Some of you may have heard about the Hank Smith debacle that occurred on Twitter last week, which peaked with him calling a current BYU student (and former student of his own) “Korihor,” or the Mormon equivalent of “anti-Christ,” to the leader of an aggressive, alt-right fundamentalist group of Mormons.
I am not here to get into why that it was heinous and completely out of line because my friend Meg Conley has done that so well on Instagram. But I do want to share my participation in and thoughts about the debate.
The main argument
Basically, Hank Smith got upset when someone who had left the church said they believed Joseph Smith to be a conman and/or a pedophile (note: it is recorded that he did marry girls aged 14, 16, and 17 at a time when the average female marrying age was 21-22), but that these same people still believed some doctrines of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and remained Christian. For some reason, Hank did not think that should be “allowed” and remained firm in his stance despite many people countering him. Here are a few such tweets:
As someone who has been reading a lot of books and doing quite a bit of research about religions, religious history, and the sociology of religion for a book of my own, I took issue with these posts and their claims. I responded with my own tweet:
I then posted a screenshot of his first tweet that listed the doctrines he found to be “Joseph Smith specific.” Hank quote tweeted my tweet, inviting me to “prove” my claims, and I posted screenshots of research I had done of examples of other religions (past and present) that believed these doctrines. However, despite saying he was willing to be proven wrong, Hank doubled down, changed the parameters of his argument so that my evidence didn’t fit (in his mind), and continued to quote tweet me despite my asking multiple times for him not to do so.
How Hank continued to go wrong
Quote tweeting is basically what I did with the above tweet; you “retweet” or copy someone’s tweet and add your own commentary to the top of it. This allows people that you follow to link directly to the original tweet and the original person who posted it. It’s different than using a screenshot of something someone said, for example.
What is the problem with quote tweeting? Well, in the case of Hank Smith (who has over thirty thousand followers), it means that he is broadcasting my personal profile and information to all of those followers, many of whom would not otherwise be following or aware of me at all.
As a result, this meant that members of the radical LDS fundamentalist group, deznat (short for “Deseret Nationals”), saw my tweets about and to Hank personally. Hank and I as individuals were having a relatively polite conversation, besides him changing the argument as we were discussing. But his followers started to get in on the conversation, arguing, posting rude things, commenting, and demeaning me personally.
I told him that I didn’t want to argue with him (and his random friends and fans) because I didn’t particularly care about him—it didn’t really matter to me that he believed these things. I just didn’t want him spreading false and incorrect information to these 30k+ followers who take him at his word.
My friend, Meg Conley, got involved at this point by explaining this information to Hank (after I once again asked him to stop quote tweeting me and to stop starting arguments on my threads where none had previously existed):
He then proceeded to fight Meg and me, claiming that he “didn’t follow any of these people and they didn’t follow him.” My friend Jaclyn later researched and took screenshots proving the opposite.
Others join the fight
Multiple other friends and twitter acquaintances began to get involved, urging Hank to stop because he was making himself and his university look bad. He was proving himself to be a professor who publicly proclaimed false information and didn’t know much about world religion at all. Friends (some really smart LDS scholars or professors themselves) attempted to engage his followers who argued with and mocked us.
It became apparent that Hank and his followers had focused on fighting and quote tweeting primarily female responders and tweeters, leaving the males alone or merely discussing back and forth nicely with them on ongoing threads. My husband and many other sympathetic males were involved in defending us and noted this as well.
This went on all day. It was exhausting. We were receiving rude direct messages and were the subject of mockery on the accounts of other Hank followers, deznat accounts, and radical orthodox accounts. One such post shared photos of enraged, yelling women with a comment like “I bet this is what Kari looks like all the time.” I am sure there were many more, but they didn’t quote tweet or tag me, and I have most of those accounts blocked anyway.
