Episode Summary

Misinformation, incorrect beliefs about the world, and disinformation, deliberately constructed falsehoods, have always been a part of human history, but they are playing an increasingly important role in politics around the globe now, especially after the COVID-19 pandemic.

Research is showing that people on the political right and people who are inclined toward religious traditionalism are more likely to believe falsehoods about science and the world. What does that mean about the future?

Likely related to this is that the emergence of Donald Trump as a Republican political figure seems to have accelerated a pre-existing trend of more educated people away from the GOP and less educated people away from the Democrats.

Joining us to discuss all of this today is Will Wilkinson, he’s the publisher of Model Citizen, it’s a newsletter about politics, economics, and philosophy. Will is also a former libertarian who once worked at the Cato Institute where he was the managing editor of the magazine Cato Unbound.

The video of our conversation is below. A transcript of the edited audio follows.


MATTHEW SHEFFIELD: Thanks for being here today, Will.

WILL WILKINSON: Thanks for having me.

SHEFFIELD: Before we get into the larger topic, let’s give people who aren’t familiar with your work a little bit more of a background on yourself. So one thing that you and I have in common is that we both come out of the, we were both born into the Mormon movement. Although in your case, you were from one part of that and I was from another part.

Some people have heard of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but there is another tradition that is based in Missouri. And that’s the one that you were a part of for a while. What was the main dividing line there between them originally?

WILKINSON: I grew up in the, what was at the time called the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. They’ve they’ve changed the name to the Community of Christ some decades ago, I guess now, but they’re headquartered in Independence, Missouri, which is where I was born.

Independence is, according to Mormon tradition, the place where Christ is going to return, it’s near the Garden of Eden, what is that Adam-ondi-Ahman? Is that what that’s called?


WILKINSON: So there’s a lot of fun Mormon facts there. The church that I was raised in is much smaller than the Mormon church based in Utah that everyone knows and loves.

I was in college, a tour guide at the Joseph Smith historic center in Nauvoo, which was one of the first big Mormon settlements in the West. Nauvoo, Illinois, it’s right on the Mississippi River, on the Illinois side, Iowa is just on the other side. And the big split between those two denominations occurred after Joseph Smith was murdered by a mob in a jail in Carthage. He was trying to escape. He’d been put in jail because he had instructed a kind of kangaroo court mob to smash the presses of an independent newspaper in Nauvoo called the Nauvoo Expositor.

And caused a big fu-furrah. They were basically reporting things that were true. This gets to the disinformation stuff, because Joseph Smith was an oddly Trumpian character. And he was very mad about the fact that they were saying true things about emerging doctrines about a multiplicity of deities.

SHEFFIELD: And polygamy.

WILKINSON: And yeah, plural marriage. So he had their presses smashed, but that got him in trouble with the state and he fled. And so it was a big mess. But the letter he wrote to the governor is a sight to behold. You’ll notice all of the grandiose victimization that we’ve all become familiar with after four years of the Donald Trump presidency.

But anyway, he got murdered and then, it’s a prophetic religion where there’s an ongoing process of revelation. And so God is speaking to us still today. But who takes up the mantle now as the conduit for messages from God. And so there was a kind of a split on that. And the big divide was between the kind of anti polygamist faction and the pro polygamist faction.

The anti polygamous faction was–

SHEFFIELD: Was the smaller one.

WILKINSON: Much smaller one. And also just in demographic terms is not going to grow as fast. But Emma Smith, who was Joseph Smith’s first wife, she and her children anchored the anti polygamist faction.

I guess it’s probably no mystery why Joseph Smith’s first wife would not be super cool into polygamy when that wasn’t the terms of their deal to start with. And so, Joseph Smith’s son Joseph Smith III, took over the mantle, after a little bit of time. And so the kind of Midwest Mormons who didn’t leave to go to Utah reorganized, and that’s where the name came from.

But it was always a much smaller denomination and developed in a different direction because it didn’t start with– polygamy was out from the beginning. It didn’t have the same set of some of the later, Joseph Smith’s later theological innovations about every male member of the Melchizedek Priesthood becoming the sort of God of their own universe. That got left out, a lot of the temple ceremonies got left out. There’s no tradition of having a temple that’s closed off where you do rituals. So it’s really, really developing in a quite different direction and developed in a very kind of liberal–

SHEFFIELD: Yeah, and I think it’s also fair to say that it was– they were traditions that were much less anti-American than LDS Mormonism ended up being, especially in the very beginning. So like for instance, the LDS Mormon temple ceremony for a long time, they had members pray for the destruction of the United States, actually for a long time.

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