Earlier this week FAIR posted an announcement, “New Name and New Directions.” It’s the latest chapter in what has been a decade of change and transformation for Mormon apologetics. As explained in the announcement, FAIR was once an acronym for the Foundation for Apologetic Information and Research. Once the Internet came into being, FAIR established a website that brought together a lot of the information FAIR had collected and published on message boards over the years. I found the early versions of the website very accessible. It was easy to find articles on this or that topic or issue. Every site upgrade seems to have made articles less accessible and “answers” less detailed. Maybe this happens to all websites over time.
Then, in 2013, the name of the organization was changed to FairMormon. As explained in the recent announcement, this was partly because many mainstream Mormons who visited the site were confused by the word “apologetics,” which they took to mean making apologies, apologizing for Mormon doctrines and beliefs. And hey, Mormons don’t apologize. But Mormons do want to be fair (or at least be perceived as being fair) so FairMormon emphased the fairness allusion in the prior acronym FAIR. FairMormon: We give fair and balanced information, but we don’t apologize.
Now the organization is reclaiming the acronym FAIR but redefining or repurposing it. Now (again following the recent annoucement) it stands for “Faithful Answers, Informed Response.” And the official name of the organization is now FAIR (so, if you want to be particular, it’s not just an acronym anymore, now it’s a name or title). Which is a clever way to reanimate the acronym, I suppose, if a bit confusing to any newcomer. I imagine there was a meeting or conference call where five or six FAIR types kicked around various word chains based on the F-A-I-R sequence, and this was the best of the lot. Nothing wrong with faithful answers and informed responses. And it’s easier and clearer to talk about FAIR than FairMormon. Just like it’s easier and clearer to talk about the Mormon Church or the LDS Church than The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Which brings up the real problem with the new name FairMormon: we’re not supposed to say “Mormon” anymore. Hence the new new name FAIR. I’m thinking in a few years, when it’s okay to say “Mormon” again, they might end up with a new new new name, FAIRMormon. Here is their pleasantly lighthearted explanation of all this name anxiety:
In October 2018 General Conference, President Nelson asked members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to not use the term Mormon as a self-identifier. Being faithful members, we wanted to comply, but we struggled to come up with another name that everyone liked. We really struggled. Remember, we are the same group that came up with the first name that nobody understood.
Along with the name change to FAIR, the organization is signaling an apparent change in focus or tone. Another quote from the announcement (bold font added):
At this time of name changing, we have also done some reflection and subsequent course adjustment. We are fact checkers and clarifiers. We want to provide fact checking and clear explanations that all parties can trust. We fully understand that not everyone will like our conclusions as we are believing members of the Church. However, we want everyone to be able to trust our review of the facts. This means avoiding personal attacks or derogatory language. This does not mean we won’t point out faulty reasoning and misleading claims, or boldly defend our doctrine. Ultimately, we are here to promote the cause of Christ.
Avoiding personal attacks and derogatory language? This is the same outfit that, just a few months ago, sponsored/endorsed/posted a bunch of videos which featured a wide variety of personal attacks and derogatory language in a set of responses to the CES Letter. (See the W&T post on the FairMormon videos.) Coincidentally, I’m told the links to those videos have recently disappeared from the FAIR site. So while the videos were not explicitly mentioned in the recent announcement, much less expressly repudiated, it’s fairly clear FAIR is backtracking from the videos and, somewhat chastened, moving in a new direction. Well, good for FAIR. That’s the right call.
So all of this seems to put FAIR in a better place. I like the new direction. Maybe they’ll circle back around and give another try at producing short videos that give faithful answers and informed responses to questions and issues.
Where is Mormon Apologetics Headed?
Let’s ask a bigger question: Where is Mormon apologetics headed? The other apologetic organization, FARMS, went through its own name game a few years ago, becoming NAMI, or the Maxwell Institute, or the BYU Maxwell Institute, or the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship. There was, at roughly the same time, also a shift in leadership and a shift in focus from (traditional) Mormon apologetics to Mormon Studies scholarship. Jumping into the Mormon Studies field was something of a new venture for BYU, but it has turned out well. They are putting out great stuff in their journals, their publications, and their video presentations and firesides.
Then there is the Interpreter, which manages to be a foundation (The Interpreter Foundation), a blog, and a journal all at the same time. (The best way to get to the articles is to go to the journal link and just scroll through the article blurbs.) The Interpreter has basically taken up the fallen sword of Old FARMS. If you miss the snarky tone of Old FARMS, I have some good news for you, but you’ll have to look a little harder. The articles vary from Old FARMS screeds to new FAIR faithful answers to NAMI-style scholarship. My sense is that Interpreter does what it wants to do (basically, Old FARMS) much better now that it has separated from BYU.
