
Who is the audience?
Michael Austin, a BYU alumnus and executive vice president for academic affairs at the University of Evansville, a Methodist school in Indiana, works every day with high school and college students.
Austin doesn’t think most young Latter-day Saints “have the foggiest idea what the ‘CES Letter’ is.” It is almost 8 years old — eons ago for 17- to 20-year-olds — “and it was never that memorable to begin with.”
He suspects that the main response of most younger members who see these videos will be something like, “‘I have no idea what the ‘CES Letter’ is; I’d better Google it.’” Austin says. “And some portion of these will be more persuaded by the serious tone of the letter than by the flippant, dismissive tone of the videos. The more successful these videos are at reaching young Latter-day Saints, the more publicity the ‘CES Letter’ will get.”
The videos are not “rhetorically sophisticated,” he says, “and there is a good chance that they will end up doing more harm than good.”
“There is a section where the hosts go through all of the reasons that it wasn’t a problem that Joseph Smith married teenagers polygamously (because everyone in the 19th century married teenagers) or asked to be sealed with other men’s wives (because he wasn’t planning to have sex with them),” Austin notes. “If I were unfamiliar with the various 19th-century discussions of plural marriage, I would go away from this video thinking that Mormons were weird and probably dangerous.”
A millennial view
Rosemary Card, a millennial Latter-day Saint entrepreneur with 20,000 Instagram followers, wonders who might be swayed by the videos.
“If I am struggling with these history issues and the message is, ‘Who is dumb enough to believe the ‘CES letter’?” says Card, “that’s not helpful.”
They do not help Latter-day Saints become “better thinkers, dig deeper into the past, or take an honest look at their testimony,” Card says. “The church has created a weakness in our people by not encouraging us to talk about hard things or by helping us look at the highs and lows of our history and have empathy for our ancestors. We’ve been taught to believe that anything that isn’t glowing is somehow anti-Mormon.”
That kind of attitude, she says, “is like trying to swim with one hand tied behind your back.”
The FairMormon videos have used the “CES Letter” as a kind of “boogeyman,” she says. “It’s like the anti-suffragist posters of the 19th century that portray them as witches and ghouls.”
Humor could work, Card says, but not this way.
“I feel like I know the audience they can reach with that style,” she says, “and, sadly, I don’t think it’s the ones who need help in this area.”
The videos’ use of “mockery and disrespect,” says Derek Knox, a Latter-day Saint biblical studies scholar in Boston, “betrays a significant amount of fragility, aggression and insecurity.”
Knox, who co-hosts with James Jones a Mormon-themed podcast, “Beyond The Block,” worries that the simplified view of church history will harm missionary efforts.
“Any nonmember researching the church will likely be disgusted by the smug arrogance and bullying that constitute their primary tactic,” Knox says. “As a convert to the church, one of the things that prompted me as an outsider to take a serious look at the restored gospel was the character, nobility and virtue of the members. Christ was not always ‘nice,’ but he was always fair, and these videos do not reflect Christ.”
Still, FairMormon’s diagnosis of the problem is spot on, he says. “Our traditional approach does not seem to be reaching Gen Z folks. Something else needs to be done in order to remain relevant and accessible.”
Is history really the problem?
(Jeremy Harmon | Tribune file photo) Jana Riess speaks while recording the 100th episode of the "Mormon Land" podcast in 2019.
• The feeling of being judged by fellow Latter-day Saints.
• They did not trust the church leadership to tell the truth about controversial or historical issues.
Their concern was how Latter-day Saint leaders presented history overall, rather than about any single historical or doctrinal problem, she says. The sense of betrayal about history “touched every generation of former Mormons in her survey.”
The kinds of former members who are exercised about things like the “CES Letter” make up a “statistical minority,” Riess notes. “They are much more likely to be college educated than former Mormons nationally, a little more likely to be white, and noticeably less likely to hold onto religious belief after leaving the church.”
But the Utah-based faith might be “especially concerned about this smaller subset because these folks were ‘all-in’ at one time,” she says, and because now they are especially active in the anti-Mormon conversations online.
A better way
The church itself has tried to provide answers to the most troublesome aspects of its history in a series of “Gospel Topics” essays, including head-on explorations about Book of Mormon translation, the racial ban and polygamy.
In a 2016 speech, M. Russell Ballard, now acting president of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, urged CES instructors to “know the content in these essays like the back of your hand.”
“Gone are the days when a student asked an honest question and the teacher responded, ‘Don’t worry about it,’” Ballard said. “Gone are the days when a student raised a sincere concern and a teacher bore his or her testimony as a response intended to avoid the issue.”
(Photo courtesy of Brigham Young University) Acting President M. Russell Ballard of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles speaks at the Marriott Center to students at Brigham Young University on March 3, 2020.
These videos, though, aren’t the way to confront such questions, according to Latter-day Saint historian Grant Hardy, arguing that they cross a line.
“I have found them belligerent, sarcastic, sophomoric, inaccurate, demeaning and offensive,” Hardy, who teaches at the University of North Carolina at Asheville, writes in an email. “In no way [do they] reflect Christian discipleship.”
“Rhetoric that wounds or ridicules, even in the name of ‘humor,’ is not going to impress thoughtful bystanders; nor is it helpful to try to discredit or delegitimize people who are expressing genuine concerns,” he says. “Bringing up troubling issues or inconvenient facts doesn’t automatically make someone an enemy. Many of those whom we might label as ‘critics’ are simply reaching for explanations that make sense in terms of their own worldviews, or they have felt genuine hurt and betrayal when traditional modes of Mormon belief (including apologetics) have not measured up to real challenges.”
Generally, Hardy counsels, “it is far better to assume goodwill than bad faith; kindness and generosity are always in order.”
In the end, the premise of the videos — that millennials are losing their faith and leaving the church because of the “CES Letter” — “is, if not flawed, at least highly overstated,” Austin says. “They are leaving the church because the church’s official positions on women’s and LGBTQ issues are at such variances with their own moral beliefs that they no longer feel comfortable participating in the church.”
Most Latter-day Saints “don’t base their religious decisions on DNA evidence or 19th-century history,” he says. “Millennials, like everybody else, go where they feel wanted and accepted.”
If the church can provide such a place, Austin says, “then most people will be charitable in assessing the problem areas of our history.”
If it can’t, he says, it doesn’t really matter what else it does.