A cult within a cult: Operation Underground Railroad, the Mormon church, and me

Two weeks ago, Meg Conley wrote an essay in Slate about a paramilitary raid she went on with Operation Underground Railroad. OUR is an organization of self-proclaimed “abolitionists” fighting to save children from sex slavery.

OUR was founded by Tim Ballard, an ex-DHS agent who capitalized on QAnon. Millionaire mediamongers stick together—initially, he sought to fund OUR by pitching it as a reality TV series to Glenn Beck. Tim’s upcoming biopic is an action movie called Sound of Freedom, starring Jim Caviezel. Or as I like to call it: Taken 4 (kidding but also please nobody give Tim this idea). He told Trump a border wall would “save the children.”

In the article, Meg described how Tim invited her, the writer of a mommy blog, to bust sex traffickers in the Dominican Republic. Her piece was partly a mea culpa, but largely a takedown of OUR. I can imagine how difficult it was for Meg to publish this. Despite experts decrying Tim’s methods as “arrogant, unethical, and illegal,” Mormons constitute a large swath of his supporters—and Meg’s.

Half of her essay centered on the raid itself. Early on, in just the fourth paragraph, she establishes self-awareness of her motivations:

I was a 28-year-old stay-at-home mother in Utah. I was lonely and grieving: My dad, my best friend, had died not long before. As I changed diapers, managed tantrums, and sat in the playground, I felt unmoored from my past and unsure about my future. I suppose, in my grief and my search for meaning, I wanted [Tim] to be called by God, because maybe that meant finally, I was too.

I was hoping she’d return to these sentiments later on. How did her search for meaning leave her vulnerable to a man who offered her power? I was excited by the buildup in the narrative. She describes her gradual disillusionment with Tim, and the climax kicks off with a dramatic hook: “I began to face the truth.”

But from there, Meg disappeared in the story. With a snap, what I thought was a deeply personal essay turned into a discourse on human trafficking. In essence, Meg’s narrative arc was “I didn’t know X about Y, but now I do.” But the most vulnerable words in the essay are lonely, diapers, tantrums, playgrounds, grief, search, God. The path to human truth is always “I didn’t know X about me, but now I do.”

Tim offered Meg what the Church denied. He noticed her, recognized her as a writer, saw that she had a voice, valued it. He called her to something beyond motherhood.

But this is my own analysis, not Meg’s.

Instead of grounding this essay in her vulnerability, she swerved to a broader topic. This surprised me. Half of the essay centered on Meg’s experiences, but any decent reporter could have come to her conclusions. In the context of OUR, Meg is not just any writer. She understands Tim through first-hand experience, yes, but also as a product of Mormon psychology. This is what she had to offer the story. She could have hit a home run, but to me, it felt like she bunted.

This story is about human trafficking on the spiritual plane. It’s about cults: who builds them, lures us in, and how we stay enslaved.

True crime documentaries like Abducted in Plain Sight and Murder Among the Mormons showcase “normal” Mormon men who abuse, manipulate, and even kill others. But filmmakers rarely dissect the deeper psychology behind this. If they did, they might discover that a religion founded by a narcissistic megalomaniac has a funny habit of breeding narcissistic megalomaniacs.

If you haven’t grown up Mormon, it might be easy to miss this connection. But Meg did, and she’s proven her capacity to see it. In March, she published a Medium essay about Murder Among the Mormons, telling her followers: “I realized Mark Hofmann’s story is not about a Mormon man, it’s about Mormon men. His forgeries and murders happened in a male-dominated culture.” I wish she’d given Tim Ballard this analytic treatment. He doesn’t need a takedown; he needs a dissection.

Ballard acts like Rambo Jesus. His jump teams go on raids throughout the Global South, busting down doors with badges and guns. He works with local law enforcement and extols the virtue of public-private partnerships, but this framework does not absolve him of bad ethics. Hell, the CIA’s Dark Alliance was a public-private partnership.

