FairMormon Shoots Itself in the Foot
FairMormon, formerly known as FAIR (Foundation for Apologetics Information and Research) "is a non-profit organization dedicated to providing well-documented answers to criticisms of the doctrine, practice, and history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints." Over ten years ago, it saved me from my first faith crisis by providing additional context and analysis to show that the issues I feared were smoking guns against the Church actually weren't. As the years went on I became less enamored with it and less dependent on it, and recognized that at times its apologetic arguments left something to be desired, and occasionally I sent a question to its volunteers and got no response or got a response to a different question than the one I asked, but I continued to root for it and support its mission. As of this week it has entirely lost my respect.
Recently, FairMormon started releasing video rebuttals to the CES Letter, a CliffsNotes compilation of recycled criticisms against the Church that's gotten a lot more attention than it deserves and been elevated to scriptural status by many former members. Several people have produced rebuttals over the last seven years, but these videos are meant to be a fresh, different approach to reach the younger generation. They're hosted by some guy I've never heard of and Kwaku El, an up-and-coming apologist who used to be one of my favorite people until he decided to flaunt public health and safety guidelines by throwing massive dance parties that were probably a major factor in Utah's ongoing explosion of you-know-what cases. I hope the money he made was worth the blood he has on his hands. But never mind that now. The series, a spoof of comedic spoofs of late night news programs, is called "This is the Show". TITS - get it? It's funny if you're seven, and the same can be said for most of the show's jokes.
I am, obviously, a snarky and sarcastic person myself, and while I need to be better at not crossing the line, I have no intention of changing that aspect of my personality altogether. I believe there's a time and a place for it. Jesus didn't just go around being nice to people all the time. He called people hypocrites, dogs, swine, generation of vipers, whited sepulchres, and Satan. Also, "He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone" sounds pretty sarcastic to me. (There is some scholarly debate about whether that story actually belongs in the Bible, but virtually all Christians accept it so that's what matters right now.) And I think the CES Letter is garbage and I don't believe Jesus would treat it with respect it doesn't deserve. I don't think much of author Jeremy Runnells as a person either, because I don't think his actions since his initial faith crisis have shown honesty or integrity, but I defended him once when a Latter-day Saint apologist called him a "miserable Aspie" (and I was in an ideal situation to put the bigot in his place, as an Aspie myself, before I stopped using that word because Hans Asperger was a Nazi collaborator who sent children to their deaths).
Also, I roll my eyes so hard at the hypocrisy of church critics who throw insults and contempt around to their hearts' content and then cry foul if a believer dares to respond without being entirely polite and deferential. I roll my eyes so hard when atheists who by definition don't believe in Christ - at most, they believe Jesus was just a guy who went around being nice to everyone and lying about being the Son of God - whine about someone not being "Christlike". Every digital ex-Mormon community I've ever wasted my time in was a cesspool of hate, mockery, and cultish buzzwords like "Morgbot" (Mormon + Borg + robot) and acronyms like "TSCC" (That So-Called Church), so while I recognize that not every individual is like this, I roll my eyes so hard when these cesspools send their members out in droves to complain about believers failing to foster an atmosphere of mutual tolerance and respect that they suddenly pretend to value. I don't particularly care that they're upset. They deserve to be upset.
So what I'm getting at is that I wanted to like these videos, really. And most of their information is accurate and they have some funny moments. But they cross the line far too often. They insult Jeremy Runnells and others like John Dehlin personally instead of restricting themselves to the letter's contents, some of their "jokes" are just straight-up tasteless, and they lack any nuance or empathy whatsoever. (Who would've thought that Kwaku "If people are going to die, they’re going to die" El would lack empathy? Yes, he actually said that about his dance parties.) I agree that the CES Letter is garbage, but these videos (and in fairness, this is a common attitude among apologists) are totally dismissive of any legitimate doubts or concerns a person might have. Take polygamy, for example. In the video "Mo Wives, Mo Problems" they spend a whopping ten minutes on this complicated and multifaceted practice that lasted at least sixty years, make a few jokes about sex, and basically say that there's no issue here and you're wrong and stupid if it bothers you at all. By the way, Zelph on the Shelf's 46-minute response video to that video has almost twice as many views. Oops.
