Recently, a writer for Religion News confused mockery and exposure of dirty secrets with actual religious persecution. That's understandable. Power-hungry authoritarian Christians have been making this mistake for years now.

Reading Time: 10 minutes

The post we’re examining today contains big words like oppressed and persecution. Its writer has misdefined them all. She thinks that an explosion of documentaries and news articles highlighting church-based abuse and crime represent actual religious persecution. They are nothing of the sort. They simply expose the wrongdoing that religious leaders and people commit and then hide, sometimes for generations. And her takeaway at the end of her post shows us another entirely-too-revealing reason why religious people excuse all of it.

‘Mormons are being oppressed!’ Mockery = PERSECUTION!

A couple of days ago, Jana Riess wrote a post for Religion News about an explosion of news articles and documentaries about religious-based crimes and wrongdoing. Here are the post’s title and subtitle:

Mormons are being oppressed and mocked on TV. We’re not alone.
Are Mormons being singled out for religious persecution?

Jana Riess for Religion News Service. Also, the subtitle confirms Betteridge’s Law of Headlines.

Oppressed? Mocked?

Religious persecution?

Goodness, those are some mighty big words.

They’re also being misused to an egregious extent.

Perhaps I simply expect too much of a command of history and English from someone who bills herself as having earned “a PhD in American religious history from Columbia University.”

Or perhaps this is just business as usual for a persecution-starved evangelical.

(Incidentally, regarding the question in the subtitle, Riess lands on all religious believers getting totally persecuted by meaniepie network executives and scandal-hungry audiences. And she’s still completely wrong. So there’s that.)

☢☣ Warning ☣☢: These TV shows totally contain real live religious persecution

Gotta love how Jana Riess describes five TV shows about Mormons. She singles out Under the Banner of Heaven as “partly fictionalized,” saying it “takes massive liberties with 19th-century LDS [Latter-Day Saint, a fancier term for Mormon] history.” The rest are simply documentaries.

  • Keep Sweet: Pray and Obey, which she only partially name-checks. This one concerns the polygamous cult ruled by convicted child rapist Warren Jeffs. Jeffs’ cult is an offshoot of Mormonism.
  • Murder Among the Mormons, about the 1985 bombings committed by Mormon forger Mark Hofmann. I’ve seen it. It’s quite good, and it studiously avoids making Mormons look dumb or weird.
  • LuLaRich, the story of the Mormon shameless scammers couple Mark and DeAnne Stidham and their pyramid scheme, LuLaRoe. Likewise, I’ve seen this. I struggle even to remember anything in it that was overly critical of Mormonism itself. At most, it might have accurately pointed out that Mormon culture, like greater evangelical culture, leaves adherents way more vulnerable to scams.
  • Mormon No More, about two Mormons who realize they’re lesbians and leave Mormonism. Riess sniffs at the doco’s insinuation that “it’s practically impossible for anyone to be loving, LGBTQ-affirming and true to themselves while remaining members of the church.” Has she been paying attention to her Dear Leaders lately? Mormonism is rabidly anti-gay. There is absolutely, positively no street-legal way for a Mormon lesbian to openly live out her life with romantic love, same-sex marriage, children, and full inclusion in any Mormon church. In 2015, top Mormon leaders even tried to weaponize gay parents’ children.
  • Under the Banner of Heaven, as mentioned. It’s about murders committed by members of an even more obscure offshoot of Mormonism. Mormon leaders got upset about its handling of Mormon history. But it sounds like they’re way more upset that someone unearthed a lot of their dirtiest secrets and didn’t ask for permission to reveal them.

So there you have it. These shows are what passes for real live, gen-you-wine religious persecution for Jana Riess of Religion News.

These TV shows are not robbing Mormons of their rights and liberties

One gently asks: Which civil liberties and human rights are Mormons losing over these or any other TV shows?

The answer, of course, is:

None whatsoever.

And how are these TV shows even leading to more mockery of one of the already-goofiest flavors of Christianity ever to hit the pike?

They aren’t.

Mormons’ rights and liberties remain intact. Nor does Jana Riess demonstrate, anywhere in her post, that these TV shows even lead to more mockery of Mormons. She can’t even demonstrate that any of these shows, barring perhaps one (and that’s really iffy, as I said), are wrong about anything. Indeed, she admits that all of these shows (except maybe that one she thinks is iffy) are actually bringing to light actually-awful highlights from Mormon history.

For that matter, how is it oppression and persecution to reveal actual wrongdoing that Mormons have actually committed? As for mockery, I’ve seen a few of these shows, and none of them even do that. Whatever mockery Mormons already get, I doubt it’ll increase overmuch as a result of these shows.

Why so many Christians confuse mockery with persecution

All of that said, I can see why Jana Riess and the unnamed Mormons she cites think that these shows mock her faith, and that mockery in turn represents actual religious persecution.

