Unbeknownst to many of its members, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints enjoyed significant political diversity throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, with a relatively even distribution of members across major political parties. But with the rise of FDR's welfare state during the Great Depression, LDS leaders began staking conservative positions in opposition to "handouts" they felt disincentivized work and increased dependency.
Several decades later, LDS conservatism would only deepen with the rise of the civil rights, counterculture and sexual-liberation movements, which leaders characterized as hedonistic, satanic and destructive. In addition, anti-communist sentiments wrapped in McCarthyist conspiracies caught hold of LDS apostles like Ezra Taft Benson, who regularly crusaded his right-wing views at the pulpit.
Throughout the 1980s and '90s, LDS apostles—including former President Gordon B. Hinckley—grew increasingly uncomfortable with the church's intimate relationship with right-wing politics and made subtle efforts to move the church to the center right. They did this by de-emphasizing right-wing talking points and amplifying language around political neutrality, while framing their stances on marriage, sexuality and gender as moral and spiritual positions.
Despite leaders' earnest efforts to untether from the far right, major factions of right-wing extremism continue to plague the modern church. Today, LDS authorities are anxiously facing and delicately addressing this reality, striving to protect the church's public image while not alienating large and powerful bases of right-wing membership.
The church's recent condemnation of former Operation Underground Railroad (OUR) CEO Tim Ballard, a devout Latter-day Saint, is a prime example of this tension. Founded in 2013, OUR is an anti-human trafficking nonprofit that conducts sting operations aimed at rescuing victims and arresting perpetrators. While the mission is admirable, reporting by outlets like Vice News and American Crime Journal have spotlighted Ballard's ethical and behavioral problems.
These include OUR's gross misrepresentations of rescue statistics, claiming credit for the work of other anti-trafficking organizations, providing insufficient aftercare services for rescued victims and mixing nonprofit funds with for-profit endeavors. Ballard has also been an ardent advocate of right-wing extremist movements, perpetuating anti-immigrant and anti-LGBTQ hate speech as well as fomenting election denialism and deep-state conspiracies.
Most recently, Ballard stepped down as OUR's CEO in the wake of sexual harassment allegations from women who participated in sting operations. According to Vice, numerous women have relayed deeply disturbing accounts of Ballard coercing them into unwanted sexual acts (e.g., sleeping in the same bed, showering together), as part of going undercover as "husband and wife" on rescue operations.
Vice News recently requested comment from the LDS church, to which an official spokesperson for the church, Doug Anderson, responded: "[Quorum of the Twelve Apostles] President [M. Russell] Ballard and Tim Ballard (no relation) established a friendship a number of years ago. That friendship was built on a shared interest in looking after God's children wherever they are and without regard to their circumstance. However, that relationship is in the past. ... Once it became clear Tim Ballard had betrayed their friendship, through the unauthorized use of President Ballard's name for Tim Ballard's personal advantage and activity regarded as morally unacceptable, President Ballard withdrew his association."
It is extremely rare for the LDS church to publicly criticize one of its members like this, even someone of Ballard's prominence. Also noteworthy, the church statement went on to state that leaders had never "endorsed, supported or represented OUR, Tim Ballard or any projects associated with them." This assertion does not align with the fact that the church's own websites and news outlets published hundreds of pieces supporting and promoting Tim Ballard and OUR. There is also extensive evidence documenting a longstanding business relationship between President Ballard and Tim Ballard as partners in an LLC called Slave Stealers.
The church's false or misleading statements aside, their unequivocal condemnation of Tim Ballard has confused and upset members who have long been his loyal supporters. In fact, many are questioning the authenticity of the official church statement and/or discrediting the report from Vice News altogether. Tim Ballard himself undermined Vice News' report by asserting that "nothing you hear is true" and that "something evil is going on."
While LDS leaders clearly disavow Tim Ballard and his reprehensible behavior, they cannot afford to alienate scores of right-wing members who revere him. This tension is not new. For example, when LDS President Russell Nelson urged all members to get vaccinated, there was outcry from right-wing members of the church who criticized Nelson's judgment and disobeyed his statements. Some even left the church over this issue, declaring that Nelson and the modern LDS organization were in a state of apostasy.
Dallin Oaks—first counselor in the LDS First Presidency and known for his conservative image—has similarly made statements that have upset right-wing bases of the church. In a 2020 address at Brigham Young University, Oaks said: "Of course Black lives matter! That is an eternal truth all reasonable people should support." He also gave a General Conference address calling for the peaceful transition of power and denouncing any efforts to disrupt such a transition, which was poorly received by members who felt that former President Donald Trump's efforts to overturn a "stolen" 2020 election were patriotic and heroic.
In past decades, the church has branded its image on forceful condemnations of the left, most notably social-justice movements that have advocated for racial, gender and LGBTQ+ civil rights. While they have lost a fair share of progressive members because of this, it has never disrupted large coalitions of membership that would fundamentally threaten the church's power and status.
Today, as leaders strive to distance themselves from right-wing figures like Tim Ballard (and MAGA white-supremist politics and conspiracies more broadly), they are highly reluctant and cautious not to alienate hundreds of thousands of loyal members. Tim Ballard is just one of many more examples to come, in which the church must face head on this crucial and perplexing dilemma.
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