Unholy war: Is #DezNat an online platform for defending the LDS Church or a launching pad for extremists?

Fears are rising after Capitol siege, though these internet battles focus more on piety than politics.

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

To better understand what DezNat is, it helps to know first what it isn’t.

It is not, strictly speaking, an alt-right political group. It is not a club for disenchanted Latter-day Saint Republicans. It is not a haven for Donald Trump loyalists. It is not necessarily a refuge for white nationalists, anti-maskers or anti-vaxxers — though some adherents appear to identify with all these viewpoints.

It is rather a Twitter hashtag — #DezNat, short for Deseret Nation — that has popped up hundreds of thousands of times on the internet.

Created in August 2018, the hashtag enlists loosely aligned, self-appointed warriors to defend the doctrines and practices of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Their battlefield is the internet. They blog, post, tweet and share memes, slapping the #DezNat identifier on Facebook groups, websites, podcasts and YouTube channels, triggering pushback from anxious onlookers.

“The Official #DezNat User Guide” insists the hashtag simply signifies “unapologetic” support for Jesus Christ, church founder Joseph Smith, current President Russell M. Nelson and the faith’s family proclamation, which spells out divinely designated roles for men and women.

“It is a rally[ing] point, not a monoculture,” Adam Ebberts told The Salt Lake Tribune on Twitter. “The degree to which each user follows prophetic counsel in their public and personal lives is going to vary widely. I don’t think anyone who uses #DezNat lines up with each other 100% of the time.”

Still, the hashtag and the, at times, harsh rhetoric, particularly associated with far-right sentiments, can create anxiety among those targeted — and occasionally draws law enforcement attention.

On Jan. 6, as a mob carrying alt-right banners stormed the U.S. Capitol, a #DezNat tweeter stated, “We are here at the Capitol, we have our flags. We are supporting Trump, today, tomorrow, and forever.”

Days later, J.P. Bellum, who coined the #DezNat hashtag, tweeted, “Never let the media tell you that violence isn’t effective. We’ve just seen both sides this year show that it is. Expect more of it as the ruling class gets more distanced from reality.”

Another #DezNat user, whose Twitter handle is PorterHanmerRocksWell (after 19th-century Mormon gunslinger Porter Rockwell), posted a colorized illustration Jan. 13 of Christ driving money-changers from the temple with the words “Jesus leads the protest into the capitol.”

Such Twitter talk spurs fears — especially after the recent social-media-inflamed assault on U.S. democracy — that some #DezNatters could turn from defending the faith to avenging perceived religious, cultural or political grievances.

Are the worries justified? Some on the receiving end of their digital attacks say yes — and a website has been set up to collect examples of hostile #DezNat rhetoric.

“In the past two weeks my life has been threatened over and over and over and over,” said one recipient of #DezNat wrath, Billy D, a former Latter-day Saint who, fearing for his safety, asked not to be further identified. “I have barely eaten in the last 10 days.”

DezNat is “not affiliated with or endorsed by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,” church spokesman Doug Andersen said Wednesday.

He noted the governing First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles condemned the recent violence in Washington and lawless behavior. The church also denounced white nationalism after the deadly 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Va., saying, “white supremacist attitudes are morally wrong and sinful, and we condemn them.”

Senior Latter-day Saint leaders have repeatedly decried the evils of racism, with Nelson urging “members everywhere to lead out in abandoning attitudes and actions of prejudice.

Dallin H. Oaks, Nelson’s first counselor, declared that “Black lives matter,” calling the statement “an eternal truth all reasonable people should support.” He also emphasized that Latter-day Saints “peacefully accept the results of political elections.”

Church leaders have reminded “members — of all political views — to follow the example and teachings of Jesus Christ in treating others with respect, dignity and love,” Andersen said. “Anything that encourages or incites violence is contrary to the recent instruction given by church leaders.”

Beyond those statements, the faith’s General Handbook counsels members on the internet to “exemplify civility...and focus on sharing praiseworthy messages that strengthen those with whom they come in contact.”

For their part, #DezNatters, most of whom use pseudonyms, dismiss concerns about Twitter threats as overreactions. And scholars who have tracked the social media phenomenon note that only a small minority of posts could be viewed as violent.

DezNat has served as a “sort of bat signal, calling upon a cloud-based militia to help besieged colleagues or organize against perceived rising threats to the church and its members,” Latter-day Saint blogger Mary Ann Clements wrote on Wheat & Tares last summer. “These enemies can be ideological (pornography, secularism, feminism, LGBTQ+ movements, the Black Lives Matter movement, etc.) or actual individuals.”

