Let’s just say this right up front: It’s disturbing how popular, how successful, lying as a strategy has become. In politics. In the corporate world. Maybe religion too? We’ll come back to religion. Let’s start with an article at the Atlantic, “We’ve Lost the Plot: Our constant need for entertainment has blurred the line between fiction and reality” and just sort of see where the topic takes us. I’ll throw out some Mo app issues along the way.
Movies and television have often blurred that line between fiction and reality. Consider the Blair Witch Project (1999). It was, of course, a movie with a script, but it was presented as a documentary with “real” footage. It was a big hit. Consider “reality TV,” which (according to Wikipedia) presents “purportedly unscripted real-life situations, often starring unfamiliar people rather than professional actors.” The general consensus on these shows is that some activity is spontaneous but they are fairly scripted. It’s about sort of fooling an audience that plays along with the charade and willingly pretends it’s entirely unscripted.
The thing to focus on is the camera: it records material that a director and his crew of editors can edit to tell the story they want, whether the standard fictional movie that we know is fiction and we just enjoy on those terms, or some version of reality TV or faux-documentary that we might enjoy while, at the same time, not being entirely sure how much is “real” and how much is scripted and edited. And then there are “based on real events” movies that sort of claim to be somewhat factual but take substantial liberties (to say the least) with the facts. And of course special effects can be inserted in a film. In a sci-fi movie, the special effects are very apparent. In other genres, the special effects (often a piece of unreality slipped into an otherwise “real” scene) are less visible.
Issue No. 1: What is entertainment or special effects as opposed to worship and teaching in LDS activities? There is certainly little entertainment in General Conference. What you see is what you get. Ditto for sacrament meeting. It’s in official LDS art and video presentations that the issue really arises. This is most evident in LDS artistic and video presentations of the First Vision, the experience of the Three Witnesses, the experience of the Eight Witnesses, and so forth. It’s not easy to doctor (correlate?) a text or a document once it has been published, but it is very easy to depict an event in art or on film just the way you want it to be or you wish it had been. LDS viewers often take these artistic and video presentation at face value, as if there were a camera there recording events, now displayed on the screen. Remember that muscle-bound Book of Mormon artwork that Arnold Friberg did that was published with the older bluish paperback Books of Mormon for so many years? What was going on with that? Why were such obviously fictional representations (even if you take the characters to be historical) such a hit with Mormon leaders and laity?
So let’s move on to social media, which has proven to be oh-so-popular with most people. (And welcome to our blog, blogging being sort of a precursor to social media that still keeps chugging along … because it delivers better content and invites more serious conversation. Give yourself a pat on the back for sticking with it.) There is pretty much nothing I can say about social media that you don’t already know. Yes, Facebook allows connections with real people you may know in real life or not, but people pretty much share only the best parts of their life and often exaggerate even those good things. Tik Tok seems to take exaggeration and phoniness to a whole new level — yet it seems to be wildly popular with viewers. Go figure.
One the one hand, we can acknowledge that people go to social media and watch Tik Tok video snippets largely to be entertained. On the other hand, it sure seems like the whole enterprise encourages a “truth, who needs it? I like my illusions” mentality. The slow arrival of the metaverse threatens to take that to a whole new level. Here’s a thought experiment. What if your local library took all their books, fiction and nonfiction, and mixed them all together, shelving every book in the library alphabetically by author. Every book you pick up, the first thing you have to do is figure out whether it is fiction or non-fiction. Often it would be hard to distinguish, especially when opportunistic authors with something to gain might start writing fictional treatments of history or science or anything to throw in the mix on the shelf. That’s what a lot of TV and video material is becoming: hard to tell what portion is fact-based versus purely fictional.
Issue No. 2: What is social media doing for the Church? Short answer: at the general level, very little. At the local level, considerably more, as many ward members network with each other, keep up with events in the lives of their ward friends, coordinate activities and meals for the missionaries, and so forth. I suspect that exaggerations and misrepresentations are less of an issue here if you know the person in real life and see them regularly. Of more interest, I think, is social media as an uncorrelated, unsupervised medium for members to communicate with each other. That could be a positive thing (for the members) but possibly a bad thing (for a church that likes to keep a close eye on what members think and say and do). When a ward member tattles to the bishop about this or that and the bishop gets after a ward member because of something said or done on Facebook … that’s where it starts to feel like 1984. Bottom line: the concerns about social media that are relevant to society at large are rather different than the concerns from an LDS perspective.
