What’s Happening Between the Sound of Freedom Guy and the Mormon Church Is a Sign of Something Bigger

A man with an American flag T-shirt with the words "God's Children Are Not ..." visible behind a blazer.
Tim Ballard at the premiere of Sound of Freedom on June 28 in Vineyard, Utah. Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Fred Hayes/Getty Images for Angel Studios.

Late last week, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints shocked people who follow American conservatism after a spokesperson issued a statement distancing the institution from Tim Ballard, the founder of Operation Underground Railroad and subject of the breakout summer hit film Sound of Freedom. Ballard had “betrayed his friendship” with a prominent LDS leader, the statement to Vice declared, and his fundraising activities were deemed “morally unacceptable.”

It was a rare and stunning rebuke for a church that rarely speaks out about individual members. It was also a blow to Ballard, a rising star rumored to be eyeing the Utah Senate seat that is opening up due to Mitt Romney’s decision to retire. Then, on Monday, Vice revealed that Ballard’s resignation from Operation Underground Railroad earlier this year came after an internal investigation into claims of sexual misconduct involving seven female employees.

Even with this news, the dispute between Ballard and the church might appear odd to many observers. The LDS church is more commonly known for cracking down on progressive voices, after all.

Yet there has been a growing divide between the LDS church and far-right-wing members for over a decade now. The radicalization of American conservatism—with its denunciation of mainstream news sources, forfeiture of traditional norms, and embrace of partisan-based “alternative facts”—has had severe consequences within Mormon culture. The erupting fight between Ballard, a growing hero on the far right, and Latter-day Saints leaders is just one point of public exposure for a much broader phenomenon.

The Latter-day Saints church has had no shortage of schisms in its 200-year history. Scholars have identified over 400 religious “expressions” that date back to the “Church of Christ,” the name of the first church founded by Joseph Smith in 1830.

For any church to thrive, leaders must always balance competing tensions. On the one hand, they are forced to adapt to changing circumstances; conversely, they must also appeal to eternal truths that transcend evolving societies. So when institutions like the LDS church are believed to be tipping too far to the former impulse at the expense of the latter, there is often cause for discomfort, especially from conservative believers who denounce modern society as corrupt.

Added to this tension, in this specific historical situation, is the growing radicalization of the American right. White evangelicals have, for much of the 20th century, developed competing foundations for truth and moral values that are in opposition to what are deemed “secular” principles. Questions surrounding gender, history, and knowledge are answered through tribal politics rather than intellectual inquiry. Even religion itself is more commonly understood through a political prism.

Latter-day Saints, who had long been a target of American evangelicals who deemed their religion invalid, suddenly became their compatriots in battle during the culture wars of the 1970s and 1980s. Due to their ability to deliver on key social issues, like opposition to the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment, they were folded into the coalition known as the religious right. This granted the faith new social acceptance and cultural power. However, it also resulted in increasingly blurred boundaries between religious authority and far-right principles. As with white evangelicals, the doctrine of partisanship became inseparable from the doctrine of Christ.

Such an overlap makes it difficult, therefore, when the two spheres come into conflict. It explains why, for instance, so many American Mormons were hesitant to follow the church’s counsel to get vaccinated and wear masks during the COVID-19 pandemic. It also explains why Mormons came in second to white evangelicals in polls determining which denominations were most likely to believe Donald Trump’s lies concerning the 2020 election.

Disputing church authority on secular issues is common, of course. But the divisions become more potent when they concern supposed religious truths.

Tim Ballard has made a career by cultivating a certain image. He is a “patriot” dedicated to saving women and children from nefarious evils in the world. Ballard frequently speaks of global cabals dedicated to feasting on the innocent; observers have often identified how much of his discourse relates closely to QAnon conspiracies. Operation Underground Railroad, founded in 2013, claims to have emancipated more than 6,000 women and children and to have helped capture over 5,000 criminals. Yet experts have disputed these claims and have argued that OUR’s approach does more harm than good in the field.

Not that this criticism bothers Ballard. In his carefully cultivated narrative, Ballard is the strong man who is standing up to waves of misinformation as a heroic truth-teller. In the past few years he’s become a rising star in the right-wing mediaverse, meeting with Donald Trump in the White House and testifying before Congress, as well as a global celebrity through Sound of Freedom.