Mormon men are brought up in a culture that revolves around their priesthood, revelatory power, and leadership. When you tell a 30-something Mormon male he’s Harriet Tubman, he’s inclined to believe you. And as the type of wealthy, obedient guy who climbs the LDS ladder, Tim believes he’s doing right by God.

If you do not contextualize him within the very thing that gives him power, you dilute what the story is about. On top of all this: OUR’s leaders are Mormon. Its donor base is Mormon. Tim was on the cover of LDS Living magazine. He owns a CrossFit gym in Draper, for hell’s sake. How is the Church not implicated in this story?

Some might say that Tim is simply an imperfect man who does not represent the faith. First off: “imperfect” is a very generous descriptor. And secondly, this script is dismissive, deflective, and flat-out wrong. Yet it runs on a loop when Mormons want to avoid the shadow side of their doctrine and culture.

“It’s not a Mormon problem, it’s a people problem.” Whether it’s Tim Ballard or Bruce R. McConkie, the most wildly offensive authority figures in the Church do indeed represent it. These men do not become who they are without LDS theology and support. It is intellectually untenable—and gaslighting—to insist that men who are products of Mormon pathologies do not represent them.

Tim has a savior complex and an ethnocentric view of America. C’mon, now. You don’t gotta be Carl Jung to interpret this one.

He’s an embodied Book of Mormon.

Tim Ballard, Mark Hofmann, Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, Donald Trump: Mormons like men with trisyllabic names who claim to know something special. We like big talkers, strongmen, mythic figures. We foster and protect systems built around what they claim as not just morality, but reality.

This is the ethos of a cult.

Cults are high-control groups that convince people they’re in on a secret, be that the restored gospel of Jesus Christ, a higher purpose, better body, or how to make money. A charismatic, beautiful hero spreads the gospel. He makes you feel so good at first that it hardly feels like coercion.

Cults control behavior, information, thoughts, and emotions. This is the BITE model, which you can research here. But quickly:

  • Require members to internalize the group’s doctrine as truth; instill black and white thinking, deciding between good vs. evil.

  • Use loaded language and clichés which constrict knowledge, stop critical thoughts, and reduce complexities into platitudes and buzzwords.

  • Discourage critical questions about leaders, doctrine, or policy.

Both OUR and the Church recruit and control members (donors) with the BITE model.

General Authorities say confusing and sometimes batshitfuckingawful things without fear of blowback or even pushback from their peers. To refute each other would implicate not just their own authority, but the infallibility of prophets. This is why it’s hard to get a firm answer on what exactly constitutes “doctrine” or “revelation.” Prophets, apostles, BYU, Church historians, PR teams, Church-sponsored media, and lawyers at Kirton McConkie are paid make this look benign.

You’re supposed to feel dumb in a cult. This doesn’t detract from its power—it gives it more reason to exist. If you are confused, frustrated, and disempowered, you need someone to lead you. Someone called of God.

If people will follow a prophet, you can get them to follow you—as long as you sell something different. Fish don’t know they’re in water. If hero worship and hypermasculinity is all you’ve ever known, Donald Trump won’t fail your sniff test. Or Tim.

OUR isn’t the first neo-cult within the Church and it won’t be the last. Look around. Any Mormon who’s endured an MLM pitch knows what a cult sounds like. Read the billboards along I-15, where Point-of-the-Mountain tech companies advertise their jobs (“People. Not Employees.”) Think about BYU students getting signing bonuses and a free meal at Tucanos to sell pest control. Or how OUR has partnerships with Tony Robbins and Capitalism.com (I swear I am not making this up).

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This picture is from an OUR Facebook post. Tim’s stance evokes the Christus statue on Temple Square, but what really caught my eye was a comment below the photo:

A real life Superman in plain clothing! I also hope you’re on the guest list for the dōTERRA convention in September too—would love to breathe the same air as you and show my respect for all that you do for our sons and daughters of the world!

I wish I could say I was never this kind of sycophant. But I was.