I can't recommend, support, or like "This is the Show". Maybe I have no right to criticize when I've written worse things (though to the best of my recollection I've never belittled anyone for having doubts or concerns), but I represent only myself and have a very small audience, so my potential for damage is very small. I believe these videos, coming as they do from the foremost Latter-day Saint apologetics organization, will do far more harm than good to the Church. If this had been the calibre of material that FAIR had to offer when I found it ten years ago, I wouldn't likely still be a member of the Church today. Also, calling the CES Letter "toilet paper", as one episode does two or three times, doesn't offend me in the slightest but doesn't really make sense either. While I'm sure a few people have printed it out so they can sleep with it every night, the letter is first and foremost a pdf. So how would that even work? Never mind, I don't want to know.
The response was overwhelmingly negative from both in and out of the Church. I admit, because I believe snark and sarcasm have a place and because I roll my eyes so hard at critics' hypocrisy, my first impulse was to defend the videos, but I couldn't keep that up for long. The like-to-dislike ratio on each one, and the majority of comments, were not favorable. And it turns out that someone at FairMormon has been reading The Ventana Student Housing Guide to Damage Control. Within a few days, the likes and dislikes were made invisible to the public, and comments were disabled. As if that weren't enough, anyone who expressed the slightest critique of the videos' tone on FairMormon's Facebook page was banned without a word. I was banned on Tuesday night. Despite my being a faithful member of the Church my entire life, despite my decade of support for apologetics, in FairMormon's militant us vs. them mentality I am now an enemy. More like FearMormon, amiright? At this point I have to ask, is its board of directors now composed of fifth graders? I find this response more damning than the videos themselves.
FairMormon also released a damage control statement on its blog recently (with - wait for it - comments disabled), and instead of taking the opportunity to acknowledge that this was a misfire, chose to double down: "These videos use comedy and caricature to address criticisms of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. They are intended for a youth and young adult audience as part of our efforts to provide accurate, well-documented answers to criticisms of the doctrine, practice and history of the Church."
Okay, great, but there's clearly a mismatch between the intention of these videos and how they're actually received by most people. Maybe FairMormon should look inward instead of assuming that everyone who dislikes them is wrong because the intention was good.
The statement goes on to say: "First, some have claimed that other groups collaborated with FairMormon on these videos. This is false. FairMormon commissioned the production of 'This is The Show' videos without prompting, input, suggestion or direction from any other entity or individual. No other group has contributed to the content, style, performance, production, or distribution of our videos. FairMormon alone is responsible for the content shared on the videos, and our websites."
Wow. Just wow. I just kind of assumed these videos were Kwaku's idea - he mentioned on his own channel some time ago that they were in the works, after all - and then FairMormon had the poor judgment of agreeing to partner with him and host them, and that was a bit more understandable. The revelation that FairMormon alone is responsible for the content, style, performance, and production does not, in fact, make the organization look better.
The statement goes on to say, "Second, some have accused FairMormon of distributing a meme with intent to incite violence. This is also false. We did not create or distribute the meme in question, nor did we ask anyone (directly or indirectly) to create or distribute such a meme. We do not know the individual who created the meme. We have nothing whatever to do with the meme, and we do not condone it in any way. FairMormon abhors violence in all of its forms and condemns anything that would invite or incite violence towards anyone—including our critics. We regret that any personalities associated with FairMormon may have shared such content. We will review our social media policy with our FairMormon associates and contractors."