So lets move on to politics. We have, I think, always suspected and even expected a good deal of editing and exaggeration in what politicians and elected leaders say. Along with the occasional outright fabrication (again, suspected and even expected). Before Trump, the press was fairly careful to avoid the L word and call such fabrications slips or misstatements or questionable assertions, when discovered and reported. But now the press gleefully identifies lies, in step with a steep increase in political lying. George Santos, a Republican recently elected to the House from New York, seems to have taken lying and misrepresentation to a whole new level, more or less fabricating his entire resume presented to voters, not to mention financial shenanigans that are now coming to light.
But the real story isn’t what Santos said or didn’t say about his prior accomplishments, real or fictional. The story is how little negative response it has generated. Republican leadership seems largely unconcerned. In Congress, ethics seems more and more like one of those “in theory, but not in practice” topics. To the electorate and even society at large, the issue for politics seems no longer to be *whether* a person lies (and if they do and get caught, there is a real political price to pay) but instead how *effectively* and even how *brazenly* they lie. A good liar gets a pat on the back and a clumsy liar pays a price. It’s like real-life politics has taken on the aura of reality TV: We think it’s all largely phony, and we judge winners and losers by how entertaining their phoniness is. It’s one thing if voters (who are only human) think Santos is more entertaining than some relatively unknown representative who quietly works to craft needed legislation, does good committee work, and serves the members of her district. It’s something much more dangerous if voters and other elected officials *reward* a guy like Santos for being entertaining and minimize or ignore others who take their oaths seriously and try to serve honestly.
I remember some snickers a few years back when Ronald Reagan ran for president and won. Imagine, an actor who became president! Well, he was the governor of California before he ran for president, so he actually had substantial political experience. Donald Trump has taken this a step further, as not just an actor but a reality TV star. With no prior political experience. So the whole entertainment industry approach has, it seems, bled over into politics in a significant way. Not necessarily a negative way, I would add. President Zelensky of Ukraine was an actor, too. Now he’s a hero, a leader showing courage and determination in the most difficult of circumstances.
Issue No. 3: Has increasing corruption in American politics affected the Church, its leadership, or its membership? This is a serious question and too large a question to really cover in two paragraphs. Let’s just look at one episode: the Hundred Billion Dollar Fund. The leadership was very willing, and very careful, to not inform membership of this huge tithing surplus accumulated over several decades and quietly invested in a variety of assets. What’s even more surprising is that when it finally came to light a couple of years ago, the membership was largely unconcerned with the very questionable actions of the leadership. They are mostly even proud that the leadership had salted away a hundred billion dollars … for a rainy day or something. It’s like most Mormons were happy to be lied to! Remember that kid in junior high who was walking around with a “kick me” note taped to his back? It’s like the membership walks around with a “lie to me” note permanently taped to their backs.
Bottom line: a lot of Americans seem to be more and more willing to simply disengage from reality and embrace illusions of one sort or another. It seems to be happening across a variety of institutions and contexts, including religion. That ought to be of concern to a church and membership that uses the word “true” fifty times every testimony meeting, once a month. But I’m not sure most members are concerned or even aware of this trend.
So what do you think? Is this a real thing? Or am I barking up the wrong tree? Instead of throwing out some comment prompts, I’ll just refer you back to the three issues/questions I highlighted in bold case above. I think these developments are seeping into the Church. I see no indication these negative developments are slowing down. It will get worse before it gets better. It may never get better. If George Orwell had titled his book 2034 instead of 1984, it might have been prophecy rather than fiction.
A lot of people make a big deal out of the Ensign Peak Advisors fund being worth $100 billion (current estimates are closer to $124 billion), but one thing they don’t take into account is what sort of investments those are. Of the current estimated $124B, about $40B is stocks and hedge funds. Most of the rest is held in real estate which is not a very liquid form of investment, but instead generally provides a steady revenue stream.
