Making a Martyr: In 5 Easy Steps!

If you’ve read any commentary about Latter-day Saints of late, you’ve likely read the sad tales of Cal Burke and Natasha Helfer Parker – two of the latest entries in the modern Roll of the Martyrs of Religion. 

To be clear – satire aside – neither of these individuals is a true victim by any stretch of the imagination. By many accounts, both had earned the actions and words directed at them. But public commentary has largely side-stepped both of these realities, to paint a picture of their treatment most likely to generate sympathy for their views, while metastasizing even more grievance, resentment, and suspicion towards orthodox perspectives…exactly what we need more of these days, right?

Let’s also be clear, no true victims of anyone or anything should be minimized.  Not of any brutality. But precisely because we are awash in a world of so much real, heart-breaking violence, we owe the many victims of true brutality the clarity to acknowledge the difference between true aggression, and something else.    

So, in other words, to honor true victims, we need to see through the creation of false ones. But it’s arguably precisely the abundance of aggression all around that makes accusations of any kind of victimhood so believable.

If a central aim of public discourse is establishing truth, I believe there are times to confront persuasive, impassioned rhetoric, even satirically – especially when that rhetoric leads so many to conclusions destructive of their own faith.   

And I believe now is one of those times.

Without further ado, the Five Steps to Making a (Psychological) Martyr: 

1. Cast Past Antagonism as Heroic:  As best you can, avoid drawing attention to past comments or behavior that may be understood to justify expressions of concern or discipline. If you have to mention them, frame them up nobly.  

In all the many commentaries about the plight of Natasha or Calvin, one thing was conspicuously absent:  any substantive, critical recounting of their own past comments critical of the Church of its teachings.  Instead, in each case, any such mention of these past words were showcased as reflecting uncommon courage to raise daring views with a singular aim of helping others.   

For example, in a textbook media example of martyr-making, a woman is quoted as saying, “Cal loves the church so much, but he’s able to recognize when it’s hurting people who belong to it. He’s able to offer grace. That’s really special.” This woman then asserts, he is “the opposite of an anti-Christ and the exact loving model of Jesus Christ himself.”

What a great illustration of how this is done! Even better, if you can pretend that same virtue is what motivated the concerning responses from others (aka, the “attacks”). In the same article, this woman continued that she “worries Burke was a target because he has been a strong advocate for other marginalized members.”

In a similar way, after literally decades of public antagonism towards the Church, Natasha was praised loudly by colleagues in posts that characterized her as a heroic voice.  As one Latter-day Saint professional said about a woman who has openly disparaged core Church teachings for years, and affected innumerable people’s faith: “I have great respect for Natasha and the woman she is. She has been an honest and earnest voice in our Mormon community on topics that are much easier to avoid than speak to.” 

Just right.

2. Manufacture a perpetrator:  Frame comments or actions by people of faith in a way that pretends like aggression was involved.    

In the Parker case, her stake president’s actions were framed in multiple outlets as reflecting unrighteous dominion and personal animosity towards her. And in the case of Burke (who was lamentably called the malicious “K” word), professor Hank Smith’s public rebuke of this student’s well-known antagonism was cast in predictably anti-LGBT terms – aka, as “speaking out against the queer community.” 

A more objective voice from another university demurred – suggesting what seemed most likely, even obvious to many: that by referencing an ancient apostate in the Book of Mormon, “Smith could have just meant to suggest that the professor disagrees [with the student] on church doctrine. The professor and the student, he noted, are in two different ideological wings of the church.”

But if you really want to make a martyr, steer clear of honest intellectual disagreement, even if it’s intense. That’s definitely not good enough. Find an angle that makes this personal…even if you need to be creative. For instance, Korihor = Anti-Christ = hateful = anti-gay…following the logic? Consistently, the same article quotes another student as reflecting on the incident with perfect pathos: “It sets a precedent that professors could attack students for being gay and not face any repercussions.”

Of course, that accusation is sheer baloney – and most people know it. People close to Hank attest that he has personally counseled and encouraged many BYU students over the years who are struggling with concerns about their sexuality. They have all reported him to be loving and supportive.