So at the end of the day, two apologetics organizations, FAIR and FARMS, have morphed into three organizations, FAIR and Interpreter and the Maxwell Institute. Interpreter does traditional snarky Mormon apologetics, mingled with scholarship. FAIR now wants to do a kinder and gentler form of Mormon apologetics, a resource and answers site for mainstream Mormons. And the Maxwell Institute is doing LDS-friendly Mormon Studies scholarship. This seems like a nice place for Mormon apologetics to end up after a messy process of transformation and change.
We can’t wind up a post on Mormon apologetics without a paragraph on the LDS Gospel Topics Essays. They came out right about the same time as FAIR turned into FairMormon and FARMS turned into the Maxwell Institute. They were the first real attempt by the Church to put out apologetic material, faithful answers informed by research, in its own name. From my perspective, the Gospel Topics Essays project seems to have turned out very well. But there are no new essays planned or recently posted (although the posted essays do seem to get updated from time to time, albeit without disclosure or notation). I suspect that, internally, the LDS leadership views the Gospel Topics Essays project as only mildly successful and possibly as counterproductive. The Essays may have provided somewhat authoritative answers for some mainstream Mormons but they also seem to have stirred up questions and concerns for other mainstream Mormons who have read them. If the leadership decides to make another attempt at publishing its own apologetic material, I suspect it won’t be another set of essays.
Let’s wind this up where we started: with FAIR and its new direction. It’s fair to say that the Gospel Topics Essays have done what FAIR has been trying to do for over two decades, and done it better. Rather than “faithful answers, informed response,” maybe an alternative mission statement for the new new FAIR would be to expand and extend the Gospel Topics Essays. Make thirteen pages (I think that’s how many essays there are), each with a list of simple links to short articles giving further questions and answers on the Gospel Topics Essays. Now that would be a useful FAIR site.
I’m so glad they removed the videos. Those were atrocious, truly.
Can’t wait till we can use Mormon again. The linguistic gymnastics are a bit much.
Like Elisa, I’m very happy to hear they’re distancing themselves from those videos. I’m hoping this is a sign that in the Mormon marketplace of ideas, punching down at faith crisis doesn’t hold value for most people.
I hope some day they can take it a step further and change their name to HAIR—Honest Answers Introspective Response. The whole problem with apologetics is starting with a conclusion and working backwards, which is the opposite of the scientific method and leads directly into the thicket of cognitive dissonance. I think people deserve better than that.
Chanting, candles, incense & icons. There are excellent reasons for these, none of which has anything to do with apologetics.
Changing the URL to “fairlatterdaysaints.org” demonstrates that we Mormons love to criticize Pharisees and then we go and mimic their behavior every chance we get
@Josh H it has been interesting to see which Mormon affinity groups have ditched “Mormon” and which haven’t. I think it’s unsurprising that an officially affiliated organization like FAIR would basically have no choice but I’ve seen so many totally unaffiliated / private support and discussion groups wrestle with the change and it’s honestly so ridiculous.
@kirkstall I would love a shift from apologetics to honesty as well. In my experience apologetics tides some people over for a while but ultimately is counterproductive because it’s so misleading.
Interesting post. Like Kirkstall, I hope to see HAIR emerge someday. As far as the future of Mormon apologetics, IMHO, it will have less and less traction as time goes on, at least about certain things. I think it’s going to become increasingly difficult to maintain the (fictional) historicity of the Book of Mormon, e.g. Ditto for things like polygamy, the nature of revelation, etc. I just wish that FAIR would abandon all pretense of “scholarly” inclination and just admit what it is: A pseudo-intellectual PR firm for the church. No one I know who is any kind of serious scholar takes FAIR seriously.
This seems like a positive change to me for sure. That being said, it seems FAIR has taken a page from the Church’s playbook in making a change that doesn’t acknowledge what the problem was or the organization’s role in creating it or really anything at all, but just says “We’re going in a new direction. Forget the past.”
I’m glad they ditched Smoot and Kwaku. That was a train wreck.
Faith crisis is no joke. It’s like finding out your dad may actually not be your dad (before DNA tests). So you never know, you look and see similarities but also see differences and finally come to a conclusion one way or another but are never 100% sure.
We need to respond to individuals with openness and honesty. We can provide reasons to believe and reasons why what seems horrible may not be so bad ONLY AFTER we haven’t minimize their concern and have proven that we are taking them seriously.
And if they choose to go, let them leave with dignity and respect so if they wanted to ever come back, they don’t have to swallow their pride.
