Deseret Book Attempts to Serve God and Bigotry

James C. Jones on Deseret Book set

UPDATE (Jan 17th,2022): Deseret Book and I have reconciled. The course has been released on my own platform here! Details in Trib article

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If you don’t know, Deseret Book is the publishing company for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. They’re currently working on an online course platform similar to MasterClass called Seek where they have folks provide gospel centered instruction on what appears to be more practical issues — things like how to get the most out of scripture study, living as a single member of the church, dealing with returning home from your mission early, making it through faith crises, etc.

Some content I produced with my podcast, Beyond the Block, got their attention and so they invited me to teach a class on abandoning attitudes and actions of prejudice, an invitation which I happily accepted on the condition that they not sanitize my work. I needed to be able to say what I wanted to say the way I wanted to say it. To Deseret Book’s credit, they made good on that promise. We filmed in May, post-production finished sometime during the summer, and the final product was slated to be released in October. They were advertising my course on their website with my face and everything.

December 1st, however, I got an email from them with the bad news that they wouldn’t be publishing my content. And the reason they weren’t going to publish my content was because of a Facebook post I made where I pointed out prejudice in Elder Holland’s words at the August 2021 University Conference held at BYU with some admittedly harsh, but not inaccurate, language.

Under just about any other circumstance, I would’ve let the whole thing go. Elder Holland is in the second highest governing body of the church and the church owns Deseret Book. I don’t think a lot of people can expect to be critical of their employer and keep their job. BUT, considering the grand irony of the situation, namely, their decision to fire me for doing what they hired me to teach others to do (not to mention the importance of the subject matter), I felt obligated to at least tell them what a bad look this was and give them an opportunity for an about face. To not change their minds would expose Deseret Book as hypocrites and their mission to “lead out in abandoning attitudes and actions of prejudice” would lose credibility.

So, I told them I didn’t agree with the decision nor did I feel their reasons were anywhere near compelling enough to justify it. The content manager I was in communication with suggested I talk to their boss, the director of content and communities. I explained I didn’t wanna do that unless their minds could change and unless the boss had decision making power. This is labor after all and I didn’t wanna waste time and energy. The boss and I did end up talking, but we ultimately reached an impasse.

Though not shocked, I’m disappointed, I’m frustrated, and I’m angry. I worked hard on that course. I took the task very seriously because I knew that this would be the first time explicitly anti-racist content was produced and distributed by Deseret Book or by the church. This would likely be the first anti-racist education many members of the church received, let alone gospel-based anti-racist education (I don’t consider the preaching of vague platitudes like “all are alike unto God” adequate for anti-racist education). I felt that weight. Yet, content that the church needs desperately — like yesterday — content that’s going to provide tools for white folks to fight prejudice, content that’s going to make existence in this church easier for me and people that look like me so that we ain’t gotta feel so alone in this church, content that I know is going to shift us more into alignment with the church that we are supposed to be — the fully integrated and diversified church of the new testament — that content is not going to be published by Deseret Book because I did the very thing they hired me to teach other people how to do.

My counter-arguments were predictably fruitless. They deliberately misheard me, ignored me, tone policed me, and, in my opinion, insulted my intelligence with arguments that were simply not cogent or based on true premises. In just the last email the boss sent (all correspondence since Dec 1st available here), the boss 1. claimed that Jesus wasn’t an either/or person, which is ridiculous, considering there are narratives and a whole scripture mastery about Jesus being an either/or person and explicitly using those words: “No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one and love the other; or else he will hold to the one and despise the other…” (Matt. 6:24) 2. More than once, they chose to engage the tone of my arguments rather than the arguments themselves. After the first occurrence, I addressed it and explained “tone policing”, hoping that the education I gave would encourage them to engage the substance rather than the tone of my arguments. It did not and they tone policed me again 3. Fabricated a whole new definition of “criticism” to justify dismissing me. Go to whatever dictionary app you use and see if you find the words “contempt”, “belligerent”, or “accusatory” as part of any definitions or lists of synonyms.

On top of all that, their given reasons for dissociating from me felt dishonest. According to them, they cannot collaborate with someone who does what I did AND be true to their mission. I copy and pasted their mission and purpose from their website, stated the four-fold mission of the church, and asked how association with me compromised any of it. They never responded. I actually argued that their mission is more compromised by NOT publishing my content. No refutation of that either.

