One of Jesus’ most striking parables concerns a farmer who sowed a field of wheat. That night, an enemy came and threw weeds into the field. When the weeds were discovered, the farmer didn’t tell his servants to uproot every weed but rather instructed that they should grow together until the last days (Matthew 13:24-30).
The parable is an important instruction that the kingdom of God will include both good and evil and that it will be up to God to determine which is which at the judgment.
How do we apply this parable to our contemporary Latter-day Saint setting? In many ways. We limit who judges personal worthiness to bishops and stake presidents. We seek to be as inviting as possible to all. And we recognize the limitations in our ability to judge one another. Influencers may not appreciate the reality of their public influence and the role of their public advocacy.
Influencers may not appreciate the reality of their public influence and the role of their public advocacy.
Social media’s unique impact on faith. In an essay analyzing the religious shifts of the 2010s, I argued three years ago that social media has changed the experience of faith more than any other trend that decade.
I went on to say, “Social media has provided a venue to channel religious fervor without institutional oversight. The effect has been a kind of democratization of religion. This approach takes the church out of religion, undercutting churches’ authority (and ability) to control a narrative or maintain doctrinal boundaries.”
In the three years since writing this, this trend has continued but shifted in significant ways, and trends that had just begun are now flourishing. Perhaps most significant among these shifts is the rise of influencer culture. The COVID-19 shutdown and pandemic led to a significant rise in popular influencers and the audience for them. While the internet of five to ten years ago may have been a free-for-all, today—with a push from the shutdowns—we are coalescing around charismatic figures and voices.
This is happening in all kinds of communities. In religious spaces, these voices tend not to be institutionally linked but rather individual and personality-driven. On some level, people of faith are no longer tasked merely with finding a pastor at a church to direct them spiritually but rather with finding dozens of pastors that touch on a myriad of aspects of their spirituality. And there is no shortage of individuals volunteering to be those pastor stand-ins—each of whom will impact our moral intuitions if we allow their content into our lives, whether we consciously choose to or not.
The evolving Latter-day Saint diaspora online. This may be a helpful point to explain how these larger trends have influenced Latter-day Saints specifically. For Latter-day Saints, this arguably represents a more significant shift than for people in more mainline American faiths. Latter-day Saints have previously not been in a position to choose their own pastors.
Historically, this has had many positive effects, helping Latter-day Saints remain insulated from the celebrity culture that negatively impacts much of American Evangelicalism, as Jana Riess recently argued.
But in looking at the intersection of celebrity culture and the Church, Riess largely ignored the bubbling celebrity influencer culture growing in our faith on social media.
The Latter-day Saint space online is an interesting one. The Church of Jesus Christ is hierarchical, and so the draw to a space with less institutional oversight was strong for those whose beliefs and behaviors put them on the fringes or outside of Latter-day Saint life, while those who felt well integrated felt no similar push to find emotional and religious validation in online communities. As a result, for nearly twenty years, the most prominent Latter-day Saint spaces online were in tension with the beliefs and practices of the church they sprung from. Those who bucked this trend were either pigeonholed (“TBM” or “true believing Mormon”) or radicalized out of the mainstream (“DezNat”) in response.
The pandemic changed that dynamic by giving many more Latter-day Saints who felt fully resonant with and aligned with their religious tradition a motivation to seek religious community online. But many of those more established communities presenting themselves as Latter-day Saints (but not representing the beliefs and practices taught by The Church of Jesus Christ) were naturally in stark tension with these newly online Latter-day Saints.
How were the newcomers to react within an online environment that often advertised itself as being for them but which fundamentally still felt foreign, if not outright antagonistic to their faith?
In all too many cases, these brothers and sisters adopted these newfound online communities uncritically at a great consequence for their faith. Those who recognized the danger of these communities, and the influencers leading them, began to note the incongruence between the way these influencers advertised themselves and their public statements and advocacy.
But those on the receiving end of these commentaries felt attacked. They had nearly complete reign over this alternate Latter-day Saint space for nearly a generation and felt put off by once again being recognized as distinct outsiders to the Church’s beliefs and teachings. Paradoxically they had been during all this time both extraordinarily influential while still identifying as being disempowered outsiders.
Consequently, the conversation has begun to turn to the appropriate way to navigate these community boundaries, especially in an environment where influencers may not appreciate the reality of their public influence and the role of their public advocacy.
Making sense of our new “influencer class.” In a world where anyone is potentially a religious influencer, the parable of the wheat and the tares becomes less straightforward to apply. The parable, after all, has more figures than just the wheat and tares.
Once the wheat and tares step out of the role of merely being tended in the field, but active participants in shaping the direction of the field, the lens that we use to understand the parable and how we apply it to our current social-media influencer culture should change.
Today 50 million people consider themselves influencers. As a result, many can feel like being an influencer does not itself distinguish someone from the rest of the field or flock—and that they should be just as immune from criticism and analysis as anyone else in the pews.