Discipleship was at the core of my identity—the blood in my veins. In the last 200 years of my family history, this meant leaving Sweden, Wales, Scotland, Denmark, and Switzerland, crossing the plains on foot, and making a promise to avenge the blood of Joseph Smith.

For Meg, it meant booking a flight.


Meg may have left OUR, but to my knowledge, she has not left Mormonism. (This is an educated guess based off her writing and public persona. I could be wrong.)

I’ve seen Meg call out hypocrisy in Mormonism. She’s not afraid to do that, but only to a point. In her writing, I’ve noticed the buck often stops at a poetic metaphor yearning for change. Hypocrisy is one thing. I want her to reckon with complicity.

If I’m being honest: I think she panders to Mormon progressives. She makes them feel a little too comfortable. This type of writing can be useful, in some respect, to some extent. But I rarely think it’s brave.

As her essay concludes, Meg writes:

Anti-trafficking work is not a punch-pow battle between good and evil . . . [it’s] providing support for gay and trans kids kicked out of their homes and therefore exposed to heightened risk of being trafficked. It’s pushing for racial justice. It’s writing and voting for policies that provide a safety net and economic certainty. Anti-trafficking work, the kind that really works, doesn’t have an immediate satisfaction. It’s slow and steady. There are no starring turns.

Here she becomes an unreliable narrator. If this is what you believe: why stay in a church that punishes trans people for gender confirmation surgery? Why make apologies for a prophet who says gay people can’t go to heaven? Why put your shoulder to the wheel for a faith that perpetuates white supremacy? Safety nets and economic security—is this not the religion with a $100 billion investment fund that claims tax-exempt status?

You cannot go hard on Operation Underground Railroad while going soft on what lay the tracks. These systems of power are enmeshed.

I want to talk about Mormon women and how the Church controls them.

What would I have done if Tim Ballard had invited me to bust a sex ring in 2014? Driven to the airport, duh.

I would have been flattered. I would have foamed at the mouth for prestige and even physical proximity to Tim—sitting in a room with him, making decisions, having a voice. I know I would have done this because in 2014, I was doing it in my own way.

I was a 26-year-old with a faith crisis and a job offer from the CIA. Makes sense when you think about: a neocolonial religion denied me autonomy, so I turned to neocolonial work. Tim was connected to all kinds of ex-CIA, ex-blah-blah-blah dudes with high-level security clearances. I would have wanted to leverage this social capital. I can see myself chumming around, being the cool girl, listening to Joe Rogan or whatever.

Meg thought OUR would help her save kids; I thought the CIA would help me save America. It’s eerie to realize how easily we could have done something else. My inner moral compass could not point true north—its magnetic field was controlled by a cult. I sought salvation through men because that’s all I knew.

Since Emma Smith, Mormon women been props for men who fancy themselves demigods. But Mormon men are not delusional (well, at least not all of them). This demigod doctrine has been preached for generations, by multiple prophets: “As man now is, God once was; as God now is, man may be.”

Through this theology—or rather, pathology—Mormon women are starved for any meaningful control over their lives. Their “divine” gender role is to be a helpmeet. They do not have the priesthood; they are along for the ride. If the idea of a demigoddess (Heavenly Mother) is any alternative hope for their fate, this consolation appears to be an eternal life in the shadows, muted and unknown by her children.

Church leaders double down on this misogyny by excommunicating women who vocally challenge doctrine, and, more obliquely, by refusing to acknowledge how women’s voices foment even the smallest changes. At every turn, Mormon women are denied dignity. Proximity to power is not just alluring; it’s the best they can get.

“I’m so grateful to be married to a worthy priesthood holder.” “We didn’t have a priesthood holder at home, so we had to call the bishop.” Testimonies at church became my own Greek myths. Week after week, I was conditioned to not only defer to male authority, but to need it for safety. This became my personal cosmology—how I saw myself in the universe as it was interpreted for me.