To Christians like them, mockery actually does function as actual real live religious persecution. They’re authoritarians, and worse than that, they are completely-dysfunctional authoritarians. They live and breathe in a carefully-arranged world of power exchanges, and they don’t feel safe unless they feel powerful. So, they need to feel like society defers to them, fears them, lives in awe of them, and considers them well above criticism and reproach.

When that illusion rips at the seams, they come undone.

Mockery tears apart these authoritarians’ illusions like absolutely nothing else ever could. It is an in-your-face reminder that society does not fear them, live in awe of them, or consider them sacrosanct. One might as well piss on their ancestors’ graves from a great height as mock them with silly memes.

Possibly the nicest of all the ones I just found in a brief Google image search. The others tended to focus on early Mormon leaders’ marriages to underage girls. But I’m sure all those teenagers were widows who couldn’t find husbands, right? Right?

We’ve seen this kind of crybullying countless times before in evangelicalism. When bullying and grabbing for power doesn’t work, dysfunctional authoritarians tend to consider the pushback they get as actual persecution. To them, it is. They feel like they are being done very dirty.

Why so many Christians confuse exposure of their dirty secrets with persecution

Similarly, dysfunctional authoritarians constantly confuse exposure of their worst behavior with persecution.

These self-appointed arbiters of all that is good and pure, these self-promoted ambassadors of a supposedly-living god, these self-righteous mouthpieces for the ineffable, they do not like it when someone points out they are not only not any better than those outside their tribe, but often are much worse in every single way.

When Josh Duggar’s past finally came to light, I heard a great many evangelicals complain that they just wanted to be left alone to Jesus their li’l hearts out. Why couldn’t people just ignore them and all their child-rapists? Why did people have to keep cruelly pointing out all the ways that hardline evangelical culture aids and shields sexual predators? Gosh, all they did was declare themselves the speakers for a god of justice and mercy! Gee, why was everyone suddenly assuming they would be better than people outside their culture?

Something something sin nature, something something we’re all sinners, after all, something something Jesus magically changes people unless he doesn’t. Why aren’t the usual talking points working? Must be religious persecution to the max!

Privilege distress: why authoritarians react like they do

If someone’s never even had a broken bone, then a sprained ankle feels like the worst injury anyone could ever experience.

Ten years ago, Weekly Sift’s writer described a phenomenon he called distress of the privileged. To the privileged, it feels very distressing indeed to experience the peeling-back of even one iota of their former dominance. Sure, that dominance was unearned, unwarranted, and undeserved. It might even have been illegal for them to get it in the first place. Nonetheless, they held it for so long that it felt like their birthright and due. Losing any single bit of it feels like a genuine injury that cries out for justice and redress. Of course, this injury isn’t even close to comparison with what they’ve done to those they consider their inferiors. But it still feels just as painful.

The people who wronged them are legion: those who pointed out the nature of that unearned privilege, those who spoke of the harm this privilege caused to others, and oh, especially those who peeled away some of it at last.

In his post, Weekly Sift’s writer, Doug Muder, primarily focuses on male privilege. But the idea of privilege distress applies just as well to religious privilege⁠—and white privilege, and any other kind of long-held dominance creating similar privilege, as Muder himself points out.

The people crying out about their privilege distress haven’t ever actually experienced real persecution. So, they don’t really know what it feels like. They just know it feels bad, and this exposure of their dirty laundry also feels bad, so it must be religious persecution.

That’s how someone on a major religious news site could write with a straight face that TV documentaries exposing her religion’s fringe-dwelling whackjobs, bigots, and high-rollin’ scammers constitute real live religious persecution to her.

When religious abusers are allowed to operate in secret, their abuse only continues and gets worse

That’s why Jana Riess writes near the end of her post:

It’s safe to guess that future portrayals of our faith may be even less flattering. Consider the recent investigative AP news story about how the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints long covered up the sexual abuse of minors and encouraged bishops not to report it to the police.

Jana Riess, Religion News Service

Would she rather nobody talk about that story? I mean, it’s quite a bombshell: 12,000 pages of documentation about how the Mormon church shielded child abusers from repercussions for years through their Mormon-run “help line.”

The operators of this phone line had one primary goal, which was to keep accusations of child abuse from reaching any secular authorities. Success, to them, meant no lawsuits or messy newspaper headlines. As one attorney for abuse victims put it:

“The help line is certainly there to help — to help the church keep its secrets and to cover up abuse.”

Craig Vernon, to AP News

While Mormons were allowed to keep this dreadful secret, no gods compelled them to stop abusing children or using the help line to protect abusers. Nothing happened till their secrecy got ripped out from under them.

An aside: I sure don’t think abuse victims would consider exposure of abuse ‘unflattering’

Only someone deeply authoritarian and deeply immersed in a dysfunctional authoritarian religion could look at a scandal like that and primly observe that future documentaries about it won’t be “flattering,” as Jana Riess does.