As an example, you might own a house worth $500K with no mortgage, and then rent it out for $2K/month. That provides you $24K/year of passive income that you can use in retirement (for example), but only if you aren’t already depending on it for your day-to-day expenses. The $500K house isn’t a $500K rainy day fund (though you could get a line of credit against the house in an emergency). It’s a $24K rainy day revenue stream.
But that doesn’t work if you sell off or mortgage the house to fund other projects, which would eliminate that revenue stream.
And none of that takes into consideration how much that real estate has increased in value over the years as well.
One proof point that we have a huge reality gap in the Church is the way we view ourselves vs. the way others view us. Within the Church, we believe we are a light to the world. We believe we are spreading the good word. We believe we are the most pro-family church in the world. Do others see us this way? You know the answer. A recent survey all over Reddit showed that Americans view the COJCOLDS with the same suspicion as certain religion organizations that we don’t consider to be mainstream (like we think we are). People may like us individually, but they don’t view the Mormon Church in a positive way. After all the PR and missionary work.
David B has hit the nail squarely on the head. The modern entertainment industry has an open and stated agenda of promoting substance abuse and wanton sexuality. This is done by blurring the line between fiction and reality, and more often by outright lying. I issue my strongest possible condemnation to this deception.
I for one find it very distressing that the Church is attempting to produce entertaining spectacles by using modern industry techniques. It is no wonder these productions are failing. The pious want serenity and enlightenment, not an imitation of a Dua Lipa concert.
For similar reasons, the Church’s Facebook campaign has been an unmitigated disaster. Facebook exists primarily for old flames to look each other up to start new liaisons. Pious devotees are not on this platform to be found.
The Church needs to realize that true devotion does not come from entertainment. True devotion comes from embracing hard work, study, and service. That is irrefutable fact.
Regarding the EPA fund, you said the lack of blowback made it seem like most members were happy to be lied to. I would take it a step further. I think Elder Hamilton in his recent devotional where he said critics should substitute Christ for the Church and see if we still wanted to criticize was firmly in the mainstream of the Church. I don’t think members were happy to be lied to about the EPA fund. I think they’ve largely swallowed the Church’s line that it is not possible for the leaders of the Church to lie, because what they say is by definition true. It’s like the philosophical question about whether truth or good is bigger than God or if what God does or says is good or true simply because God did or said it. But again, with Elder Hamilton’s substitution, it’s the Church that is by definition truthful and right.
Timely post. Dave B, I think part of what you’re saying is new and part of it is quite old. I think there’s been this kind of lying and manipulation in congress for a long time; indeed, for quite a while, the media was a willing participant in covering up a lot of it. Recall the media basically agreeing to keep JFK and Marilyn’s affair secret, e.g. So this kind of stuff has been going on a lot. I think what’s changed is that it’s easier to catch politicians on their lies because of how transparent everyone’s lives have become due to technology. And the other thing that’s changed is that there is simply so sense of shame amongst most federal-level officeholders. It used to be the case, not that long ago, that if a politician was caught in a scandal or a lie (or a series of them), they’d still experience just enough embarrassment to resign. Because people have no shame now and really, no moral compass, the strategy has now become, double down, blame your problems on the other side and be able to appeal to enough of your party’s base that your party won’t want to get rid of you (see Trump’s playbook). It takes shameless people to do shameful things.
And where is the church in all of this? Well, I don’t think increasing corruption outside of the church has affected it much; I think it’s the inner corruption that already existed. Church leaders have lied, have doubled down on things later shown to be untrue or harmful, have done the occasional quick (or slow) reversals after really getting called out on something (the POX, e.g.), and have resorted to a kind of 21st century media-savvy double speak. There are ways in which the church is not at all sophisticated in terms of its media skills, but it is pretty good at estimating how many of its members will buy its untruths. The point you make about not being able to distinguish between fiction and reality is, of course, exactly what the church depends upon to exist. No offense to any true believers out there, but even a cursory examination of Joseph Smith’s life reveals a plethora of extraordinarily troubling behaviors. The same can be said for Brigham Young and other early apostles. Those are the people in charge of establishing god’s only true church? The fact is that what the church calls “faith” is, in reality, something more akin to gullibility; at least as the church sees it, whether about the 100 billion dollar fund or anything else. And it’s exactly that gullibility that it depends upon to continue deceiving people, in a quite similar way to modern politicians.