In 2014, Deseret News named Tim a local hero. In the article—after googly-eyed comments about his thick blond hair, blue eyes, and manner of speech (“sprinkled with surfer slang”)—there are some telling reflections from his mother:

Even as a child, he was obsessed with the idea of right and wrong: “He was the conscience of the family, he sees right and wrong as very black and white,” she said.

Looking back, his mother sees a few clues to what would become his crime-fighting career: When he was in preschool, he insisted on wearing a Superman cape on all occasions—even to bed. “He had that vision of himself as being somebody who would go in and save people.”

And of course, there is his wife:

While in college, he met his wife Katherine, who he courted and married within a span of four months. Today they have six children. 

Since Emma Smith, Mormon women been victims of visions of grandeur. If Tim had called me up in 2014, I would have enabled this. There is no doubt in my mind. His power was not just magnetic, but my magnetic north.

For many years, I thought that if I rose above my own disempowerment with wisdom and grace, maybe I didn’t need the priesthood after all (just like they told me).

I held my tongue in Sunday School and put a rainbow on Facebook. I wrote Sacrament talks about Heavenly Mother. I twisted everything about my abuse into a lesson about something else. Like Meg did in her essay.

Instead of interrogating my pain, I put it on a doily. I conjured faith-promoting fables for testimony meeting, trying desperately to intellectualize my way out of what my body knew: I was being abused. Because that’s what it was—emotional and spiritual abuse. The entire experience of binding yourself to the Church is predicated on pressure and non-consent. Child baptism, endowment, marriage. I was never mine. I was manipulated.

Funny: I almost used the word “dispossessed” right there. It would’ve worked, technically speaking, but it felt ironic. Growing up Mormon, I felt very much possessed. Men determined my choices, identity, sexuality, ambitions, values. Even imaginary men had control over me—like a hypothetical future husband who wanted an eight-cow wife.

I also felt psychologically possessed, or haunted by demons that made it hard to trust my own feelings. I would think things like “Am I being too sensitive, or is it fucked up that men can be sealed to more than one wife? Isn’t that eternal polygamy?” “Isn’t it wrong that nobody told me what the temple covenants were before I had to commit to them? In the moment, I felt like I couldn’t say no, or even stop to think. If I had been older, maybe. I was eighteen. I was a kid.”

As I struggled with these demons, people who stayed in the Church gave them power. In what amounted to tacit indifference to the ways I was being harmed, their behavior said: “None of this is so offensive as to make me wanna walk outta here.”

Some say staying in the Church is a path of spiritual integrity. I’ve heard progressive Mormons say things like “Change happens from the inside.” “I’m an advocate, I’m an ally.” “I can hold the tension.” “You can be all things.” “I contain multitudes.”

Spare me these treacly petitions. There is no nuance in abuse. No integrity in this.

Complicity has material consequences. Gay and trans people suffer. Entire indigenous nations, like Tonga and Sāmoa, are colonized. Missionaries come home with trauma and nightmares. Women get married as teenagers.

I waited for answers and hoped for change. Pleaded, prayed. But slowly, I realized how absurd it was to beg for empowerment in pews that denied it. I was sacrificing myself on a wicked altar. Moses broke the tablets—not the ram in the thicket. Slowly, I understood that my own dignity was reason enough to leave. I lifted up my staff and stretched my hand over the sea.

I rejected the terms of my disempowerment.

You simply cannot be kind to yourself and also accept the structure and judgement of a racist and sexist society. These days, you hear a lot of talk about self-care. I am telling you that there is an indispensable tool, a necessary part of self-care that cannot be left out. The tool is refusing to accept the terms of a world that builds you into it as vulnerable. — Imani Perry

CALLED OF GOD—the title of Meg’s essay. In 2014, I went on a vigilante raid to “save” kids sold for sex. What we did haunts me now.

We are all haunted, in our own dark rooms, with our own creaky floors. There are cobwebs on the chandelier, plastic on the furniture. Pull back the drapes. I want a canyon of sunlight on the floor, with tiny flecks of dust floating in its rays. The demons will scurry about, screeching.

Chase them. Nothing’s better than an exorcism.