New videos recently published on FairMormon’s YouTube channel are causing a stir in some Latter-day Saint spheres. The apologetic[fn1] videos, modeled after news satire shows like The Daily Show with Trevor Noah or Saturday Night Live‘s Weekend Update segments, star Latter-day Saints Kwaku El and Brad Witbeck[fn2]. In an introductory video published November 26th, El explains that the series is “dedicated to comedically taking down Anti-Mormonism.”

The topic of the first set of these videos is the CES Letter. The hosts and director Cardon Ellis explain why they chose the target.

[Ellis] We chose the CES Letter because it is, honestly, the most intellectually dishonest and easy to disprove if you’re willing to put the work in and read.
[Witbeck] It’s also extremely widespread, so we want to make sure that this gets out to people so that they don’t have all of these falsehoods and misdirection kind of leading them down the wrong way.
[El] So we’re going to point out the inconsistencies, we’re going to point out the manipulative language, we’re going to point out the total fabrications in the letter, but also give you evidence for the restored gospel and the Book of Mormon and strengthen people’s beliefs.
[Witbeck] So if you or anyone you know are doubting your testimonies because of the CES Letter, please, watch through these videos first.

“The CES Letter is Cringe. Lets Destroy it. :)” FairMormon YouTube Video

The CES Letter

Below is background on the CES Letter adapted from a W&T post I wrote a few years ago. If you’re already familiar with the publication, feel free to skip to the next section.

The publication, CES Letter: My Search for Answers to My Mormon Doubts, is the latest incarnation of an April 2013 document Jeremy Runnells sent to a CES director (hence the original title, Letter to a CES Director: Why I Lost My Testimony). Runnells was raised in the church, went through the typical Latter-day Saint milestones and, like many others, got blindsided by disturbing church history facts around the age of 30. What sent him down the rabbit hole was a news article quoting Elder Marlin K. Jensen, Church Historian, about a modern-day apostasy due to church history concerns. Runnells went to Wikipedia for explanations, and from there he hit up both apologetic and critical sources of information about the church. The faith crisis began in February 2012, and by summer his testimony was gone.

After long conversations with his grandfather, Runnells was offered the opportunity in early 2013 to correspond with a CES Director. The director asked Runnells for his concerns, and Runnells opted to take advantage of an opportunity to get some official answers. He compiled a PDF of every critique he could think of and posted it on Reddit to get some feedback before sending it to the director in late April 2013.

The letter spread quickly on Reddit and made it’s way to the MormonThink website where it then went viral. The publication is credited with starting thousands (if not tens of thousands) of people on journeys out of the church and has inspired other “big list” compilations of arguments discrediting the Church.

There have been many apologetic responses to the CES Letter, including FairMormon, Michael R. Ash, Jim Bennett, Conflict of Justice, ChurchisTrue, and others.

The FairMormon Videos

The responses I’ve seen to the new videos are mixed. Some members like the humor, others feel the sarcastic tone undermines the arguments. Some feel the videos demean those with legitimate questions about the Church and its history, others are betting that the videos will have a Streisand effect and introduce even more individuals to the CES Letter.

Many people may not realize that this ascerbic humor is a return to an older style of Latter-day Saint apologetics. Who can forget Bill Hamblin’s classic “Metcalfe is a butthead” encrypted in a book review for the FARMS Review in the 1990s? Dan Peterson explained in 2011, while describing the twenty-two-year-old run of the FARMS Review, that the Review “always had an impish sense of humor and a penchant for irony and satire. This has offended some who have, I’m convinced, quite misunderstood what was going on. But it has entertained many, and, personally, I’ll choose dry wit over dry tedium any day of the week.”

The problem of “tone” has been a point of conflict between different types of Latter-day Saint apologists, and/or scholars for years. Ralph Hancock[fn3] wrote about the tension in his essay for the 2017 compilation Perspectives of Mormon Theology: Apologetics.

Another question that has been prominent in debates between Mormon apologists and advocates or practitioners of Mormon Studies is the question of “tone.” The latter have made the case for their own activity in part by declaiming against the alleged bad manners or uncongenial tone in the writings of the apologists….