But try to ignore things like that – and any other contrary evidence of the alleged perpetrator.

For instance, trustworthy sources likewise confirm that Hank Smith has reached out to Cal to try to reconcile privately. Cal has so far refused, claiming that he feels “unsafe.” In that, Hank is clearly living out the all-too-often neglected injunction from the Savior to try to resolve matters privately, “between he and thee.”

Of course, don’t mention anything like that either. It won’t help your case. 

Hold your anger close – and any words or beliefs that justify it. This can be hard when counterevidence arises. (Do your best to ignore the fact that Cal’s defenders can go on the record, but sources affirming Hank’s sterling character can’t).

But, you can do it. And here’s the thing, it works! In terms of winning motifs, consider framing up some young, innocent gay person being persecuted (for WHO they are) by someone – anyone – with religious authority, or flip the script – and have a scientific authority persecuted (for precious truth they uphold) by someone religious you can hint as ignorant and “anti-science” (make sure to use that phrase).  

If you really want to draw out some emotion from your readers, it’s highly recommended to consider a vigil…with candles!  And live streamed, if possible.  

3. Amplify Animosity & Grievance:  Showcase any voices expressing fear or anger about the turn of events – placing them center stage in your public commentaries. 

In any way you can, work to heighten the voices of fear:

  • “It’s terrifying for other students who are gay.” -Carolyn Gassert 
  • “It’s deeply unsettling.” -Bradley Talbot (emphasis mine – remember, this is about a single-word from the Book of Mormon!).  

And give special place to those expressing outrage – especially those proposing urgent action be taken about the perpetrator (before he “hurts anyone else”). Some other great examples from the same classic piece mentioned earlier: 

  •  “There’s a reason why a lot of this behavior happens. It’s just normalized. There’s not much being done about it, so it just continues.” – Danny Niemann 
  • “The silence is a problem.” – Bradley Talbot 
  • “There has to be some consequence.  This can’t keep happening. The school needs to take DezNat and this situation with Hank Smith seriously.” – Kristine Anderson  

These kinds of voices fill an especially important role – treated by many readers as damning evidence of the rightness of accusations raised. After all, if so many are this angry or scared, this has to be true, right?

4. Reframe dialogic ideals in the service of oppressive community norms:  Wrap all the foregoing in rhetoric about pluralism, questioning, heroic dissent- and, of course, inclusion.  

This is a critical step, so as to avoid raising any suspicion that the person being critiqued has somehow legitimately harmed or deformed discourse in that community of faith. Take great pains to argue the opposite!  

We return here to one therapist’s impassioned case for Natasha Helfer-Parker’s remarkable contributions to Latter-day Saint discourse. As she put it, “Whether you agree with Natasha’s perspectives or not, her desire to candidly address issues around sexuality and mental health have benefited our communal discourse.”

If you can get a citation from prophetic authority in there, all the better – regardless of whether that prophet himself would have agreed. Bingo. As she continued, “As Joseph Smith said ‘By proving contraries, truth is made manifest’” – before eloquently proposing:

We need dissent, we need to be strong enough to let our view of truth be challenged. It helps us get clearer, it helps us really seek a deeper understanding of truth. It helps us love better in our efforts to understand others and how they see the world. 

How about a scriptural reference? 

We need the body of Christ, in all of its variation, to become whole. Cutting Natasha out will only draw more hostility and anger towards the Church. It divides us from one another. It justifies simplistic perceptions by outsiders of faithful Latter-Day Saints. We must be strong enough to tolerate dissenting views and discussion. We don’t need to drive people out or shun them. I hope and pray that her church leaders will be open-hearted.

To bring it home, make sure to talk about you-know-what:

The message of the gospel is one of inclusion, especially amongst those that are seeking to be a part of the fold. I believe Christ would not want her to go. We need her to stay. If we are going to become a Zion-like people, we need to not alienate. We need to hold onto those who are a part of us.