I wonder if she could even put herself into the headspace of one of the thousands of children that Mormon help line didn’t actually help at all. Would those children consider those potential future documentaries to be unflattering? One doubts it; one child victim in the abuse story I linked is now a teenager with some decidedly negative opinions of the religion. One wonders, further, what those children would say about the Mormons who are now dreading those documentaries.

I don’t think a single one of those children would agree that the right thing to do here is just not talk about it.

See, we’ve seen exactly what happens when nobody discusses the harm caused by religious leaders and groups. It just keeps going and going, and it just keeps getting worse and worse. The only way to stop it is to get the law and courts involved, since no gods have ever lifted a finger to help any abuse victims⁠—in or out of their following.

But the law and courts can’t get involved if nobody knows what’s happening in the first place. That’s why I’ve spotted references to Catholic priests raping boys as far back as the late Dark Ages/early medieval period (and I have no doubt that it was happening centuries earlier, probably as soon as Christians adopted asceticism and monasticism as valid lifestyles), and yet Catholic leaders only started taking priests’ sex abuse semi-seriously after their scandal exploded into the public sphere 15-ish years ago.

Religious leaders in these authoritarian flavors of Christianity will always prefer protecting their brand and income over helping those harmed by their fellow leaders. The only thing that ever stops authoritarian abusers is a greater power that they can’t ignore, sidestep, or bargain with.

And nobody can bring that power to bear without public exposure of the abusers’ dark deeds.

Nothing religion brings society outweighs or excuses the harm it causes

Jana Riess ends her post thusly:

It’s hard to remember all the good the church does in the world, which is considerable, when faced with the reality of how many times it has done the wrong thing.

Jana Riess, Religion News Service

But it’s done “the wrong thing” because it could. And it could because nobody was allowed to talk about that harm.

This abuse functioned like “the shining wire” in Watership Down. In that classic book, the hero rabbits chance upon a luxurious warren filled with healthy, well-fed rabbits. Slowly, the heroes learn that a nearby farmer keeps predators well away from this new warren. Regularly, he also lays out delicious food for the rabbits living in it.

In such an environment, the warren rabbits are developing in ways no wild rabbits ever have. They tell strange allegorical stories, recite eerie poetry, and even make art. They carry food in their mouths like dogs. To the hero rabbits, it’s all very creepy.

But the warren rabbits have a dark secret:

The farmer who makes their lives possible sometimes sets a wire snare to catch one of them for dinner.

The rabbits know exactly where the snare will be. It’s always set on a path leading to their food source, which can’t be reached in any other way. However, they don’t know exactly when to expect a snare.

So, the warren rabbits decide that their plush lives are worth losing one or two of their number every few months. They simply decide never to talk about those losses, nor about the bargain they’ve implicitly struck with the farmer. In fact, they viciously punish any rabbits who try to talk about any of it.

Despite all the wrongdoing the farmer commits against them, the rabbits decide that the good he’s doing for them outweighs it. They accept these deaths as the price for their continued existence in Rabbit Omelas, just as the denizens of the human Omelas accept unthinkable abuse to a single scapegoated child as the price for their paradise.

Beware of any group that gets persecution wrong

Persecution is, as I’ve said, a mighty big word. Like a mighty big gun, it must be pointed in the correct direction or it can cause harm and chaos. That’s why I also say that misusing a big word like that one says more about those misusing it than about whatever they think they’re talking about.

Scrutiny and the exposure of dirty laundry is not persecution. Mockery, be it real or imaginary (as in this case, since I really and truly can’t detect any increases there), is not persecution either.

Both are simply the natural outgrowths of Mormons’ gradual loss of unwarranted, unearned privilege. The fact that Mormons choose to focus on how meeeeeeeeean everybody’s being to them rather than on the victims of abusive Mormons says a lot about them, though, and none of it’s good.

In this case, Jana Riess’ sympathies rest entirely with her Dear Leaders and tribe. She doesn’t utter a word of sympathy for those young women forced to marry Warren Jeffs, nor for the lesbian women who realized just how completely anti-gay Mormonism really is, nor for the many mostly-evangelical women fleeced and hung out to dry by the Mormon leaders of LuLaRoe.

If I knew nothing about Mormonism but this one Religion News story, if I were a space princess descending into lower orbit and I’d just encountered Mormonism for the first time through Jana Riess’ column, I would still instantly know that Mormons were bad news. I would instantly recognize that Riess is just one of the warren rabbits who have rationalized the shining wire.

Hey. It hasn’t ensnared her, after all.


Look instead at all that food the farmer brings them!

ROLL TO DISBELIEVE "Captain Cassidy" is Cassidy McGillicuddy, a Gen Xer and ex-Pentecostal. (The title is metaphorical.) She writes about the intersection of psychology, belief, popular culture, science,...

Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments