A recent Trib article explains that Mormon Stories and other monetized podcasts have been a sole source of income for some of the individuals that conduct the interviews.  This isn’t a surprise to many people, although it’s impressive that there’s been enough donated to support salaries for individuals’ families.

At some point, all Mormon blogs (and maybe all blogs) have this discussion:  should we monetize the blog?  I have steadfastly opposed it on principle, although I have also made the caveat that selling physical goods (e.g. FMH’s bohemian necklaces or the highly coveted Carol Lynn Pearson tee shirts that don’t actually exist yet) that promote or relate to the blog is not the same thing as donations for content.  Allowing ads just trashes the place up.  Taking donations is not inherently objectionable in that we all spend time creating content and paying for domains and hosting fees, but there is a downside.

I have long felt that monetizing one’s blog would dramatically alter the nature of the posts, forever changing the content of the blog, whether those changes are immediately noticeable or not. Once you begin selling a product, even if that product is intellectual rather than physical, your audience becomes more than a readership, but also a source of income.  Even when your donations are small, you begin to keep one eye on the coffers.  You are forced to ask yourself, “why don’t we have more donations and how do we get more donations?”  If the donations ever reach the size of primary income, that pressure becomes an imperative.

Even without donations, there is a pull to popularize.  You want to grow readership.  You want to know why your amazing post that is so full of fresh ideas only reached X readers or got Y comments when you thought it deserved many many more.  If you substitute the word “clicks” for “donations,” you can readily see that this line of thinking is inherent in blogging.  The difference is, you can’t pay your bills with clicks.

Journalism is fraught with this problem as well, which is why some criticize journalism as sensationalist and irresponsible, and why some journalism merits the criticism.  There are some checks and balances to the audience’s power in the form of eroded credibility or losing gravitas if news is too sensationalist and in terms of network or media corporation’s oversight; they aren’t obligated to publish you if they don’t like what you write.  It’s one reason government-owned newspapers (and church owned Deseret News) are criticized–their lack of objectivity (lack of gravitas & credibility) and undue control of speech (censorship).  Whoever pays for content ultimately dictates content.

Jesus taught that those who teach the gospel should do so without purse or scrip (money).   The church touts a lack of paid clergy as an important part of the gospel (although top leaders do receive a living stipend, and this draws criticism for some of the same reasons) [1].  Isaiah said “come buy wine and milk without money and without price,” and this sentiment is repeated throughout the Book of Mormon.  As implied, at least how I interpret it, the quest for truth is supposed to be a side gig, not your day job.  Once your finances are tied up in a thing, it changes your perspective.  As Upton Sinclair said, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”  Likewise, a person can’t explore wisdom and seek truth objectively when paying his or her bills is tied up in one specific way of thinking about wisdom and truth.  And blogging, to those of us who are idealistic (and I hope that’s most of us) is really about having a conversation about wisdom, perspective and values, all of which are suspect when they become a commodity.

Unfortunately, but typically of humans, readers usually don’t want what they need.  They won’t pay you to tell them what they don’t want to hear or what they find disagreeable, at least over the long haul. [2]  If you take their money, they can (to some extent) dictate what you say, at least if you want them to continue to donate.  There are boundaries, at least, in that you can’t insult or criticize your audience.  If you bore them, they go away.  The medium makes it difficult to change people’s minds.  

Even in psychology and therapy this can be a problem.  One criticism of psychology is that people never leave therapy, and that most therapists are neurotic and in therapy.  One is not paying to be cured, and perhaps there isn’t a cure.  One is paying to be heard.  A good therapist can give tough messages that help people improve their lives, but it’s a delicate balance between telling people what they want to hear to get them to keep coming, telling people what they can handle (a mix of what they want to hear and what they feel they can improve), and telling people what they really need to do that they may not yet be ready to hear.

