Jan 19, 2024 - News

Mormon church hire triggers conservative backlash

Illustration of the Salt Lake Temple with lines radiating from it.

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

Some prominent conservatives are raising objections to the new communications director for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, saying his ties to LGBTQ+ advocacy and "globalism" disqualify him for the post.

Driving the news: Aaron Sherinian, previously an executive with the church's for-profit arm Deseret Management Corporation, was named head of public affairs and communications last week.

  • He previously oversaw communications for Philip Morris, the United Nations Foundation and a U.S. foreign aid agency called the Millennium Challenge Corporation.

What happened: Rightwing accounts on social media soon began circulating screengrabs of Sherinian's pro-LGBTQ+ posts, saying his advocacy is incompatible with the church's positions on marriage and gender.

Why it matters: Several of Sherinian's critics are influential in conservative politics, with track records of mobilizing people and affecting policy.

  • As founder of Utah Business Revival, former Salt Lake City police officer Eric Moutsos organized rallies and other events that drew thousands of Utahns to protest COVID restrictions. He called Sherinian a "radical activist" on X.
  • Tyler Bowyer, a Republican National Committee member from Arizona and COO of Charlie Kirk's Turning Point organization, posted: "Why is the LDS church hiring leftist simps to run their comms?"
  • State Rep. Trevor Lee (R-Layton) "liked" more than a dozen posts criticizing Sherinian on X.
  • Connor Boyack, who heads the libertarian think tank Libertas, slammed Sherinian's praise for corporate DEI efforts and described his support for gender equity to remedy climate change and poverty as "globalist gobbledygook."

Meanwhile, videos criticizing Sherinian's hiring have gotten tens of thousands of views on YouTube.

What they're saying: "So is the church going woke? I mean that's the question a lot of people are asking," said Cardon Ellis, host of the popular Ward Radio show.

  • "These kinds of social issues … do have a foundational connection to our doctrines," Boyack said. "Can we be content to believe that inspired church leaders can not be impacted and influenced by someone with this particular worldview?"

The other side: "MAGA Mormons are losing their minds," former Deseret News columnist Jim Bennett said on a podcast Wednesday. "These are active members of the church that think they're doing the church a service by trashing a good man because they don't agree with his politics."

  • "What this demonstrates … is that you can be an LGBTQ ally, and still be a member in good standing," said Bennett, who added that he's known Sherinian for years and described him as "a true disciple of Christ."
  • Other high-profile church members and Utahns cheered Sherinian's announcement on LinkedIn, including the dean of Brigham Young University's business school; the director of the Religion Initiative at BYU's Wheatley Institute; the executive editor of the Church News; the director of the church's European Union office; the CEO of the conservative Sutherland Institute; and Cotopaxi founder Davis Smith, who's serving as a mission president in Brazil.

Of note: Some critics on social media speculated that ecclesiastical leaders didn't know of Sherinian's past advocacy, or allowed administrative staff to make the hiring decision.

  • The church media office declined to comment in response to Axios' inquiry regarding the backlash online.

Reality check: All church employees, from warehouse workers to HR specialists, must hold "temple recommends" — credentials issued only to members who are vetted and confirmed by clergy to comply with church teachings.

  • "There is absolutely no way that the church did not know about Aaron Sherinian's background," Bennett said.

Flashback: A few months ago, the church's media team faced backlash from the right after releasing a statement that disavowed anti-human-trafficking crusader Tim Ballard, whom multiple women accused of sexual abuse.

The intrigue: The church teaches that its leaders act on God's behalf, so it's rare for members to criticize them — especially orthodox or conservative members.

What we're watching: Whether members increasingly target the church's administrative employees when they disagree with an official position amid growing political polarization.

  • With no response from church leaders, it could be hard to convince some far-right members that statements from the communications office Sherinian runs truly represent the faith's highest authorities.
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