There are, according to the Mormon Newsroom website, 15.6 million members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints worldwide, as the group is officially known. In the United States, the same media-facing website says, there are 6.5 million LDS Church members.
But forget the millions of U.S.-based Mormons who do wonderful, creative (see: Sterling, Lindsey) and useful things in the world. To some journalism outlets, reporting that would be about as exciting as touting a Spotify playlist of Donny Osmond singles.
Instead, let's join BuzzFeed, the advocacy journalism, listicle-and-kitten picture website and look at maybe five LDS Church members, and their reasonably small Twitter followings (22,000 for the top person), for a touchstone on this organization.
Hint: the five Mormons on which they focus hold various "alt-right" beliefs, some of which are viewed by many people as racist. Seems fair, right?
If it doesn't seem fair, you're not alone. If it does seem like "clickbait," a term adhering to BuzzFeed with the tenacity of a Gulf Coast vacation timeshare salesman, welcome to the club.
The BuzzFeed report is titled "Meet The (Alt-Right) Mormons: Inside The Church's Vocal White Nationalist Wing." Diving in:
Last week, an alt-right blogger who goes by the name Ayla had a bone to pick.
"Mormonism and Utah are the next target for cultural destruction," she wrote on her blog Nordic Sunrise, and the culprit is "black, ghetto culture."
Her comment came in a post titled "Mormon 'Rap' and the Destruction of White, Western, Mormon Culture." It was jarring; Mormons are known for their moderate positions on issues like immigration and diversity, famously putting them at odds with now-President Trump. Extreme movements such as the alt-right — which catapulted into the public consciousness on a wave of support for Trump, Pepe memes, and white nationalism — are anathema to many members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS).
And while Mormons have rejected Trump's brand of conservatism, thanks in large part to the president's more controversial positions, Ayla's comments represent a growing Mormon subculture that embraces the alt-right, at times openly cheering white nationalism, and intertwining ultra-conservative ideology with Mormon history, culture, and scripture.
OK, Ayla, who has videos on YouTube and had an Instagram account (now deleted), holds positions that many would find odious. And she's up to just under 22,000 Twitter followers, provided you can get to her account. (One of my Twitter accounts was blocked from seeing her tweets, but I used another. Both accounts, by the way, feature my real surname and real picture.)
Another of the alleged "alt-right" Mormons, who uses the name of a deceased leader, "J. Reuben Clark," as his Twitter handle, has all of 497 people following his Tweets. I'm not exactly getting a sense of a mass movement here, people. A third alleged alt-right Mormon Twitter member has a grand total of 64 followers. Sixty-four.
Cue the revolution. #NOT
LDS Church President Thomas S. Monson has 209,000 Twitter followers; his counselors Henry B. Eyering and Dieter F. Uchtdorf, each considered apostles by the LDS faithful, also boast six-figure followings. Among the Mormons I've known and come across, I have to believe Monson, Eyering and Uchtdorf are exponentially more respected and listened to than Ayla.
The BuzzFeed presentation of this story, overwrought, connected to all sorts of white nationalist figures and buzzwords, is certainly sensational. It was the inspiration for a pickup piece in The Salt Lake Tribune (of which more in a moment) and then Britain's highly restrained Daily Mail jumped into the fetid swamp with this hair-on-fire headline: "Mommy blogger turned alt right poster girl: Mormon mom-of-six causes outrage by urging her thousands of followers to back her 'white baby challenge' and have children to stop 'black ghetto culture.'"
However, let's go back to one of the local daily newspapers at ground zero for the LDS Church. After summarizing the basics of Ayla's message, which includes a denunciation of accepting refugees from the Middle East, Trib reporter Peggy Fletcher Stack adroitly gets to the heart of the issue. Top LDS officials have:
... already spoken out publicly in defense of refugees, even launching an initiative known as "I Was a Stranger." The Utah-based faith favors immigration reform, urging lawmakers to strive to keep families together. And its message promotes diversity.
"We believe all people are God's children and are equal in his eyes and in the church," reads the official statement posted on the faith's website. "We do not tolerate racism in any form. ... We condemn racism, including any and all past racism by individuals both inside and outside the church."
In short, Ayla and company are severe outliers, way the heck outside the mainstream of Mormonism. It might stun the BuzzFeed folks to hear this, but there are people holding unsavory political and even racial views in just about every religious community on Earth. They're generally referred to as weirdos and are often shunned by their co-religionists.
The journalism issue is how to position the story of Ayla in terms of the much, much larger general LDS population. Apart from quoting the understandably shocked responses of Mormons who hail from outside the United States or who are members of the Democratic Party, BuzzFeed does little to suggest that this is about as far from mainstream Mormonism as Tierra del Fuego is from the Salt Lake Temple.
I'd attach a #FAIL to what BuzzFeed did with this piece. It's sensationalism and it doesn't illuminate. Trib reporter Stack brings in a range of voices, including some black members of the LDS Church who have concerns about the attitudes Ayla and her colleagues express, but she also quotes experts and church leaders to show that the "mommy blogger" is nowhere near the mainstream.
Such diligent digging is what journalism is all about. It's something BuzzFeed might want to consider trying.