Editor's note: This commentary by Hal Boyd is part of an ongoing Deseret News opinion series exploring ideas and issues at the intersection of faith and thought. The author’s views are his own.
Perhaps you’ve heard of The Onion, the satirical news site known for its tongue-in-cheek headlines (see, for example, “Johnson & Johnson Introduces 'Nothing But Tears' Shampoo To Toughen Up Newborns” or “Annual ninja parade once again passes through town unnoticed”).
The Babylon Bee meanwhile is an online publication that follows The Onion’s basic model, but with a distinct evangelical-Christian flair.
I have to admit, more often than not the Bee displays a penchant for sharp wit and an uncommon theological savvy (one recent headline reads: “Calvinist Dog Corrects Owner: ‘No One Is A Good Boy'”).
Indeed, at its best, the publication needles the less-than-heavenly elements of contemporary religious culture in a mostly good-natured manner (“An Ohio man once shopped at a shopping mall for over twenty years before realizing it was actually a church”).
At its worst, however, the publication evinces the very sectarian stereotypes that one hopes such publications exist to extinguish.
Sadly, last week, this less desirable iteration of The Babylon Bee was on display.
Twitter-dwelling members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints sighed through their thumbs upon encountering the Bee’s piece on social media. “Follower Of Joseph Smith Urges Nation To Reject Morally Flawed Leaders,” reads the headline.
Ostensibly directed at Utah Sen. Mitt Romney in the wake of his Washington Post editorial criticizing President Donald Trump, the article was nonetheless widely read as a shot at Latter-day Saints generally. Matt Whitlock, the former deputy chief of staff for the now-retired Sen. Orrin Hatch, reacted on Twitter: “I generally love (The Babylon Bee) but this was less ‘ha ha Mormons’ and more ‘we have some pretty deep-seeded hate for the Mormons we’ve wanted to get off our chests for a while.’”
For starters, Latter-day Saints would contend that, while they revere Brother Joseph, they most accurately “follow” Jesus Christ. But, for the sake of argument, the “logic” of the Bee's piece goes something like this — Romney is a “follower” of Joseph Smith. Joseph Smith was flawed; ergo, we should dismiss Romney’s ideas about moral character.
“The man (Romney) who has devoted his life to the teachings of a con artist encouraged the nation to examine its leaders to see whether they are worthy of our devotion and respect,” the Bee's piece reads.
What a hypocrite, right?
Setting aside that discerning scholars of Joseph Smith — including some Protestant ones — would balk at reducing one of the 19th Century's most influential religious leaders to a mere “con artist,” the Bee’s main point amounts to little more than a classic “ad hominem” fallacy. That is, the Bee attacks the person (or the person’s faith), rather than the substance of the person’s argument.
And then there's the sticky issue of the red herring fallacy, deployed, evidently, in an effort to distract from the issue at hand (by raising another, unrelated one).
Romney wrote an article in the Washington Post? ... Hey, look everyone, Joseph Smith!
Most Latter-day Saint reactions to the Bee's article, however, are not gripes about its sloppy logic (after all, it's an online humor site). For those Latter-day Saints who saw the piece and commented publicly on it, there was mostly a sense of disappointment in what they felt was little more than a religiously bigoted piece hiding behind the guise of “humor.”
While it’s the mark of a mature believer to embrace a little religious ribbing, lines like “Joseph Smith's own prophecies failed to come true over and over again" and "the Mormon Church continues to deceive its members by covering up its past” seem like gratuitous shots rather than the makings of a friendly interfaith roast.
What's worse is the shots are inaccurate.
Certainly, the Bee has a right to scrutinize Joseph Smith or the church’s prophetic record (although it seems to have overlooked that prophecy about people speaking “both good and evil” about Joseph Smith). And the Bee is also free to scrutinize the track record of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in terms of transparency regarding its past (but, considering that the Joseph Smith Papers project aims to publish every document associated with the prophet's history, perhaps the Bee should also criticize the church for “covering up its past” so poorly).
“Romney took Trump to task for his immoral lifestyle," the Bee's article points out, before claiming that his church’s founder used his influence to “marry more women” and to “deceive millions.” In a craft that rewards punchlines — rather than nuanced footnotes — it’s perhaps understandable (if not entirely excusable) that online humorists cut corners. But even one of Joseph Smith’s harshest biographers admitted that “there was too much of the Puritan” in Joseph to dismiss him as a “careless libertine,” as the Bee seems to do.