When Hank quote tweeted and went after another one my friends, Heavenly Mother researcher and expert Rachel Hunt Steenblik (who had not even referenced him by name in the tweet he used) I got fed up. I once again asked him to stop and told him that I was reporting him to twitter for harassment. This comment, of course, resulted in more of his followers making fun of and otherwise harassing me. But Hank stopped picking fights with me.
His big mistake
Unfortunately, he decided to join in on a fight that had been picked with another one of my gentle, lovely friends, Calvin. Now, Calvin is a gay student at BYU who has endured harassment and threats from this deznat group over and over again because of his sexuality and commitment to the church. This is what the leader and founder of the deznat group said after Calvin tweeted his support of Rachel, Meg, myself, and others:
From this point, things got crazy. Hank was blocking people left and right. He put his account on private. People called for BYU to discipline or fire him. He retracted his “Korihor” comment and said he that owed Cal an apology. He sent me and many others personal (yet likely copied and pasted) apologies privately. His Instagram account went on private.
Meg and Rachel began sharing their experiences on Instagram, receiving both more support and more vitriol. Some called them liars and asked if they even belonged to the church. Which reminds me that Hank at one point tweeted that the difference between us was that he believed in Joseph Smith and I did not. Excuse me? You don’t know me?!
What was it really all about?
But I want to go back to the beginning. This all (apparently) began because Hank didn’t like what someone said about Joseph Smith and thought that people who leave the Church because they don’t like Joseph Smith need to to leave the doctrines of the church behind as well. He was trying to protect Joseph Smith. But he could not understand that many of the ideas Joseph consolidated as Mormon doctrine were not original to him. Sure, Joseph may have changed or put them all under one denominational “roof,” but these ideas are not copyright protected!
In his attempt to go to bat for Joseph Smith (who I doubt would himself have claimed to have come up with all of those ideas on his own), Hank over and over again tried to gate-keep the goodness of the gospel. Hank did not want ex-Mormons to have the same blessings as Mormons. He tried to tell people what they could or could not believe, despite these beliefs occurring “in the wild,” outside of LDS theology.
In this crusade to protect Joseph Smith, Hank overlooked truth, history, facts, and free agency. He overlooked God’s love and all of our divine natures and individual worth.
Hank does not get to decide what anyone else can or can’t believe or what blessings, inspiration, or knowledge God will or will not bestow on someone.
Leave them alone
Since writing my poetry book, “For and in Behalf of,” I have had a keen awareness of those who have left the church. They do not deserve this vitriol and policing by someone of their former faith. They can keep what they know or think is true. They can separate it from Joseph Smith because these truths are eternal. They are not Joseph Smith’s truths. They are God’s truths. And God can tell whoever He wants whenever He wants whatever He wants about those truths.
The Church doesn’t own beliefs. It teaches them. The beliefs are all around us, actually. That’s what makes it so beautiful. Cultures and religions throughout history have shared and experimented with these truths, molding and shaping them to their needs, history, and teachings. God truly does love all of His children.
I hope Hank realizes this someday.
So what now?
People have asked me if I think he should lose his job. Well, frankly, I don’t think that people who haven’t studied religion other than LDS theology should be teaching religion at a university level period. This is its own debate (and BYU already said it didn’t care).
I told Hank, “I don’t care about you or arguing with you” at one point in the conversation. Yes, maybe harsh, but true. I don’t really care if Hank works or doesn’t work at BYU. I don’t care if or how he gets in trouble for all of this mess. I just don’t. It’s his life and all of this his doing. He should be held responsible, yes, but I’m not going to name the terms.
But I do think that he had no right to spread falsehoods and misinformation to his audience of 30k+ on twitter. He misused that responsibility and hurt so many more people than he even knows or can apologize to. That’s what I’m upset about. That’s why I felt I had to say something.
He also gave permission for other members to argue, demean, and mock people who weren’t even necessarily fighting Joseph Smith or saying he wasn’t a prophet. In doing so, he created and incited a “twitter mob,” and that’s unacceptable.
I do think Hank should get off social media. That seems like at least one step in the right direction.
I don’t think Joseph Smith needs his “protection” anymore.