For example, Calvin Burke, a frequent critic of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, is a popular social media influencer who is often cited by major national publications. He is extraordinarily influential. Yet when some of his public commentary was critiqued publicly, he recently said, “It remains quite flummoxing to find people this fixated upon me. Like … why me?”
That appears to be a sincere question. This suggests that many in our influencer culture haven’t fully come to terms with the degree to which influencers really do influence. Similarly, Julie Hanks, one of the most dominant figures in Latter-day Saint online influencer culture, made a similar remark in October of this year, dismissing critiques of her work not on their merits but merely because “I’m not that powerful.”
No one would seriously suggest that those seeking a pastor (even an Instagram pastor) should not be able to do due diligence about the public faith positions of their pastors. Yet, because of this rapid transition to influencer culture, many on both sides of the influencer screen have not yet realized that finding a pastor is precisely what is happening.
Since these influential public figures don’t fit neatly into the parable of the wheat and tares, for Latter-day Saints determining how to interact, I would argue we must look for scriptural guidance elsewhere.
Other applicable scriptural teachings. Another parable of Jesus might help illuminate how He would approach this question. In Luke 12, Christ tells a story not about a field and an enemy but about a house and a thief. He teaches that His servants are blessed if they remain watchful throughout the night to stop a potential thief while their master is gone.
But in more direct language, Jesus approaches this question in the Sermon on the Mount, where he implores us to be watchful for false prophets “who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves.”
The words of Christ illuminate several important truths. There will be people who claim to be positive influences on faith but who are not, in fact. And that we are not to wait until the end time for a third party to judge them alone but are to proactively watch for them ourselves. And that we should judge them based on their fruits.
Those who apply the parable of the wheat and the tares to suggest we should not judge religious social media influencers appear to be missing Jesus’ forthright instruction to do exactly that.
Paul is similarly clear. In Romans 16, he urges the saints to find unity. But significantly, he does not suggest that this unity should be found by allowing every kind of “smooth talk.” Rather he implores the church members to “mark” those who create divisions contrary to the doctrine and who, through their “smooth talk and flattery, deceive the hearts of the naive.”
These instructions are clearly not intended to make us wary of every person in the pews, but should instead be reserved for those trying to influence our religious lives and religious communities. When someone publishes on matters that touch on our religious lives, especially if they do so frequently, we should judge them—“keep an eye on” them as Paul says (Romans 16:17-18 KJV & NRSV)—and so yes, they should expect to be judged, and as Christians, we are obligated to do so.
To emphasize, we can follow James’ instruction to not “judge [our] neighbor” while recognizing that social media influencers put themselves in a public position that demands that we, as Christians, discern (or judge) the work they do and the way they influence the Church and its members.
This is arguably true of everyone publishing online, by the way. Public writing invites public scrutiny and deliberation, as it should. This collective conversation creates something social scientists describe as a reputation market. Reputation markets can serve as important indicators of who to trust. And so they can be effective in helping those wary of false pastors and prophets on social media be directed to trustworthy voices. But that reputation market can’t effectively function when we inaccurately claim we must opt out for religious reasons.
In addition, Jesus’ injunction to beware of wolves in sheep’s clothing lets us know that not everyone who will seek to mislead us along religious lines will do so while acting in good faith. So while we should give the benefit of the doubt to every individual influencer, we should realize that there will exist influencers who will seek to exploit their connection to the Church specifically to try and undermine the faith of those who still believe. And we would expect people in this position to be the most vocal in demanding we not judge whether influencers are good or bad.
Now to be clear, the instruction to judge those who would seek to influence us spiritually is important; it can also clearly go awry. Overzealous judgments can destroy the unity we are commanded to seek. It is no surprise that Jesus explained how to appropriately judge in this same sermon when he said, “Judge not unrighteously, that ye be not judged; but judge righteous judgment. For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged.” It should also be no surprise that Paul lists discernment as a spiritual gift, not a spiritual burden. And the Psalmist tells us to “judge righteously” to protect the עָנִי or humble and lowly.
I expect that I should be held to this same standard. As the managing editor of an influential publication that often touches on religious issues, I hope that readers will judge me, compare what I say to the living prophets and the scriptures, and then draw conclusions as to whether or not they want my influence in their life. The reputation market, and the third parties who contribute to it, cannot replace our own individual discernment, but it can be a helpful tool. So when I say that we should be using righteous judgment about influencers, I am explicitly asking others to use that same judgment on me and my work.
The hard work of discernment. While the imperative to discern between faith-building and faith-damaging influencers is crucial, that doesn’t necessarily give us the answer to how to make this judgment.
One complicating factor for Latter-day Saints is that we formally have a mechanism for the judgment of the faithfulness of others in place. Bishops and stake presidents are called as “the Lord’s judges in Israel.” Consequently, it can be easy to conceptualize any attempt at public discernment as a misguided effort to take on the role of a bishop. But the reality is that almost everyone in the reputation market won’t have the ecclesiastical role to judge others’ worthiness.