Simply put: Drawing such uncharitable (and inaccurate) conclusions about Joseph Smith comes across as, well, unchristian.
Lamentably, for those of us who once called ourselves fans of The Babylon Bee, this kind of jaundice isn’t an isolated incident. In October, Christian commentator Morgan Guyton expressed public discomfort with what he felt were the publication’s anti-Semitic barbs aimed at George Soros.
Once again, the issue wasn’t with satirizing Soros — rather, the issue was that the jokes focused on Soros’ Jewish background.
Soros, of course, lived through Nazi occupation of his native Hungary. But the Bee thought it funny to run headlines like: “George Soros Accused Of Providing 30 Pieces Of Silver Used To Pay Off Judas.” Another read: “George Soros Vows To Lead Migrant Caravan Into Promised Land.”
Some would undoubtedly contend that such pieces were actually meant to expose the folly of right-wing hysteria surrounding Soros. I hope so. But Guyton takes issue with the Bee making Soros' Jewish heritage the centerpiece of satire at a time when, in his words, "far-right evangelical Christians are peddling conspiracy theories about rich liberal Jews” and “a deranged gunman who specifically blamed Jews for bringing refugees to the United States murdered 11 Jews at the Tree of Life synagogue.”
Now, I don’t think The Babylon Bee is intentionally trying to provoke anti-Semitism. On the whole, the enterprise is rather ecumenical. Nor do I believe that Joseph Smith, Romney or Soros should be shielded from scrutiny or satire. But, for professed followers of Jesus Christ, is it too much to expect that interfaith discussions (and humor) would extend a modicum of, ahem, grace?
Now, Latter-day Saints are by no means perfect. I would know. But contemporary members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints express almost nothing but reverence for the founders of the Protestant traditions (traditions evidently embraced by writers at the Bee).
One Latter-day Saint apostle, President M. Russell Ballard, declared, “We owe much to the many brave martyrs and reformers like Martin Luther, John Calvin, and John Huss who demanded freedom to worship and common access to the holy books.” Elder D. Todd Christofferson stated simply: “We owe them all a great debt of gratitude." The late church president Gordon B. Hinckley rhapsodized: “Reformers worked to change the (Christian) church, notably such men as Luther, Melanchthon, Hus, Zwingli, and Tyndale. These were men of great courage, some of whom suffered cruel deaths because of their beliefs. Protestantism was born with its cry for reformation.”
Some today uncritically dismiss the contributions of Calvin or Luther because of what many conclude to be their anti-Semitic sentiments, which were all too frequently espoused within the Christendom of their day (Calvin, for instance, is reported to have said, “I have never found common sense in any Jew”).
While certainly not supportive of such misguided (and reprehensible) prejudice, Latter-day Saints today almost never make a habit of disparaging or mocking the legacy of the reformers or stating that fellow Americans shouldn't take Protestant politicians seriously because their founding theologians had flaws.
Perhaps we could all learn from the ecumenical attitude expressed by Joseph Smith. “If I esteem mankind to be in error, shall I bear them down?” Joseph wondered aloud. “No. I will lift them up, and in their own way too, if I cannot persuade them my way is better; and I will not seek to compel any man to believe as I do, only by the force of reasoning ... Do you believe in Jesus Christ and the Gospel of salvation which He revealed? So do I. Christians should cease wrangling and contending with each other, and cultivate the principles of union and friendship in their midst.”
On a separate occasion, Joseph wrote: “I have the most liberal sentiments, and feelings of charity towards all sects, parties, and denominations; and the rights and liberties of conscience, I hold most sacred and dear, and despise no man for differing with me in matters of opinion.” If he was willing to die for a “Mormon,” he declared, he was just as ready to die for “the rights of a Presbyterian, a Baptist, or a good man of any other denomination.”30 comments on this story
To be clear, devout denominationalism and strong theological claims play a constructive part in intra-Christian comity. When believers lack a sound conviction in their own faith traditions, it’s the collective Christian corpus that’s weakened. But firm faith must never become a license for unchristian attitudes toward the faithful of another stripe. Perhaps a bit less sting and a bit more honey is in order for the Bee.
C.S. Lewis advised in his seminal “Mere Christianity”: “When you have reached your own room be kind to those who have chosen different doors and to those who are still in the hall.” If they err, he writes, “they need your prayers all the more; and if they are your enemies, then you are under orders to pray for them. That is one of the rules common to the whole house.”