The Mormon Land newsletter is a weekly highlight reel of developments in and about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, whether heralded in headlines, preached from the pulpit or buzzed about on the back benches. Want this free newsletter in your inbox? Subscribe here.
‘Lightning’ strikes twice
“X-Files” star David Duchovny will become a Mormon — at least for a potential Showtime series.
We reported last month on the book, which centers around Bronson Powers, a former Hollywood stuntman who converts to Mormonism (and its earlier teachings) and homesteads off the grid with his three wives and 10 children in the Southern California desert.
Duchovny, the Ivy League-educated actor turned author, is converting, er, uh, adapting, his novel, Deadline reports, with help from Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz, the writing and directing duo behind “The Peanut Butter Falcon.”
The book, which is winning critical notice, offers “a heartbreaking meditation on family, religion, sex, greed, human nature, and the vanishing environment of an ancient desert,” says the Amazon description.
In a previous novel, Duchovny also waded into the world of religion. “Holy Cow,” a fun-loving fable, follows a cow, a pig and a turkey as the barnyard animals undertake their own spiritual journeys to India, Israel and Turkey.
Conference temple predictions
Get your “brackets” ready for a temple take on March Madness.
If you need help deciding which cities might be the next to get a new temple, Matt Martinich is the closest you’ll find to an expert handicapper.
The independent demographer, who tracks church growth at lds church growth.blogspot.com, has released his list of the 10 “most likely” locales to have a temple announced at next month’s General Conference (if, as has become a trend and a tradition, new temples are named). Here it is:
• Monrovia, Liberia.
• Smithfield or North Logan, Utah.
• Angeles or Olongapo, Philippines.
• Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia.
• Missoula, Mont.
• Colorado Springs (Martinich’s hometown).
• La Paz, Bolivia.
• Charlotte, N. C.
• Mbuji-Mayi, Democratic Republic of Congo.
• Austin, Texas.
Last fall, Martinich correctly predicted two of the six temples announced in October (the ones in Tarawa, Kiribati, and Santa Cruz, Bolivia). In autumn 2019, he fared even better, getting half the newly named temples right — not bad, given the world of possibilities.
Teaming up on LGBTQ, religious rights
Arizona Democrat Kyrsten Sinema, the first openly bisexual member of the U.S. Senate, joined with area Seventy C. Dale Willis and other interfaith leaders in the Grand Canyon State in support of protections for LGBTQ individuals and religious freedom.
“No one should be denied these protections for being LGBTQ,” an interfaith letter states, “and likewise religious persons and institutions should be protected in practicing their faith.”
The issue has been a flashpoint after Mesa, a Phoenix suburb founded by Mormon pioneers, passed a nondiscrimination ordinance safeguarding LGBTQ rights, sparking a backlash from opponents seeking to overturn it.
The LDS Church has supported similar nondiscrimination ordinances, starting with statutes in the faith’s headquarters city. Salt Lake City, with the church’s blessing, adopted protections for LGBTQ individuals from discrimination in housing and employment in 2009. In 2015, Utah enacted a landmark, church-endorsed compromise that provided LGBTQ protections while shielding some religious liberties.
In the Arizona case, Willis said “protecting people from discrimination is about treating others as we want to be treated.”
“LGBTQ rights and religious freedom do not have to be in conflict,” the Latter-day Saint authority said in a statement. “Instead, we can come together to protect all people and unify our community on what has for too long been a divisive issue.”
Sinema and the church aren’t on the same page, however, on a piece of federal legislation.
The Arizona senator backs the proposed Equality Act, which would ban discrimination against people based on sexual orientation and gender identity, while the church opposes it, insisting that it would repeal “long-standing religious rights.”
Church faces fraud lawsuit
The drama surrounding the church’s reported $100 billion “rainy day account” continues to generate headlines.
Huntsman accuses Latter-day Saint leaders of funneling tithing money intended and promised for charities and church work instead toward multibillion-dollar insurance and real estate ventures, including City Creek Center, a prominent mall in downtown Salt Lake City.
“[T]his is not a case about faith; it is a case about fraud and corporate greed,” the court document states. “... “Hopefully, this lawsuit will put an end to the [church’s] lies and deceit once and for all so that the church can refocus its attention and efforts on following the path of righteousness and honesty paved by its former leaders.”
Huntsman, a member of a prominent and wealthy family, is seeking to recover his tithing donations, totaling at least $5 million. He wants to give that money instead to groups “marginalized by the church’s teachings and doctrines, including … charities supporting LGBTQ, African American and women’s rights.”
Church spokesman Eric Hawkins, noting that Huntsman resigned his membership last year, discounted the allegations as “baseless.”
“Tithing funds are voluntary contributions by members … as an expression of their faith in God,” Hawkins said. “They are used for a broad array of religious purposes, including missionary work, education, humanitarian causes and the construction of meetinghouses, temples and other buildings important to the work of the church.”
As for the whistleblower complaint filed in late 2019 about the reserve fund, a church spokesperson said this week that Latter-day Saint officials were not in talks with the IRS about it.