What is interesting is the trend in disciplining individuals who profit from an alternate message about the church.  As I read Peggy’s article, I thought about Chad Hardy, one of the business owners behind the shirtless missionary calendar (and the Mormon MILFs) who was excommunicated when he was asked to stop publishing the calendars, and he refused.  Part of his defense was that he was preventing a worse outcome because his business partner wanted to go further with things, and he had held that person in check.  He was profiting from a byproduct of the church, one that is distinctly off-message, namely that 19 year old missionaries can be a sex symbol as can clean-living, muffin-baking Mormon moms.  Selling the Mormon image as a sex symbol is an example of a byproduct of the church.  It’s not the product the church is selling, charming sister missionaries aside.  It’s a variation on that, one that runs counter to the church’s brand.  Likewise, Denver Snuffer was excommunicated for his interpretation of the restoration that he sold via books and lectures [3].  His message was that the church was off track, that we’d lost the way, and that he was pointing out the real path.  It’s a compelling message, but necessarily at odds with the church’s message.

Are these types of Mormon-related businesses symbiotic or parasitic?  Their proponents posit that the church thrives by having both the “on-script” message and having some alternate forums as well, and that being too controlling is what hurts church growth and health.  Free press, free speech, freedom to think and do as our conscience dictates are vital to the health of the organization, or as Joseph Smith put it:

“I want the liberty of thinking and believing as I please. It feels so good not to be trammeled. It does not prove that a man is not a good man because he errs in doctrine.”

If these ventures are parasitic, they destroy the thing that feeds them.  If they are symbiotic, they are necessary to the health and survival of the church, and vice-versa.  One could argue that this is priestcraft, if an actual dictionary definition for priestcraft existed.  But you could likewise argue (as I would, vociferously) that selling any religious book is a version of priestcraft, that EFY and Time Out for Women speakers and those who claim they can cure homosexuality are practicing priestcraft, especially if it is their primary source of income. [4]  If there’s a Faith Crisis Biz, there’s also a Faith Biz.

I should clarify that I don’t think the church is targeting these individuals specifically for making money from disaffection.  My hope is that the local disciplinary council acts from a position of real regard for John and his spiritual well-being.  I assume both John and they are acting in good faith in this process.  Regardless, when your product is a byproduct of the church’s, ideologically as well as organizationally, it creates a conflict.  You can’t bring a Diet Coke into the PepsiCo boardroom unless the PepsiCo execs are pretty open-minded.  Since the church is the one that owns the original product, however they define it, they have the rights to it.  The church doesn’t have literal intellectual property rights–this isn’t a lawsuit–but they can excommunicate someone for garnering a following on the basis of an alternate message. Money only makes it easier to quantify a person’s following, the relevance of that person’s “brand.”

Even if the church deems that holding dissenting views is fine (as we’ve been assured recently and repeatedly), the threat exists based on size of influence and the church’s lack of control over the message.  The more concerted and organized dissenting views are, the more pressure the church has to address the issues that they raise.  Given the conservative bent among top church leaders, applying time pressure, even when one believes there is a moral imperative, results in slowdown and retrenchment, at least in the short term.  Since these are matters than affect many people, I’d rather get a late inspired answer than a hasty uninspired one. [5]

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[1] As I’ve pointed out, it would be interesting to see how these living stipends would shake out if each apostle had their own donate button.

[2] The people who do like to hear people say disagreeable things like those disagreeable things to be directed at others.  For example, anyone named [Doctor First Name].

[3] Passing the Heavenly Grift, as it were.

[4] My first exposure to this industry was when I was 15 and Lynn Bryson spoke at our Youth Conference in the 1980s.  After freaking us out that Satan was entering our bedrooms through our record players, he revealed that his own non-Satanic CDs were for sale in the lobby after his speech.  Shocker.

[5] I was reminded of this issue when I was reading Tony Blair’s autobiography yesterday.  He was asked if he had regrets about the Iraq war, and he was hesitant to answer.  You can imagine this same thinking at play in how the church answers questions about women’s issues and LGBT rights.  In his words:

“It was a headline question.  It had to have a headline answer.  Answer “yes” and I knew the outcome:  “BLAIR APOLOGIZES FOR WAR,” “AT LAST HE SAYS SORRY.”  Choose a variant.  The impact would be the same.  Those who had opposed the war would rejoice; those who had supported it would be dismayed, imagining their support and in some cases their sacrifice had been in vain.  Answer “no” and you seem like some callous brute, indifferent to the suffering or perhaps worse, stubbornly resistant, not because of strength but because you know nothing else to do.”