What begins as a somewhat amusing review of acronyms, sparked by the FAIR announcement a few days ago, morphs into an article that contains several egregious errors and omissions. When President Hinckley directed in 1997 that FARMS become formally affiliated with BYU in order to better access the resources of the latter, he could not have imagined what would follow. Implementation of the change immediately began a period of contraction, beginning with the abandonment of a much-needed, fully funded facility for FARMS on the edge of campus. FARMS in 2001 was then subsumed as a division of ISPART, which was itself re-named NAMIRS in 2006. The FARMS name and role completely vanished during 2012.
The Maxwell Institute’s trend away from the research approaches that originally distinguished FARMS and had led to the renaissance of Book of Mormon research, now resulted in an institution with a different agenda, one largely focused on engagement with non-LDS academic institutions, rather than on anything that could be construed as “apologetic,” or could be used for apologetic purposes, that is, used to defend the historicity of the Restoration and its scripture.
Following the now-infamous “re-structuring” of the MI in June 2012 (which I will leave to others to discuss), the Interpreter Foundation was organized. But, not mentioned in the article is the other significant development, in 2015, of the formation of Book of Mormon Central by none other than Jack Welch, the original founder of FARMS. Among other achievements, BMC is now the largest and most comprehensive repository of material on the keystone scripture of the Restoration. Increasingly, it is moving toward that status with all the other scriptures we have. It can rightly be viewed as FARMS 2.
The Church leadership most recently publically expressed its concerns over the direction of the Maxwell Institute in a 2018 address at BYU by Elder Holland titled “The Maxwell Legacy in the 21st Century” – see the context of this significant address in Daniel C. Peterson, “The Interpreter Foundation and an Apostolic Charge” in Interpreter 30 (2018), vii – xvii, at https://www.mormoninterpreter.com/the-interpreter-foundation-and-an -apostolic-charge/ Elder Holland’s full talk is also available at https://mi.byu.edu/about-the-institute/ (7-21). A careful reading of Elder Holland’s remarks is revealing.
Hopefully, addressing these omissions in the article will allow readers a more complete picture of what happened and some clarity of the new path that MI has chosen.
Thanks for the comments, everyone.
And thanks for the lecture, Warren Aston. If LDS leaders or BYU had wanted the Maxwell Institute to keep doing Old FARMS-type apologetics, they wouldn’t have made the changes they did a few years ago. Plainly, they wanted to see something a lot more like the new Maxwell Institute, with more scholarship and less partisanship than they were getting under previous management. They got it.
I thought I was pretty straightforward with my discussion of Interpreter: they are continuing Old FARMS-style apologetics and are quite happy doing so. There’s a place in the world for Mormon apologetics, and Interpreter is, at present, that place.
@Warren, I honestly don’t understand your comment. What is missing and more importantly why is that missing information important? What’s your main argument / position? It’s lost somewhat in the details but I’m very curious as to what you’re trying to say. Do you think there should be an institution devoted to defending the historicity of restoration claims to the non-LDS world? That’s a tough road.
I don’t think Dave’s summary strayed that far from the details you gave. I agree that Book of Mormon Central (and Pearl of Great Price Central for that matter) have taken up the mantle of the ancient studies side of FARMS. I see the Interpreter as the main voice of lay apologetics, the successor to the FARMS Review.
The Maxwell Institute has done a good job over the last decade of settling into a middle ground between academic outward-facing scholarship while still providing uplifting scholarship and reflections for Latter-day Saints (see their Living Faith series). The name-change emphasis has forced them to live in a nebulous “Latter-day Saint Studies” field, but there are many quality Mormon Studies programs at outside universities that can carry the sole mission of a secular approach to the Church and its history.
I should clarify that the Interpreter is the main written voice for lay apologetics. The FairMormon conferences are a huge voice for both institutional (Church History Dept) and lay apologetics.
The new direction for FAIR is a better one though I’m afraid the damage has been dealt and it will take slow accumulation of good will for people to get over FAIRMormon’s errors, especially if these are not acknowledged as errors.
Though I’m admittedly a Post- Latter Day Saint myself, I used to provide FAIRMormon links to Latter-Day Saint friends and family to provide a faithful explanations for difficult topics. When the ‘This Is the Show’ attacks happened I’ve begun to only refer them to the Gospel Topics Essays and the Maxwell Institute, with the explanation that the old FAIRMormon group had basically radicalized.
I’m not so certain that I’ll ever revert back to recommending them again. I wasn’t research-curious member when the Maxwell shuffle happened so this is admittedly the first real apologetic controversy I’ve experienced.