This refers to a memeified clip from "Inglorious Basterds" made by a DezNat cultist and shared approvingly on Twitter by Kwaku and the videos' director, which depicts "This is the Show" straight-up murdering Jeremy Runnells and John Dehlin. Runnells and Dehlin, apparently not understanding how memes or symbolism work, made themselves look really stupid by treating this as a credible threat of violence and trying to get Kwaku arrested for endorsing it. (Not to mention that calling the police on a black man is itself essentially a murder attempt.) But the video is unquestionably tasteless, and FairMormon not being directly responsible for it doesn't entirely absolve the organization. The people who shared this meme are not just "any personalities associated with FairMormon", they are the people being actively promoted by FairMormon as its public face for the rising generation. And if nobody at FairMormon can see an obvious correlation between the kind of memes they share and the tone of the videos they produce under FairMormon's auspices, then my rhetorical question about its board of directors being composed of fifth graders was too generous.
Of course, I may be spectacularly missing the point because I'm not in these videos' target demographic. They're aiming for Gen Z. The most annoying thing about Gen Z is that boomers can't tell the difference between them and millennials. I'm one of the youngest millennials, and I'm twenty-seven. Anyway, FairMormon assumes that Gen Z doesn't have the attention span or patience for long scholarly works, and that comedy is the way to reach them instead. That may be a valid point, but FairMormon could have done that without crossing the line. Saints Unscripted, formerly known as 3 Mormons - which Kwaku is very familiar with because he used to be part of it - has been reaching Gen Z for years. It often tackles controversial issues while still being funny and engaging, but not tasteless and mean-spirited. Unlike "This is the Show", the comments it receives from church members and non-members alike are usually positive, and unlike "This is the Show", the comments it receives aren't disabled. So I call BS on this excuse.
I am assured by some, mostly forty-somethings and older, that "This is the Show" has already helped a lot of young people's testimonies, though I saw no evidence of that in the comments before they were disabled, and have still seen no evidence of that anywhere. I did see a 19-year-old on the exmormon subreddit complaining about the cognitive dissonance that these videos caused by refuting parts of the CES Letter, but they didn't exactly make him feel like coming back to church. He said that "Kwaku is nothing but a narcissistic douchey frat boy" and "The last thing I want is for Mormons my age to start bullying ex members with Kwaku talking points, and I can see it coming. This [redacted] guy got thousands of people to go to parties during COVID. Like, people here [in Utah County] listen to him, and the fact that he doesn’t care who he pisses off makes people here like him more." The Trump principle. Surely FairMormon can do better than the Trump principle, even though Utah County can't?
Even if "This is the Show" helps some people in the short term, I think they're only applying a band-aid to the problem. Any young person who's enamored with them now will be disillusioned when they grow up a little and realize that reading someone's argument in a derisive tone of voice isn't actually clever. At the same time, many - probably including some from Gen Z, but certainly from all over the generational spectrum because it's not like these videos can be age-restricted to their target demographic - are already actively repulsed by their tone.
You know, I just finished a semester of teaching Gen Z college students. Despite the arbitrary generation gap placed between us, I feel that our closeness in age helped them relate to me. Sometimes I put them in Zoom breakout groups and then went through to check on them and they stopped discussing the class material and asked me questions about my life and/or experience as an undergraduate, which was delightful. While recognizing that most of them were new to college and thus ignorant in many ways, I never talked down to them or insulted their intelligence. I strove to teach them critical thinking skills and standards of civil discourse that will serve them well in other classes, careers, and anything they choose to pursue in the future. I used the infamous Trump-Biden debate as an example of how not to do critical thinking and civil discourse. If these videos had been around and I weren't wary of broaching religious topics in the classroom, I could have just as easily used them instead. Gen Z deserves better than this. Gen Z can handle better than this. Claiming that this garbage is the only way to reach them is an unwarranted insult.
And like I said, Saints Unscripted has already been giving them better for years. I didn't plan for this to turn into a promotion for Saints Unscripted, but now it's a promotion for Saints Unscripted. Go subscribe to Saints Unscripted.
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About the Author
C. Randall Nicholson is a white cisgender Christian male, so you can hate him without guilt, but he's also autistic and asexual, so you can't, unless you're an anti-vaxxer, in which case the feeling is mutual. This blog is where he periodically rants about life, the universe, and/or everything.