In recent years, there has been a disconcerting surge in headlines and documentaries featuring members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints involved in cases of criminal fraud, abuse, kidnapping, and even murder. The conclusion that some viewers are coming to is that a shared religious affiliation is the common thread that explains all these incidents – little realizing how much these disturbed individuals have departed from that faith. In fact, they often participate in spin-off groups that change essential doctrines of the Church of Jesus Christ while still allowing the participants to profess membership in the Church.
The groups where these individuals often congregate frequently operate under the pretense of following the “true” restored gospel, even while their doctrines significantly deviate from its essential and basic tenets. In doing so they almost inevitably oppose prophetic counsel and introduce new deities, unorthodox scriptures, and questionable practices that bear little resemblance to the teachings of the faith they sprung from. These groups do not neatly align with conservative or liberal ideologies.
These groups do not neatly align with conservative or liberal ideologies.
These groups do not neatly align with conservative or liberal ideologies. Instead, they draw elements from both extremes. What unites them is some degree of departure from the more essential doctrine and leadership of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints even while still purporting to remain faithful.
Tens of thousands congregate in conference center sanctuaries bringing with them a cacophony of curiosities. But the larger question looms: how do they arrive at these different places?
First, “they” are “us.” We all grapple with questions and doubts, fall short, feel isolated, and carry personal pain. In a conversation with a mother whose daughter embraced one of these ideologies, her insights offered a valuable perspective. She remarked, “I had overestimated her faith and underestimated her pain. I’ve come to understand that the adversary exploits both.”
The vulnerabilities that lead individuals down these paths are things we might all experience at one time or another. Although confronting the question may be challenging, it’s valuable to consider how we could potentially be vulnerable to such exploitation.
Do we try to steady the ark?
One vulnerability is the desire to “steady the ark.” While transporting the ark of the covenant, the oxen stumbled, and Uzzah, not wanting the arc to fall, reached out to steady the ark. He was struck dead by God.
The desire to “steady the ark” comes from the godly desire to help. But is limited by our prideful conclusion that we are the best person to do so. Certain influencers and charismatic leaders position themselves as guardians of specialized knowledge and insights. These leaders assert that they possess a superior understanding of scripture compared to the sustained leaders of the Church. They tend to present themselves and are supported by those around them as being out ahead of the mainstream, the essential interpreters.
We can find ourselves drawn to such charismatic leaders because of a desire for “further light and knowledge.” A quest for a deeper understanding of doctrine and personal enlightenment can be a positive motivator. However, an intense fixation on this quest can lead us to seek out figures who claim to possess advanced knowledge and see it as their mission to “right the ship.”
This lesson was repeated using the steadying of the arc as an example in a letter from Joseph Smith to William W. Phelps that has been canonized as D&C 85.
David O. McKay, a former President of the Church of Jesus Christ, shared this story again before concluding, “Let us look around us and see how quickly men who attempt non-authoritatively to steady the ark die spiritually. Their souls become embittered, their minds distorted, their judgments faulty, and their spirits depressed.”
Another former Church President, John Taylor, taught, “Do not think you are wise and that you can manage and manipulate the priesthood, for you cannot do it. God must manage, regulate, dictate, and stand at the head, and every man in his place. The ark of God does not need steadying.”
Even a positive motivation, like that of Uzzah, can ultimately lead us into trouble.
FOMO for Zion
FOMO relates to more than an exotic vacation or excursion with friends you wish you could be part of. A factor that may contribute to our vulnerability is the “fear of missing out” on a perceived spiritual utopia we didn’t get a ticket to. Perhaps such feelings help us sympathize with Nephi’s longing to live in a different time or Alma’s expressed desire for angelic power. But in this wish, they recognize the sin of dismissive discontentment. “I ought to be content,” Alma concludes, “with the things the Lord has allotted me.”
This passage was a favorite of Elder Neal A. Maxwell, who taught that “faith, hope, and charity qualify one for the work, not a craving for clout.” On another occasion, he devoted an entire address to the subject when he taught, “Contentment awaits us if our own desires can be worked through and aligned.” Similarly, Paul cautioned about the tendency to always search out “some new thing.”
It is possible that even the righteous yearning for a spiritual homeland and longing for something more significant than the mundane can drive us to take alternative journeys to avoid feeling left behind and ultimately lead us, like those in Lehi’s dream, down “strange roads.”
It’s a common human tendency to justify our actions and beliefs as exceptions to the rules that apply to others. In many ways, our brains are wired to seek exceptions and act selfishly, believing that we are better, smarter, wiser, or more loving than others. This sense of exceptionalism can be especially seductive in religious contexts, where it may manifest as pride, a belief that one has a superior understanding of divine will, or a more profound spiritual connection. The story of Saul, Israel’s first king, provides a cautionary tale from the Bible about the dangers of exceptionalism. Saul began his kingship with humility, “Am not I a Benjamite, of the smallest of the tribes of Israel? and my family the least of all the families of the tribe of Benjamin?” However, as his rule progressed, Saul’s insecurities translated into a need to assert his exceptionalism, which led to actions that were contrary to God’s commandments. Significantly, these actions, such as saving livestock to sacrifice to God or performing religious rites on his own, on their surface appeared to be more righteous than what the prophet Samuel asked him to do. Nevertheless, Saul’s exceptionalistic view of his own superior spirituality led him away from God. Sometimes our trusting natures allow us to be taken advantage of.
Sometimes our trusting natures allow us to be taken advantage of.
Collective systems, such as the US Constitution, that require accountability and ground us to moral codes can benefit all if we choose to be accountable to this mutually beneficial structure. In practice, something as seemingly simple as a willingness to stand in line contributes to order and helps us transcend our innate exceptionalism.
If we feel mainstream religious affiliation doesn’t fully align with our personal beliefs or desires, holding valorized space for doubt sets us apart, maybe in some eyes, above the collective, and a sense of entitlement can develop. This entitlement inevitably leads us to justify indulging our favorite sins, pulling us strongly toward counterfeits that promote such indulgence.
Seeking Meaning and Control
In an anxious and ambiguous world, many of us seek ways to provide a sense of meaning and control over our lives.
Many of these religious movements offer organized systems, supplements, workbooks, and rituals regarding diet or daily habits that promise to bring order to chaos, and often for a high price.
Narratives also provide order from a bombardment of information. Stories help us organize and compartmentalize the data we encounter daily. The sheer volume of data underscores the importance of our cognitive abilities and storytelling to provide meaning for it all. The narratives we adopt matter because they shape our perception, behavior, relationships, and emotional well-being. Harmful movements benefit from narratives that encourage participants to coddle doubt, fear, disconnectedness, and grievance.
In our pursuit to comprehend what attracts individuals to these radicalized religious movements, we encounter a complex landscape as nuanced as the movements themselves. These are, of course, far from the only human longings that drive us away from God and toward alternative fringe movements. Sometimes our trusting natures allow us to be taken advantage of. Sometimes the reality of loneliness pushes us to do things we otherwise never would. And many other normal tendencies can cause us to become attracted to these kinds of movements. The themes we explore are universal, and while these vulnerabilities may not inherently lead to pathological paths, recent headlines serve as a stark reminder that, occasionally, they do.
In part two of this series, we will delve deeper into a pathology that can develop as exhibited by fallen heroes and fringe factions, shedding light on the complexities of these individuals and groups, ultimately striving to better understand the allure of radical religious movements.