I am really hoping Blair Hodges will tell us some of what he saw at the MI while he was there. Brian Hales recently threw the MI under the bus in an online discussion defending the Book of Mormon and they all point to this talk by Elder Holland that Warren pointed out above that somehow indicates that the brass is not happy with the direction of the MI. The MI is doing an excellent job and I really do feel sorry for people like Petersen, Gee, etc.. who are seeing their life work and their legacy being thrown out and replaced. I actually find Petersen entertaining in a Limbaugh sort of way. His snarky style is entertaining, but when Smoot or Ostler try and copy it they come off as cocky, arrogant, condescending pricks. Book of Mormon Central and Pearl of Great Price Central are going to stick around, but they are not going to reach this generation like FARMS reached the previous generation. I would love to hear the phone call that Scott Gordon got about those videos and the tone that FAIR Mormon had been shifting to in the last little while. I would bet this change in direction was demanded and not their idea in any way.
Much to the chagrin of the apologists and the old school members, the church is turning away from much of what they have defended. If you look at the trend over the last 100 years, the church is progressive. It is not as progressive as most here would like it to be, but that is the trend. Apologetics don’t work anymore. Most people can’t ignore the 99% of evidence and cling to the 1%. We want scholarship. I grew up with doctrine being the base of my beliefs and science could fill in the gaps. Prophets trumped scientists. Now, religion has to fit hand and hand with science. Religion and faith fills in the gaps, but I can’t/won’t believe ridiculous things to somehow maintain some rigid belief in things I can easily verify as being false. This is the way the world is moving and the church will move this way too.
@Zach I feel sorry for Gee in the sense that the Church used him for years and then seems to be discarding him when what he’s doing isn’t working for them anymore. Shows they aren’t particularly loyal to their loyalists.
But I don’t feel *too* sorry because he’s a hack. A terrible scholar, rude and condescending, huge ego, and the most recent book with the “gay people are pedophiles” baloney was just too much. So he’s dug his own grave as far as I’m concerned.
I agree that apologetics needs to stop trying to be scholarly. The evidence is just not in their favor. The Givens / Mason approach is the way to go.
I agree that there probably won’t be another set of essays. But couldn’t it be argued that the Saints books are apologetic material?
Well, they finally ditched the clownshow videos. Truly atrocious. That FAIR ever endorsed such an approach is an absolute disgrace.
As for where apologetics is heading. Apologetics has largely been a competition over history, albeit to some extent philosophy. But with Mormon history so well covered, it is hard to find new areas that are going to garner much public attention. Most of what we see is just rehashing of the old stuff. Nibley-style arguments are still a feature of Mormon apologetics.
Another challenge is creating a new generation of apologists. I doubt that that will happen, for a few reasons. 1) Attitudes toward graduate school in the humanities are changing. Enrollment has been going down, and the pandemic is already driving it down even further. 2) The Nibley-style apologetics isn’t gaining the traction it used to. More and more I see on social media platforms ex-Mormons that can handily take down the old Nibley and Dan Peterson arguments. They just aren’t effective anymore, and what’s more, they are quickly laughed at and mocked. For years the ex-Mormon subreddit has included in the graphic art of its heading the image of a tapir, meant to ridicule the absurdity of the oft-heard apologist arguments that the horses in the Book of Mormon could have been the Nephites mistaking tapirs for horses. The mood I have felt from liberal Mormons and other middle-pathers is that the Book of Mormon Central guys are nothing but a laughingstock. A desperate and clownish rehashing of Nibley, Hamblin, and Peterson. 3) The younger generation of thinkers about Mormonism have their attitudes and opinions heavily shaped by the internet and social media, something not available to earlier apologists. The consequence is that the new generation of believing thinkers is going to be incredibly nuanced in their outlook on Mormonism, and probably too much for the older generation leaders’ likings. Already, BYU has recently announced that it is placing heavy emphasis on those with seminary and institute teaching backgrounds to teach its religion classes and fill its positions in the Department of Ancient Scripture. What this means is that nuanced thinkers with PhDs from fancy Divinity Schools and Ivy League PhD programs need not apply. The church leaders want the drones from CES, who don’t have the background in critical thinking and exposure to the wider range of topics relating to Biblical history, to inform the BYU students. BYU clearly doesn’t see a new rising generation of PhD-trained apologists who can command the respect of a larger academic audience filling new positions and creating a new narrative.
Ethan, the Saints volumes can absolutely be considered apologetic. Two goals of the project were that it had to be accurate AND faith-promoting, so sometimes the wording is a bit artful to keep it on the positive side. The Church has really come to utilize its history department much better to present a type of transparency while producing its own apologetic material.
Gee and Muhlestein are just flat out liars. They aren’t just intellectually dishonest, they are dishonest in every sense of the word. Dan Vogel exposed these clowns in his phenomenal videos on Book of Abraham apologetics, and in his excellent new book. Brian Hauglid had the intellectual courage to side with Vogel and call Gee and Muhlestein out for “abhorrent” apologetics.