Sep 20, 2023 - News

Mormon rebuke of Tim Ballard ripples through conservative Utah

Tim Ballard stands in front of a promotional screen that reads "Sonido de Libertad"

Tim Ballard on the red carpet for the movie 'Sound of Freedom' in Mexico City. Photo: Alan Espinosa/Getty Images

Tim Ballard, Senate hopeful and anti-child-trafficking activist of Hollywood fame, faces a mounting scandal that's testing the cohesion of religious conservatism in Utah.

What's happening: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints last week denounced Ballard, the recently ousted founder of the controversial Operation Underground Railroad (O.U.R.). This comes amid media reports detailing a now-closed criminal investigation into the group and allegations of sexual misconduct.

  • O.U.R. for years has been immensely popular in Mormon communities.

Why it matters: Ballard is a prospective candidate for Sen. Mitt Romney's soon-to-be-vacated seat. He was seen by many on the political right as a messianic star who could one day harness his CIA background, personal celebrity and religious devotion to unite conservatives.

  • Instead, the controversy threatens to create a rift between Ballard's fan base and other conservatives.
  • Meanwhile, some church observers say Ballard's acolytes are so devoted that church leaders' unusual public disavowal could create a schism in Mormonism itself.

Catch up quick: The church said Ballard "betrayed" an apostle by allegedly claiming the high-ranking church leader endorsed Ballard's business ventures, per a written statement that appeared in a Friday article by Vice.

  • The statement acknowledged the apostle and Ballard "established a friendship a number of years ago," but had no contact "for many months."
  • It accused Ballard of "unauthorized use" of the apostle's name for his "personal advantage and activity regarded as morally unacceptable."

The latest: Ballard on Monday released a statement through his new anti-trafficking nonprofit, The SPEAR Fund, questioning the "authenticity" of the church's criticism.

  • The remarks came from an "unnamed" spokesperson, through "a tabloid that is often hostile to people of faith," Ballard said.

Yes, but: The church's media office confirmed its statement was accurately quoted and shared it directly with Axios and several other media outlets, including those owned by the church.

Between the lines: Ballard says he remains a member in good standing — and the church's public condemnation of a member is extraordinarily rare.

  • Church discipline generally is handled privately by local lay clergy.
  • The rarity of such a move had Ballard's supporters questioning the statement's veracity, too.

What they're saying: In a now-deleted post on X, formerly Twitter, conservative political commentator Glenn Beck wrote: "Things My Church Never Used To Do: … Effectively excommunicate Church members by means of public statements issued to the news media."

The intrigue: The church teaches its leaders are instruments of God, which makes it rare for members to criticize them — especially orthodox or conservative members.

  • "Their faith is in the institution, and the institution is represented by church authorities," Mormon historian Benjamin Park told Axios. "That is why when there is a break in confidence, it can easily spiral into a crisis."

Of note: The church's statement to Vice claims it "never endorsed, supported or represented O.U.R., Tim Ballard or any projects associated with them."

  • Reality check: Axios found multiple laudatory references to the group on the church's website before they were removed this weekend.
  • The church publishing company also printed some of Ballard's books and sold them via the church's bookstore.

What we're watching: If a sizable number of conservative members pull away, they could break from Utah's Republican establishment, too.

  • "Those more aligned with America's far-right … worry the church isn't fighting hard enough on the issues that matter to MAGA circles," Park said. "The Ballard episode may further test the tenuous allegiance these conservative members have to both the LDS institution and the far-right landscape."
  • In his statement, Ballard added the timing of the church's action is "suspicious … given its close proximity to Mitt Romney's announcement that he is retiring, and my own public comments that I am prayerfully considering running for public office."

The bottom line: Most Utahns are church members, and the faith dominates the Republican Party — so it'll be hard for Ballard to gain a foothold in the pending Senate race with the church's criticism.

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