The application of the Christian virtue of humility to intellectual debates is a complex question. Here I would simply ask whether on occasion some sharpness of tone, some irony and even some measured indignation would not be inherent in the task of rigorous intellectual engagement. An example, external to the intra-Mormon debate, that happens to fall before my eyes at this moment is this comment on the New Atheism from the fine Aquinas scholar Edward Feser: ‘Their books stand out for their manifest ignorance” of the Western religious tradition, he says, “and for the breathtaking shallowness of their philosophical analysis of religious matters.” Now, that seems harsh, you might well say. But is not the important question: Is it true, or largely true, and therefore substantially justified? Will truth be served by such verve and clarity rather than by diplomatic dodging? Transposing this question into the field of Mormon apologetics, I would simply ask: Have there been no writings by critics of Mormonism or by quasi-Mormon dissidents that merit the same kind of liveliness and directness that Feser applies to the New Atheists?

Ralph Hancock, “Mormon Apologetics and Mormon Studies,” Perspectives on Mormon Theology: Apologetics, p. 97-98.

While reading Hawkgrrrl’s post this morning, “Vampires & Consent,” I was struck by the idea of the vampire of “self-censorship” to keep things “nice.” In the post, Hawk quotes the lyrics of the song “Die, Vampire, Die” from the musical [title of show] about the air freshener vampire stifling self-expression: “She wants you to clean it up and clean it out which will leave your work toothless, gutless, and crotchless. You’ll be left with two tight paragraphs about kittens that your grandma would be so proud of.” This is essentially the same argument that Ralph Hancock makes, that an apologist should “accept the rules of the intellectual game one is playing.”[fn4]

To forbid such vigorous rhetoric by appeal to some standard of “humility” or “charity” would be to undermine the rigor and the energy of the very practice of rational investigation and debate…

To attempt to impose the lofty ideal of charity on the intellectual practice of the debate itself would be like expecting a competitor in a race to step aside and say, “after you.”

Ralph Hancock, “Mormon Apologetics and Mormon Studies,” Perspectives on Mormon Theology: Apologetics, p. 100.

The humor in the new videos isn’t my style. Admittedly, Gen X and Millennials aren’t the target demographic. Those who’ve read my old posts know I’m not a big fan of the CES Letter, but I believe many of its topics are worth investigation and discussion. When watching the FairMormon videos, though, I kept fighting back an urge to write critiques of their critiques.

The new FairMormon videos (there are thirteen as of this writing) are under ten minutes each, so they’ll appeal to the shorter attention spans of Zoomers. I can’t imagine anyone truly bothered by items in the CES Letter to find solace in the videos, but they’ll provide others with quick rebuttals in social media debates. The only link to further resources in the description of the videos is a URL for the page of FairMormon responses to the CES Letter (which is most definitely NOT designed for short attention spans).

Questions: Have you heard about or watched any of the new FairMormon videos? If so, what did you think?

[1] Apologetics derives comes from the Latin word apologia, which means defense. Those who defend religion using arguments based in logic and reason are called apologists. Fun fact: the “fair” in FairMormon stands for “Foundation for Apologetic Information & Research.”

[2] Kwaku El and Brad Witbeck are also among the hosts of the new StoneXVI podcast/videos.

[3] Notably, both Dan Peterson and Ralph Hancock are among the signatories of the new Radical Orthodoxy manifesto which urges “a soft-hearted temperament that rejects the spirit of contention towards those with different views, even while we vigorously defend the truth.”

[4] This is also, btw, the same idea driving some members of the Twitter vigilante group #DezNat. One DezNat member described it as “thunderdome apologetics.” The members of the group he called “The Vanguard” have the sole purpose of bullying Anti-Mormons. “This also includes the prog[ressive Mormon]s agitating against the church, or in general anything undermining to faith in Christ. These people [the Vanguard] are blessed like Phineas for their overzealousness, they are sons of thunder. They curse and swear and mock, they wield the sarcasm of God. This volatile element in DezNat comes under fire possibly more than the Clowns, because many believe 1) Defending the gospel should never be personal 2) swearing cancels out all good 3) offending people is always wrong 4) there is no actual danger.”

Update 12/2/20: Corrected spelling of Brad Witbeck’s name (previously spelled Whitbeck).