I tend to look at Hamilton’s odd conflation of Jesus and the church as a product of the culture war. Some church leaders (like Hamilton) tend look at the church as solely the leaders themselves. That is extreme hierarchal thinking and it is likely the product of a siege mentality. I wish someone would point to the scriptural description of the Church as the “body of Christ” were we learn that the Church is every single member of the Church and that no one can claim that they have “no need of” other individuals or groups of members. Hamilton’s conflation leaves the large group of members with questions and concerns in the position to be ignored and discarded. They are not leaders, so they don’t matter. I take it as a spiritual reality that Christ is closest to the poor and needy of the Church and the world. The leaders, by Christ’s example, are supposed to be the servants of all. It seemed to me that Hamilton and those who agreed with his argument have accepted the notion that the “real” Church is composed of an upper caste of leaders, with the lower castes of members (identified by their non-leader status and the marginalization of their voices and concerns) need to obediently following every word without thought or consideration. That is not the scriptural model. The scriptural model makes it quite clear that the “lower” castes of Christians have gifts to give to all.
Oh, that’s a great point, Old Man, and a great counterpoint to Hamilton’s framing. I think you’re spot on about (some or many) GAs thinking they are the Church and nobody else is. Given their power to steer it, though, and our inability to even provide input, I think their model is probably more correct than the body of Christ model from Paul. And I think their model would be more agreed to by members in general than Paul’s model.
“They are mostly even proud that the leadership had salted away a hundred billion dollars … for a rainy day or something. It’s like most Mormons were happy to be lied to! Remember that kid in junior high who was walking around with a “kick me” note taped to his back? It’s like the membership walks around with a “lie to me” note permanently taped to their backs.“
Interesting that you are so eager to insult the members of the church. Hard to see how we were lied to. As you stated earlier in your post “The leadership was very willing, and very careful, to not inform membership of this huge tithing surplus …`.
Not telling someone something is not lying and the church leaders didn`t lie to us. Rather they simply did not advise how much their investments had earned. That is not lying.
It is also hard to see why I should be upset that the church has invested so wisely. Having been in the church long enough to remember contributions to the building fund (in addition to tithing and fast offering) in order to have enough money to build our local chapel. I am one of the ones who think its a great thing. If your partner had quietly invested some of their income and one day came to you and told you their investments now totaled a significant amount that would allow you to retire and spend the rest of your life living in a beachfront home in Hawaii, I doubt you would be screaming at them and accusing them of lying to you simply because they hadn`t told you how much they had.
As for insults regarding notes on the back I`ll take the high road and not expressly state what I think is the wording on the note taped to your back but Imust confess I do kind of the like the last two words found in Mosiah 21:3.
Ojisan, your hypothetical about a partner squirreling away money is quite scary. It happens, though often without such positive outcomes. It, indeed, should be a worry. Though, from your comment, it seems like financial concerns trump other ones. Ones that are, in the end, more important in the eternal scheme. I think your comment thus sort of supports the OPs claims (though I also think the OP has some concerns that regard). Probably would have been best to leave out that little hypothetical.
Oijsan, your comparison to a wife investing money discretely to provide for her husband’s future financial well being is not at all the situation here. Firstly, in your hypothetical, the wife told her husband what she did. The church did not tell us; a whistleblower did. Second, the wife intends to use the funds to secure her husband’s future financial well being. Yet the church still requires its members to continue to contribute to this fund while families in my ward struggle to come up with $300 per kid for camp, another $75 per kid for FSY this summer, and filling in gaps in a very insufficient youth and primary budget (for example, every temple trip involves a stop at In N Out but the kids have to pay for their own food). See the distinction?
Also interesting that you should bring up the building fund. My community in 2003 had to fund its own temple because HQ wouldn’t approve it otherwise (no idea how many stakes this is). They asked for $3,000 per family. So the wise investment hasn’t completely abolished the local building fund either.
All that to say, I don’t judge who don’t take issue with the $100B fund, and I hope the same charity goes the other way (because, for the record, I do take issue with it).
If we assume that the fund grew at about the rate of the S&P 500, it would only have been about $31 billion in 2003. In actuality it would have been less if the Church has been adding funds to it for all that time.