DezNat also views the liberal LDS blog By Common Consent, John Dehlin, founder of the “Mormon Stories” podcast who was excommunicated in 2015, and Kate Kelly, who was ousted from the church in 2014 for her role in leading the Ordain Women movement, as potential enemies who undermine faith. The Salt Lake Tribune also makes the list.

Though most posters use #DezNat to share scriptures, sayings and inspiring quotes, some deploy refashioned alt-right memes to rebut, revile and, yes, mock their religious foes.

J.P. Bellum acknowledged that some users can be “combative, rude, crass, aggressive, even mean.”

“This thread is for the purpose of giving my dear sisters a sincere bit of counsel that I’ve given many times to individual men,” wrote a #DezNat poster. “If you are single and noticeably overweight or obese, your number one priority, both spiritual and temporal, *must* be to get in shape.”

Range of #DezNat tweeters

Bellum asserts that progressives as well as conservatives in this religious war of words hurl verbal and visual jabs. DezNat’s strategy, though, can appear more militant.

Users have adopted symbols of weaponry associated with Mormon history to make their point — like the bowie knife Brigham Young allegedly put on a podium, saying he would use it against “apostates.”

Some have photo-edited semi-automatic rifles onto the bodies of Nelson and other Latter-day Saint prophets like Spencer W. Kimball, who spoke against hunting animals and famously quoted the line “don’t kill the little birds.”

For Meg Conley, a Latter-day Saint writer in Denver who has been a #DezNat target as a feminist and LGBTQ ally, the hashtag is “alarming when you understand their work is the memeification of our religion’s worst excesses — the misogyny, the homophobia, and the racism.”

What is especially terrifying, Conley said, is knowing some of “the anonymous people making those memes sit next to you in the pews.”

When she is harassed by a #DezNatter, Conley wonders: “Is this person in my ward [congregation] and do they know my address because of our ward directory?”

For some #DezNat tweeters, it is about building community.

It has helped Sophie Sprague connect with people “who have the same views on the gospel as I do,” the West Jordan resident tweeted. “Most of the people I know in real life are either not members or very liberal members so it has been so amazing to find other people with my same standards. … Even just finding other young, married women with children has been a blessing in my life.”

Ebberts felt the same way when he discovered #DezNat.

“Suddenly I again had hope that I wasn’t alone. People still wanted to defend the gospel,” Ebberts wrote in a 2019 essay, “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Meme.” They “harnessed the power of MEMES and went on the offensive.”

Ebberts was eager to “defend the people who defend the church.”

Janessa Taylor uses #DezNat to “create a faithful dialogue on Twitter,” to support and strengthen discipleship, and to push back against “worldly ideas.”

If there are any attacks, Ebberts and Sprague said, they are coming from the other direction.

Ebberts said some #DezNat critics tried to “dox” him — reveal his identity and workplace — and get him fired.

After Sprague posted a photo with her baby and the words “Why would I want feminism and a career, when I have this?” the new mom said she received comments on the Twitter thread, including threats: “You don’t deserve to be alive. Your poor child, you should have aborted her.”

Ebberts has no problem using what some see as violent memes, which he sees as “modern political cartoons.”

“I wholeheartedly embrace them,” he wrote. “I will continue to make and use them. Some will suck, and some will be totally awesome.”

How #DezNat compares to ‘alt-right’

Casually slinging slurs, along with anti-immigrant, sexist and racist rhetoric, some #DezNat tweeters clearly have adopted the tunes and tones of those on the far right — even though, in their eyes, their issues are more about piety than politics.

“What if we made a separate BYU just for white students so the minority students couldn’t possibly be oppressed by whiteness?” a sarcastic tweet stated. “I’m just trying to relieve them of their traumatic lived experiences with microaggressions?”

Another asked: Why is anti-white racism never addressed by wokists when the Prophet admonishes [us] all about racism?”

And, finally: “Brigham Young is in the Celestial Kingdom with his 47-plus stunningly beautiful perfected wives and you’re stuck in Provo calling him racist in the hopes of earning enough woke credits to convince some seacow to send you nudes.”

One of “the symbols and tropes of white nationalist ‘troll’ culture” that has been adapted to Mormonism involved the concept of “redpilling,” said Stephen Betts, a doctoral student in religious studies at the University of Virginia.

“Redpilling normies” is an alt-right process, suggesting that someone who has awakened from liberal thinking can wake up “normies,” or normal people, Betts wrote in an unpublished paper. In the LDS version, “normies” have become “Mormies.”

It is an allusion to the 1999 movie “The Matrix” in which humans are controlled by intelligent machines. At one point, the main character is given a choice between a blue pill, which allows a person to stay asleep or remain in blissful ignorance, and a red pill, which prompts the person to more fully understand the depth of the previous fantasy.