Sam Brunson, a Latter-day Saint and a tax law professor at Loyola University in Chicago, doubts Huntsman’s suit will succeed.
“The general rule is when you make an unrestricted donation to a charity, it’s the charity’s money,” he told The Salt Lake Tribune. “And if you later discover that they’re doing stuff with the money that you don’t like, you’re out of luck.”
Note • James Huntsman is a brother of Paul Huntsman, chairman of the nonprofit Tribune’s board of directors.
This week’s podcast: An LDS view of medical ethics
For the past year, Latter-day Saints, like others around the world, have dealt with a health care crisis that is both personal and societal.
Even without the coronavirus pandemic, however, members face moral choices about medical issues throughout their lives. They must decide whether to continue a doomed pregnancy, whether to test a fetus for a genetic disorder, whether to vaccinate their children for sexually transmitted diseases, or whether to discontinue treatment of a dying parent.
As they grapple with these personal questions — as well as the ethical questions surrounding health and healing in society at large — many people look to principles spelled out in their religion to provide answers and moral guidance. Latter-day Saints may turn to their 96-year-old prophet-president, Russell M. Nelson, who is a former heart surgeon with respect for medical and scientific wisdom.
On this week’s podcast, Courtney Campbell, a philosophy professor of religion and culture at Oregon State University and author of the recently published “Mormonism, Medicine, and Bioethics,” examines these medical topics — from abortion to birth control to vaccines and end-of-life care — and makes his case for why Latter-day Saints should support universal health care.
New hope for Manti murals
Those Minerva Teichert murals in Manti may be preserved after all, but not in the temple.
Turns out that the murals originally were “painted on canvas, which was adhered to the plaster walls,” the governing First Presidency said in a news release. “The church’s intent is to separate the canvas or portions of the canvas from the plaster and preserve the murals for future restoration and display in a public setting. We are seeking the advice of international experts in the field of art preservation during this process.”
Even if the world room murals are saved, not everyone is thrilled at the prospect of seeing them exit the central Utah edifice.
“They belong in the temple,” Ann Zinger Diehl told The Tribune, “the spirit and impact of [Teichert’s art] is in that room.”
Imagine a new home
For Dan Reynolds, charity truly does begin at home.
The Imagine Dragons frontman is donating his childhood house in Las Vegas to Encircle, a Utah-born nonprofit that provides resource centers to LGBTQ youths.
“I woke up one morning and I had this dream — I don’t even recall exactly what happened in the dream — but it had my parents’ house in it and it had Encircle involved,” Reynolds, who is a Latter-day Saint, told the Las Vegas Review-Journal. “... I don’t recall the details other than it made me think, ‘What if we got my parents’ home and turned it into the Encircle house we’ve always talked about creating here in Las Vegas?’ [Wife Aja Volkman] immediately was brought to tears, and so was I. We just knew, ‘Oh, my gosh, this is what we have to do.’”
Reynolds has been outspoken in his LGBTQ advocacy, launching the highly successful LoveLoud fundraising concert.
It’s fair to say that FAIR, an independent group of church defenders, has gone through significant changes in its quarter century of existence — if not in its mission, at least in its moniker.
In 1997, the nonprofit was born as the Foundation for Apologetic Information and Research to explain and proclaim the policies, practices and preachings of the faith when they come under fire from critics.
The term “apologetic” — which meant to “reason” and “argue,” not to “apologize” — proved confusing, so, 16 years later, FAIR morphed into FairMormon to more clearly communicate the group’s purpose.
“We thought of ourselves as ‘Mormon,’” recalls President Scott Gordon, “and we want the facts to be covered ‘FAIRly.’”
Now, with church President Russell M. Nelson urging scholars, media and members to cease using “Mormon” and “LDS” when referring to the denomination and its adherents, it’s time for another name change.
So FAIR will now be known as FAIR.
“Yes, that sounds a lot like our old name ... but this new name is completely different,” Gordon writes in a Saturday newsletter and blog post. “The old name was an acronym for the Foundation for Apologetic Information and Research. The new FAIR name stands for ‘Faithful Answers, Informed Response.’”
The group also is dropping “Mormon” from its website URL. FAIR now can be found at www.fairlatterdaysaints.org.
When the new FAIR provides those “faithful answers” and an “informed response,” Gordon adds, it aims to do so in a Christlike manner.
That means “avoiding personal attacks or derogatory language” against critics, he says. “This does not mean we won’t point out faulty reasoning and misleading claims, or boldly defend our doctrine…. We are not stepping away from fact-checking, or defending the church. Indeed, we embrace it fully. We just want to do it in the way that we believe the Savior would approve.”
As a consequence, Gordon confirmed that FAIR has removed some controversial satirical videos that targeted the writings of a particular church detractor, saying that their mocking tone no longer fit the group’s “branding and direction.”