Perhaps they do have some sort of secret menu mission statement that condemns criticism of the brethren, but what I believe to be the more honest grievance is distilled in this sentence they wrote to me when they finally got specific about what their problem was: “…Referring to leaders as ‘homophobic overwhelmingly white ecclesiastical leaders born in the Jim Crow era’ feels offensive to our audience…”. I actually laughed when I came across that line because 1. homophobia is far more offensive than being called a homophobe 2. none of the words I used were pejoratives, but descriptors relevant to my argument 2.5. where was the lie and 3. making this about their predominantly straight white audience’s feelings misses the whole point of what they hired me to teach. I had a whole section and a story about this in the course!

As a person with privilege, it’s good and necessary to pass the mic to marginalized people, like Deseret Book did for me. The marginalized know their experiences better than the privileged ever could and, therefore, they should be listened to, especially the experts in that community. But, the mic and the space still belong to the privileged and, therefore, their comforts and sensibilities are centered. So, if Deseret Book invites me into their predominantly straight white space to tell their straight white audience how to fight prejudice and I say anything that upsets their straight white comfort or offends their straight white sensibilities, they can talk over me, derail the conversation, cut the mic, or kick me out. And that’s what they did.

A big problem with doing this is no progress is made. If you, as a privileged person or organization, are trying to do justice and reconciliation work in a way that’s palatable to you, you will never succeed. This work challenges privilege, prejudice, oppressive institutions, and the very ways we’re conditioned to view ourselves and others. By design, that is not going to be comfortable work and this notion that we get to tell marginalized groups how to talk about and fight their own oppression or police what prejudice they’re allowed to address is as bigoted as it is illogical. Deseret Book missed an opportunity because they value the feelings of their audience and performative ecclesiastical fealty more than the humanity of Black and queer people. That’s not just bad allyship, but it’s bad theology. Putting people’s comforts (or really anything) over people’s humanity is idolatry and not the church nor Deseret Book will ever succeed in fulfilling their mission until they destroy the golden calf of heteronormative white supremacy.

Though implied, one more thing that needs to be named is that Deseret Book is not in a position to teach anybody how to fight attitudes and actions of prejudice right now. Deseret Book is trying to serve two masters. They say they’re committed to fighting prejudice while they refuse to fight the brethren’s. If our policy or the brethren are exempt from critique when they display prejudice, then we’re not actually committed to fighting prejudice. And if they’re not committed, why would you look to them (or anyone they hire) to teach you how to do it? Why would you seek learning from anyone who can’t do what you’re trying to learn?

To be clear, I still sustain brethren. In fact, I believe I sustain the brethren more than most because to not point out their attitudes and actions of prejudice undermines the work of the gospel and their authority, it breaks our covenants, and it does harm to folks on the margins. To me, refusing to challenge and interrogate definitionally homophobic policies, acts, and words done in the name of a Christ who was born in and ministered in the margins is not a sustaining act, but a debilitating, lazy, cowardly, reckless, and I might even say a violent one. So I follow the example of Paul, who called out Peter, a senior apostle, for his bigotry, deferring to nothing more than “the truth of the gospel” (Gal 2:14). I follow the example of Jesus who called the religious leaders of his day “hypocrites” for using God’s law to deny others God’s love (Matthew 23). And I heed the call of President Nelson to “lead out in abandoning attitudes and actions of prejudice”. I sustain the brethren by holding them accountable to the Christ that leads this church and the Christ I see in our sacred texts, especially when any of the brethren, like Elder Holland, present a Christ nowhere to be found in those texts.

Last thing to be named is that this is bigger than me and Deseret Book. This whole ordeal felt like a middle finger not just to me, but also the Black and queer communities and we as a church that claims to follow Christ, who declared that our treatment of the least of these was our treatment of him (Matt. 25:40), cannot abide that. My expectation of the reader is the same as the encouragement I gave in my Facebook post about Elder Holland’s remarks:

Turn the volume up.

Bear testimony of the divinity and humanity of our marginalized siblings often. Interrupt the Sunday School bigot. Magnify marginalized voices. Challenge any assertion that the spiritual dispossession of queer folks is divinely ordained. There are several resources to help you do this including my brother and podcast partner, Derek, as well as Evan Smith’s Crossroads book. Whatever you decide to do, make your disagreement known. There’s no virtue in silent sympathy. Even some slaveowners had that. I won’t pretend there won’t be consequences. You could lose a calling, a friend, or, like me, a job. But, you could lose a lot more in your silence and complicity (Mark 8:36).

As members of the restored church of Christ, we must have a better answer for our queer siblings than the condemnation of the authentic expression of their identities in the name of He who never said a condemning word about them. That answer won’t come unless we proactively seek it and challenge bigotry wherever we find it in our pews.

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James C. Jones

Co-Host of the Beyond The Block podcast, Voice Actor, Seminarian, Blerd, Mormon, Troublemaker