It takes time to build up a fund that can cover the building expenses without dipping into the principal, especially if you include a buffer for economic downturns. 20 years ago a $31 billion fund wasn’t sufficient, but today that fund has grown to a size that can cover those costs.
Ojisan, I don’t think your comments and example work as well as you think they do.
Honesty has 2 parts. I try to be sure that the things I say to you are true, AND I give you all the applicable information. Omitting information may not be the same as lying, but it is dishonest. So yes, I would be upset if my husband came to me to say that he had been stashing away money without discussing it with me. Even if it the results were good, it would definitely have been dishonest and a betrayal of trust.
There can be a discussion about whether or not telling the church membership about money management is an appropriate sharing of applicable information. However, I don’t think you can say that hiding information from concerned parties is honest.
(Though I always wonder if people like Ojisan stay around to read responses, or if they just throw bombs and then run away.)
I can’t help but see that a lot of the beliefs of Mormonism are based on the lies of Joseph Smith. Lying to succeed has been around a long time. And the methods to use lying to one’s advantage have been similar for a long time. The problem for some period was 1) investigative journalism culture which stressed holding powerful and influential figures to the truth and 2) the internet, which could be used to access facts quickly. However, liars, as they always have in the past, have figured out ways around those “problems.” The powerful and influential talk only to journalists who already agree with them or who have an agenda that is in consort with mendacious powerful figures’ agendas. The internet has experienced information overload. Over the past decade or so, society in the US grew increasingly inured to truth. Trump came along and convinced people that we live in a post-truth world, that honesty meant saying rude and outlandish things rather than true things, and that we can’t trust anyone. It has been a disaster. It is now so much harder to advance policies that we need because Trump has muddied the waters and scrambled the air signals. In the era of post-truth tribalism is making a huge comeback, where you support ideas not because they carry any verifiable truth value, but because it is your tribe who is saying it, and therefore it must be presumed true. And tribalism is far stronger on the right than the left, where the Democratic Party still remains a big-tent party with several competing interest groups. The extremists have brought the Republican Party to its knees. Marjorie Taylor Greene, who has threatened Nancy Pelosi with death before a gatherings of dozens, denied that a plane hit the Pentagon on 9/11, and said that had she organized January 6th that the protestors would have been armed (they already were) and would have won, now has a committee assignment.
George Santos two decades ago would have been chased out of Congress, no matter the party he was in. Now we have Tucker Carlson, a leading pundit voice in the right-wing echosphere, defending George Santos. This is truly horrific.
Our thoughts shape our reality —and in the era of the internet, you can find groups (echo chambers) that re-affirm your thought and your realities. I believe that one of the biggest problems of our day is that so many people are living in different realities. I certainly live in a different reality than my brother-in-law (who lives in a reality where the government taken over, elections are rigged, there’s nothing we can do about it, and civil war is imminent). So there are two very different political realities.
I also believe that members of the LDS church live in a different reality than the rest of society. I know that I definitely used to. I lived in a reality where God had restored his “ONE TRUE CHURCH” on the earth, and I was one of the lucky few who knew about it. I was special, elite, chosen, and separate from the rest of the world. Because I was a member of the church, God was aware of all of my actions and he was intervening and giving me blessings because of my obedience. (I actually really enjoyed living in this reality- I felt very special, and I had a lot of hope that everything was going to work out for my benefit).
Now I live in a reality where I’m a member of a church that is a lot like other churches and organizations that exist on the earth. I’m no more special than anyone else, and I don’t have special knowledge, or get special blessings that other people don’t. In fact, I’m just like everyone else. I don’t need to be separate from the rest of the world or the people that I work with. I can just be one with humanity. (Sometimes I sort of miss my old reality, but I really enjoy and actually prefer my new reality. I find it easier to connect with people and love people).
JCS, I don’t know how many of my Facebook friends are using the platform for illicit rendezvous with old flames, but I can bear you my solemn witness that Facebook is absolutely full of pious devotees. All Pres Nelson has to do is throw out a hashtag and my feed lights up like a big ole Mormon Christmas tree.
Side note: how many of us former believers occasionally encounter Facebook “memories” of our old missionary-oriented posts? It’s a strange experience to encounter my former self in such a performative mode expressing attitudes that are sometimes the polar opposite of my current ones.