Bringing back Wilford Woodruff
Wilford Woodruff is best known for his 1890 “Manifesto,” marking the beginning of the end of the practice of polygamy within the church, but there is so much more to the faith’s fourth prophet-president.
An apostle for nearly six decades, he documented his ministry in 31 daybooks and journals, containing more than 11,000 pages. Woodruff also penned 13,000-plus letters and received more than 17,000.
Now, the Wilford Woodruff Papers Foundation, with help from the church’s History Department, is collecting, transcribing, publishing and digitally preserving those writings.
On March 1, the 214th anniversary of Woodruff’s birth, the foundation debuted a website, wilfordwoodruffpapers.org, with the first batch of transcribed documents.
While the groundbreaking Joseph Smith Papers project has been dubbed the “lunar landing” of Mormon history, the massive Woodruff undertaking is, by comparison, a Mars shot.
The Smith documents stretch from 1828 to 1844, the new website notes, while Woodruff’s records span from 1828 until his death in 1898, with thousands of more artifacts.
“No one kept records quite like Wilford did,” Executive Editor Steven Harper said in a YouTube video. “...Discovering and transcribing all of Wilford’s papers, checking their accuracy, and publishing them on the web so they’re easy to access and search — that’s a big task. There’s nothing I’d rather do.”
Mountain Meadows remembrance
This week marks the 144th anniversary of the execution of John D. Lee, the only person ever convicted and put to death for his part in the Sept. 11, 1857, slaughter of 120 men, women and children at Mountain Meadows, about 30 miles north of St. George.
Lee was executed March 23, 1877, by a firing squad at the site of the southern Utah massacre.
Apostle Henry B. Eyring stated during a 2007 visit to site that “what was done here long ago by members of our church represents a terrible and inexcusable departure from Christian teaching and conduct. We cannot change what happened, but we can remember and honor those who were killed here.”
Music festival reprise
If you missed the 2021 Global Youth Music Festival — including church President Russell M. Nelson’s piano rendition of the hymn “Hope of Israel” — you still can view it.
The show included songs from the 2021 Youth Theme Album and featured performers from Brazil, the Caribbean, Germany, South Africa, New Zealand, the Philippines and the United States.
• Latter-day Saint volunteers — from Primary age on up — teamed up with civic groups and interfaith partners on a soggy Saturday to deliver and collect bags and boxes of food to help thousands of families in the first “Feed Utah” food drive.
“We live in some very unprecedented times, and it calls for us as brothers and sisters in the brotherhood and sisterhood of humanity to come together and compile our efforts, whatever they may be,” the Rev. Oscar Moses, pastor of Salt Lake City’s Calvary Baptist Church, said in a news release. “If we can have a holistic approach towards helping the least, the left out, the marginalized people, I think God will be glorified.”
Utah Food Bank CEO Ginette Bott said that the Beehive State typically has about half a million people who struggle with food insecurity. The coronavirus pandemic has grown that number by 160,000, making the drive all the more vital.
“This is important ... because Jesus helps a lot of people,” said 10-year-old Emily Cottrell. “I want to help people [and] bring joy to others.”
• Latter-day Saints have donated 88,500 units of blood this year in 2,500 drives sponsored by the American Red Cross.
That volume makes the church the top organizational donor, David Staszak, a divisional vice president for the Red Cross, said in a news release, and “may be responsible for tens of thousands of lives saved.”
Latter-day Saints also rank as the top volunteer groups for ARUP Blood Services of Utah.
• Scores of evacuees took shelter in Latter-day Saint meetinghouses after a devastating fire destroyed more than 300 homes in the Philippines, according to a news release.
“This is a big help for us,” said Virgilio Calo, a 41-year-old construction worker and a father who had taken his family, his five siblings, and their own families, with him into a meetinghouse after the fire charred their homes. “Without someplace to stay, we would have been overcrowding in the barangay hall, adding more to the physical, emotional and mental distress that we are all experiencing.”
• Nineteen temples are in Phase 3 of the church’s reopening plan, offering limited vicarious ordinances for the dead, along with all living ordinances, during the coronavirus pandemic, according to a news release.
Most other temples are in Phase 2, providing “all temple ordinances for living individuals.”
Starting next week, 13 temples will enter Phase 2-B, allowing the baptistry to open for small groups to perform baptisms for the dead.
Seven temples will be in Phase 1, allowing only marriage “sealings.”
Meanwhile, nine temples have “paused” operations due to “local COVID-19 restrictions.”
See this list for the status of all temples.
Quote of the week
“Generally, a relationship where there are never any disagreements is deeply unhealthy. It means someone is not allowed to express, is somehow punished for expressing, their feelings if they are divergent from others in the relationship. It’s a sign somebody is being steamrolled. … Church should be a place where different voices, experiences, and ideas are valued, or at the very least respectfully considered and engaged with. It should be a place where differences are acknowledged and openly discussed.”
— Mary Grey in a Times and Seasons blog post
Mormon Land is a weekly newsletter written by David Noyce and Peggy Fletcher Stack. Subscribe here.