Ballard’s brand of revisionist truth-telling has been especially popular within the LDS community. He wrote a series of books, marketed by the Latter-day Saints publisher Deseret Book, on America’s founding figures—the pilgrims, George Washington, Abraham Lincoln—that utterly dismiss existing scholarship. Washington, Ballard argues, was visited by the Angel Moroni, the same divine figure who delivered the gold plates to Joseph Smith; Lincoln, conversely, was inspired to write the Emancipation Proclamation after reading the Book of Mormon.

Scholars have frequently pointed out the shoddy historical work in these books, but no bother: Ballard and his supporters have a well-developed script to dismiss secular threats to God’s truth.

Nor is Ballard alone in offering revisionist histories of the faith. There has been a growing number of Latter-day Saints who are uncomfortable with the church’s professionalized historical department shattering traditional myths. Most jarring for many is the increasingly clear picture of Smith’s practice of polygamy that this department has produced. After a new church-sponsored historical essay admitted that Smith had up to 40 plural wives, it shocked and angered LDS members who missed the earlier, simpler depictions of the faith’s founder. Many of these members congregated around Denver Snuffer, a lawyer who denounced church leaders for giving up sacred doctrines in a quest for social acceptance. He declared that Smith never practiced polygamy but that plural marriage was introduced by Brigham Young, Smith’s successor.

Snuffer was excommunicated in 2013, but his conspiracies, especially those that tell a declension narrative about the church, continue to be popular. More recently, a new conspiracy, led by Phil Davis, a Utah chocolatier, has gained popularity by borrowing from broader fears concerning the “deep state.” A multipart documentary produced by this group alleges that Smith’s death at Carthage Jail in 1844 was an “inside job” performed by apostles, rather than an anti-Mormon mob. This and several other “alternative facts” efforts reveal a growing dissatisfaction in a particular conservative segment of the church with mainstream truths.

Though Ballard has certainly flirted with QAnon conspiracies in the past, he has not been part of these groups that directly challenge the church. His problems with the church, according to Vice, were initially related to him apparently using the name of church apostle M. Russell Ballard (no relation) as part of his fundraising. Speculatively speaking, one might imagine that today’s news of the allegations of sexual misconduct could provide further reason for the church’s anxiousness to distance itself from him. The statement to Vice was not clear about what particular actions were deemed “morally unacceptable,” after all. [Update, Sept. 19, 2023, at 4:15 p.m.: Tim Ballard issued a statement denying the allegations of sexual abuse, calling them “tabloid-driven” “baseless inventions.”]

In a previous age, such allegations would likely end someone’s career. Yet in the era marked by a conservative base pledging fidelity to someone like Donald Trump, Ballard is poised to take advantage of a playbook that has already been prepared.

Ballard’s first public remarks after the church’s statement last week came in what appears to be a well-choreographed monologue at a Revolutionary War monument in Boston. The site, indeed, symbolizes secession. “It’s not true,” he insisted, dismissing the allegations that he was using Apostle Ballard’s name in an unauthorized way. “All the press” was spreading lies. While at first he said, “I don’t believe the church did this,” Ballard’s speech eventually came to a crescendo, describing a grand conspiracy. It was not a coincidence, he claimed, that there was a coordinated attempt to smear his name just as it became known he might run for the Senate. “I pray to God,” he concluded, that the church “wasn’t part of this.”

“Thank you for filming,” Ballard told those gathered around him by the monument. He encouraged them to send their videos to news outlets. Ballard is nothing if not a showman.

Others were quick to back him up. Far-right media personality Glenn Beck, who is also a Latter-day Saint, offered his support on X in a since-deleted thread, claiming that “effectively excommunicat[ing] church members” was something his “church never used to do.” (The thread was deleted within hours of being posted, before Vice published the sexual misconduct allegations on Monday.) And social media was filled with accusations that Vice had made up the statement (despite it being confirmed by other outlets), that the statement was given by a rogue public relations worker, or that church leaders had lost their spine.

It is yet to be seen what the entire fallout will be. But whether or not Ballard publicly breaks with the church, the dispute is yet another example of conservative angst within an evolving church that continues to wrestle with how to control its members. As the Latter-day Saints tradition remains firmly entrenched within America’s far-right circles, disputes over final authority, historical truth, and moral initiatives will continue to be contested space.