To this, the #DezNat crowd has added a third choice: a vitamin pill, after Nelson told the Latter-day Saint faithful to take their vitamins in preparation for how much change was coming.

A screenshot of a Twitter post under the hashtag #DezNat, dated Feb. 5, 2020.

Here’s how Brigham Groyper stated it on Twitter:

“Blue pill — Move the Israeli embassy to Jerusalem.

“Red pill — Retake Jerusalem, Deus Vult [a Crusades rallying cry].

“Vitamin pill — Build the new Jerusalem on the American continent.”

Then there’s the “Hitler Did Nothing Wrong” meme, which #DezNat has altered into “Brigham Did Nothing Wrong.”

“#DezNat users often employ this [technique] to defend Young in connection with a core group of accusations about him,” Betts argued, “which tend to center on his racism, alleged vigilantism and practice of polygyny.”

While these fringe groups have published their memes to signify America as they want it to be, the scholar said, #DezNat users are adapting these images for a different kind of “country” — a cultural theocracy, where the doctrine is pure and devotion to the prophet absolute.

By Common Consent founder Steve Evans said he doesn’t distinguish the #DezNat movement “from other sorts of religious or political extremism.”

They all have “the same cultural hallmarks: misogyny, racism, fundamentalism and pining for a return to an idyllic past state that is largely imagined,” Evans said. “They view themselves as modern Danites or religious vigilantes.”

By Common Consent is a target, the Salt Lake City attorney said, “because we flatly reject religious extremism, and we exist as a place for people to voice minority views within the church.”

Tracking #DezNat tweets

One of the reasons for adopting #DezNat, Bellum said, was because the church’s “most vocal” critics were “getting the most likes and retweets” on Twitter.

He’s not wrong, said social media researcher Spencer Greenhalgh. The University of Kentucky scholar has made an in-depth study of #DezNat tweets.

In the recent past, research on Mormons and the internet has largely focused on progressive members, especially feminists and “queer Mormons,” he said. “A lot of the story has become how the internet has allowed progressive voices in the conservative religion to emerge.”

The #DezNat community wanted “to play the same game as progressive Mormons,” Greenhalgh said. “Even without having a church office, they feel they have a mandate to shore up the authority that already exists … and to prevent further change in the church and more assimilation into the larger world.”

After all, what was the original State of Deseret, he said, but the manifestation of a church community before it “gave in to the U.S.?”

A couple of years ago, the social media researcher set up a “Twitter tracker,” which automatically downloaded every tweet that includes #DezNat and entered it onto a spreadsheet. He now has amassed hundreds of thousands of tweets.

The vast majority would not be seen as violent, Greenhalgh noted, but they do wield a lot of alt-right language and what could be termed dark humor.

They rely on ambiguity in the message, he said, so if targets take a threat seriously, they can say, “with a wink and a nod,” that they were just kidding.

How #DezNat frightens foes

The “essence of #DezNat,” said a podcaster named Hoss, with a red, white and blue proposed Utah flag on the wall behind him, is to “have fun while sharing the gospel online.”

Last month, a #DezNatter produced a clip from “Inglourious Basterds,” in which a Nazi is brutally beaten, with Dehlin’s name photo-edited onto the German soldier.

Dehlin says he reported the retweeted clip to police and the FBI.

One of #DezNat’s most sustained online assaults against an individual has been aimed at Brigham Young University undergrad Calvin Burke, who self-identifies as gay and as an LGBTQ ally. He has a lively Twitter account and more than 10,000 followers.

DezNat users routinely insult him, sometimes with crude sexual language, and threaten violence. One man talked about wishing to beat him up. They have doxxed him over and over, repeatedly trying to get him fired from his job at the school’s Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship.

Last year, Bellum offered a “hypothetical” bounty of $1,000 for any information leading to Burke’s expulsion from BYU.

“It has been really difficult. The thought of unwittingly sitting beside someone in a college class who has made a meme depicting [physical harm] would be terrifying to anyone,” Burke said. “It’s already difficult for me to be an active LGBTQ member of the church and BYU student without this.”

Burke’s prayer is that the church and BYU “decide to take active steps to protect its LGBTQ+ members and students before this happens to more people,” he said, “and condemn people who use church leaders out of context to justify their behavior.”

Even #DezNatters might be splitting along the lines of how virulent to be in their tweets, said Clements, who lives in Millcreek.

“The original users of the DezNat hashtag were much more enthusiastic on the nationalism aspect,” she wrote in a message, “and tend to be more extreme.”

Now some of them, Clements said, have taken on a new hashtag, “Dezbollah.”