“Remember that muscle-bound Book of Mormon artwork that Arnold Friberg did… Why were such obviously fictional representations (even if you take the characters to be historical) such a hit with Mormon leaders and laity?”
I actually think those Friberg paintings match the BoM perfectly. JS’ book describes a Biblical society plopped into an uninhabited New England. The heroes are larger than life White Dudes who go around chopping arms and taking names. Charleton Heston could’ve played all of them. I actually believe that attempting to make the BoM historical is hurtful and tantamount to erasure of the real histories of the actual Native tribes who’ve lived here for millennia. So let it remain a fantasy, I say.
Brian, Chadwick, PWS
1. The point you seem to be missing is that my issue was with the fact that he said it was lying and then proceeded to mock the members of the church in a most unkind way based on his erroneous conclusion that it was lying. He said it was lying, not dishonest or lacking in transparency or bad practice but lying.
2. While you can argue that not telling how much the investments were worth was not an acceptable course of action that is not what he said. He said it was lying.
3. The fact that we got the information from someone other than the church leaders does not make it lying. In my example the spouse did not lie to their spouse. Withholding information when you have not been questioned about it is not lying.
4. The fact that the church asks for other financial contributions does not make the non-disclosure lying.
5. There are discussions that can legitimately be had about the investments: such as whether some should be set aside for specific church or other purposes or whether the money should be invested in certain types of investments but calling the failure to disclose it lying does not work.
(Though I always wonder if people like Ojisan stay around to read responses, or if they just throw bombs and then run away.)
Very classy statement
Ojisan, you are right. I was judging you based on things I thought I had observed in others. That was not kind and not fair. I apologize.
I still disagree about the dishonesty. Lying by omission is dishonest. As I said, there is a reasonable discussion about whether or not that applies in this specific church setting. It definitely applies in a marriage. If I know you think I am doing one thing while I am secretly doing something else, that is dishonest.
Ojisan, your comment addressed to me has nothing to do with what I wrote. Oh well. C’est la vie.
You did state, “I think your comment thus sort of supports the OPs claims ..” which claims were that the church leaders were lying.
The point of my response to you was “no, they were not lying and therefore my comment did not support the claim in the OP that they were lying”. My apologies if that was not clear.
Depending on specific circumstances you may be able to argue it is dishonest but it is not lying unless you are actually told something that is not true.
The perception of the spouse in the hypothetical regarding dishonesty would likely depend on the relationship between, and past experiences of, the spouses. I have to say if my wife came to me and told me her investments were such that we could retire and spend the rest of our lives living in a beachfront home in Hawaii, I’d be pleased with her financial acumen and the thought that she had been dishonest would never enter my mind.
Would your appraisal of the Hawaii situation change if you’d had a child that needed a lifesaving treatment and your wife had stayed quiet and left you to assume you couldn’t afford it when in reality she was putting away money to save for that Hawaii retirement? Or if *you* had needed a lifesaving treatment but instead died before you were able to enjoy the fruits of her savings, her revealing it to you only when it was too late and you were on your deathbed? There are implications, in real life, when the church has suggested, via conference talks, that families should pay tithing before they buy food for their children and before they pay to provide shelter for their children. In some cases the church will provide short-term assistance to such families, but it is not something these families can rely on, and it is generally only very short-term when it *is* given.
(re: the Hawaiian retirement) We are likely looking at the widows’ mite story upside down. I was taught that we all needed to contribute, no matter how little we were able. I now understand the story to mean that the church leaders were being condemned for accepting a donation from a widow who lived in poverty.
Feel free to ignore what I wrote.
I wrote “Depending on specific circumstances you may be able to argue it is dishonest but it is not lying unless you are actually told something that is not true.”
Clearly under the circumstances you describe there would likely be significant issues already existing and subsequently arising in the relationship but if there were no false statements made beforehand she was not “lying”.
As for the widow’s mite neither of those is any interpretation I have ever heard or had. My understanding of the widow’s mite is that the size of the contribution and/or the publicity surrounding it is irrelevant. Rather, it is the mind set of the individual making the contribution that matters to the Lord.
entertainment = strange bedfellows = BYUTV and The Chosen, from a known evangelical – would love to see a W&T post about this.