Yes, those who limit their religious influence to their ward and personal network should be able to expect that only their bishop and stake president will judge them. Their judgment is an ecclesiastical one almost entirely since the scope of their work is bounded to a particular congregation. These local leaders judge an individual’s worthiness, readiness to take on covenants, and progression in the repentance process.
Yet when Christ commands us each to discern for wolves in sheep’s clothing, or Paul asks us to keep an eye on those who teach in opposition to the doctrine, they are not speaking only to ecclesiastical leaders. So these scriptural precedents must be signaling a different kind of judgment than formal leadership is involved in.
Significantly, notice that in this case, Christ instructs us not to judge the individual but to judge their fruits: What are their public statements? What is the effect of their public influence on others?
It would be inappropriate to claim that a social media influencer is not temple-worthy. But identifying whether someone’s comments accurately represent Church doctrine, critique the Church in unfair ways, or reflect beliefs that are incompatible with the questions for baptism or temple recommends is a different matter—reflecting sensible evaluations of “fruits.” And it would likewise be fair to characterize those public personas as “unorthodox,” “unfaithful,” “disaffected,” or “outside the mainstream.” Those who apply the parable of the wheat and the tares to suggest we should not judge religious social media influencers appear to be missing Jesus’ forthright instruction to do exactly that.
Those who apply the parable of the wheat and the tares to suggest we should not judge religious social media influencers appear to be missing Jesus’ forthright instruction to do exactly that.
But on what measurements should we make these important determinations? Sam Brunson, a popular influencer and blogger at By Common Consent, recently suggested that many would determine who is and isn’t an appropriate influence on the Church based on their gender, race, and pioneer heritage. To the extent this is true, it would be a sad indictment. God is no respecter of persons, and neither should we be. But this can work as a distraction. Pointing to those who do the work of discernment poorly is not a rationale to stop doing it entirely. This type of rhetoric can also work to unfairly impugn those speaking out for boundaries by implying they are, in fact, engaging in sexism or racism—as though there are no appropriate standards on which to judge. But the fact that some may fail to judge righteously doesn’t divest us of our responsibility to do so.
Others argue that what defines faithfulness among Latter-day Saints is broad and impossible to define. They deconstruct faithfulness to the point that the phrase can effectively apply to anyone who wants it regardless of their religious beliefs and practices. And I understand this impulse. Latter-day Saints don’t adhere to formal creeds, and with the goal of gathering Israel, the tent of Zion should be as wide as possible.
And yet, we should resist this temptation to deconstruct the meaning of a faithful Latter-day Saint into meaninglessness. This is not some obscure difficult-to-define concept. Millions of people intuitively know what it means. Yes, there will be questions around those definitions on the edges, and we should be sensitive to those. True, we don’t subscribe to traditional creeds, but when asked what the symbol of our faith was, then President of the Church Gordon B. Hinkley said, “the lives of our people.” The lack of creeds does not erase boundaries. Rather, it raises the boundaries to a level higher than mere assent to beliefs.
And those standards are not difficult to find. Baptismal and temple recommend questions are published and widely available. The three contemporary proclamations describing the Church’s position on the most important issues of the day are easy to access. Even the temple covenants are published by the Church. The consequence of this is that when I represent myself as a baptized, faithful, believing, or active Latter-day Saint, I am also representing myself as someone who believes in God or has agreed to live the law of tithing, to use two examples from those lists. And if, as an influencer, we are, in fact, influencing people away from those ideas, those who are choosing which influencer-pastors they want in their lives should know that there is a discrepancy—that their public identity is not in line with how they’ve presented themselves.
In like manner, when someone presents themselves as a faithful Latter-day Saint, many may opt to allow their influence in their life because they believe this phrase means that they have covenanted to, for example, the law of consecration. Knowing that they’ve made and intend to keep that covenant can be a great comfort to those choosing who they should allow to influence them. If in the future, they decide that they are no longer particularly active, that information is important so that people can make informed choices about whether or not they want to be influenced by someone on religious matters who no longer feels constrained by that covenant. Similar kinds of informed consent can and should take place in ethical mental health counseling and therapy.
“Latter-day Saint” is not an ethnic, social, or cultural category. It represents beliefs and actions that spring from covenantal commitment. Those beliefs, actions, and covenants are not a secret but widely distributed and have specific meanings. And while we are not in a place to judge if someone is keeping their covenants, personally, we are clearly in a place, and under ancient injunction from both Paul and Jesus Christ, to discern the public personas who seek to influence us religiously.
This can be a difficult path to tread. The instinct to not judge others is both religiously and culturally powerful. And the nature of influencers is that they feel personal rather than influential. But we must find ways to judge the influence without judging the individual. Anything short of this—or stepping well beyond it—may well prove destructive to the Church and Kingdom of God.