Strength. Tolerance. Inclusion. Open-heartedness. Zion. The body of Christ.  

All to pretend like keeping wolves in the flock is healthy for a community of believers – and that hurting their feeling is a great crime.

Can you see the brilliance, here? Once again – a text-book example.  

5.  Find a reliable grievance platformFind a media outlet eager to reprint all the above as breaking news (don’t worry, this step won’t be hard). 

Work hard to find a venue that can act as if this manufactured outrage is deserving of Front Page News – and with a straight face. Don’t worry, grievance outlets are like dating services.  There’s at least one for every demographic.

Got red meat about nasty liberals? You know where to go. Other examples of conservative hatred or hypocrisy?  You know where to go with your lead. 

And readers on the Wasatch Front and beyond all know where to go for their regular fix of grievance about the Church of Jesus Christ.  

In so many weeks, this is the third time the Salt Lake Tribune has written an article about some mean tweet from a Latter-day Saint. Kwaku, then DezNat, now Hank Smith. 

Meanwhile, John Dehlin has serious, credible accusations of sexual harassment (including a long paper trail) facing him, and so far not a peep from the Tribune…an oversight that hasn’t gone unnoticed on Twitter of late: 

And there you have it!  How to manufacture a martyr in five easy steps. If you’re lucky, this will be effective in justifying anyone who thinks like Cal and Natasha, and persuading them they have the moral high ground, while helping to silence people like Hank in the future (does anyone seriously believe he’ll feel able to raise his voice so freely in the days ahead?)

So, as you can see, this stuff really works! And anyone can do it, really…with enough determination.  

And enough roiling grievance, and aching outrage.  If you haven’t found enough of that yet to really make an impact on public discourse, keep searching.

With enough looking, don’t worry – you’ll be sure to find it.

5 thoughts on “Making a Martyr: In 5 Easy Steps!

  1. Very nice summary, Jacob. It reminds me in style and tone of Nibley’s 1963 “How to Write an Anti-Mormon Book”.

    And there is a reason a certain newspaper is known by many as the Salt Lake Fib, a publication that grew out of animosity toward the Church and that continues to fulfill its founders’ agenda even 150 years later.

  2. Jacob, thanks for this post. I am so out of the loop these days that I had never heard of Cal Burke or Natasha Parker, but I will try to find out more. The phenomenon you are discussing appears very familiar, however. 🙂

  3. A bit of background and my perspective:

    Hank Smith earned his MBA from Utah State University and a PhD in Educational Leadership from Brigham Young University. He teaches religion courses at BYU and has also developed an additional career as a motivational speaker for youth conferences and provider of podcasts. Smith has posted in social media in connection with the #Deznat movement. I don’t know the extent of his Deznat involvement.

    Smith recently engaged in a debate via social media with Cal Burke which became heated and Smith called Burke a “Korihor.” Smith has admittedly his serious mistake (let’s not forget that Smith would not argue against those who believe his comments were outside the bounds of LDS discourse and BYU’s professional standards), apologized and has withdrawn from social media for a time. Smith offered, but Burke does not want to meet with him. But I find little evidence that Cal Burke is as antagonistic towards the LDS Church as this post suggests, nor is his church membership in jeopardy. His media responses seem to be nothing more than a bunch of Eugene England and Chieko Okazaki quotes.

    I suggest that pairing Cal Burke with two excommunicated persons (Parker and Dehlin) in this post potentially leads to erroneous conclusions about Burke’s actions, views and membership status. Smith grew angry because he was losing a debate and lashed out at a student via name-calling that could easily be interpreted as overt antagonism towards Burke’s personal situation and history of advocacy for LDS LGBTQ issues. While I certainly do not agree with portions of Burke’s espoused views, I think we should treat him with a concerted attempt at factual and interpretive accuracy, civility and humanity. I believe Hank Smith would agree with that as well. I sincerely hope that Hank Smith bounces back from this PR nightmare to better articulate and defend LDS teachings and practices.

  4. This is a pretty good piece; well done. I hope it gets wide readership.

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