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.