Reporting on Mormonism: Here We Go Again

I sometimes think it must actually cause reporters physical pain to approach stories about the LDS Church objectively.  For the life of me, I can’t come up with any other reason that causes reporting on Mormonism to be so slanted.

Today’s example is a June 23 article in the Washington Post entitled “Founder of Mormon women’s movement excommunicated by all-male church council.”

The gist of the story is that the big bad Mormon men are silencing women’s voices and kicking out feminists by the dozens.  I can live with someone having and expressing that opinion.  But that’s exactly what it is:  An opinion dressed up as news reporting.

After framing this as a traditional civil rights issue by noting that Kate Kelly is a “human rights attorney” (strictly speaking, so am I), the author summarizes her story as follows: “Experts on Mormon history say Kelly, 33, who was convicted on the charge of apostasy for her public organizing with Ordain Women, is part of a wave of some of the highest-profile excommunications in decades.”  What is this “wave” of excommunications about which the reader should be so concerned?  Well, we finally discover in the last paragraph that the wave is barely a ripple:  The article cites one other person (who doesn’t get more ink in the story because he is a man and therefore doesn’t fit the whole persecution theme) who has been called before a disciplinary council but regarding whom no decision has been made.  In other words, it is a wave of one.

Farther along in the article, we get this remarkable sentence:  “Flake and regular Mormons agreed that the excommunication would likely chill public conversations around the topic of women’s ordination in Mormonism, a faith group that many Americans still associate with the word “cult.”  The Flake referred to is a historian who focuses on issues regarding the LDS Church and women (and, as near as I can tell from her biography, is LDS herself).   Who are the “regular Mormons” the author is talking about?  Once again, it is a party of one.  Aside from one other “historian,” she quotes one blogger sympathetic to Ordain Women who is critical of the decision to excommunicate Kelly.  Naturally, from that one voice we can conclude that 15 million other Mormons agree that this is going to “chill conversations.”  The scores of blogs I have read by LDS women who have no problem at all with Kelly’s excommunication?   Ignored completely.  Apparently Google doesn’t operate on an equal-opportunity basis at the Post.  (For what it is worth, I find it curious that the blogger who is quoted complains that he is being “silenced” as well.  So silenced that he gave an interview to the Washington Post.)

The second part of that sentence is more absurd.  Why the ubiquitous reference to Mormonism being a cult?  First, the statement is absolutely incorrect.  If one bothers to click on the link the author provides, the result is a Pew study following the Mitt Romney campaign regarding attitudes towards Mormons.  Among the many results of that study was a word-association question that demonstrated that 5% of the respondents said that they associate Mormons with the word “cult.”  The Post author generously describes this 5% as “many” Americans.  Interestingly, according to a Fox News poll, eight percent of Americans believe that Elvis is still alive.  So what this really tells us is that between 5 and 8 percent of Americans are complete knuckleheads.

The reference to Mormonism as a cult is merely a way to signal to the reader what he or she should conclude from the rest of the article:  That Mormons are a bunch of misogynist cult members keeping their women-folk barefoot and pregnant.  It’s a stereotype, and an unfair one at that.  But it demonstrates that this isn’t just a news story.  It’s a story with a purpose, and that purpose is to persuade the reader that there is something nefarious going on in Salt Lake City.

I really do try to take articles like these with a grain of Utah’s best salt, but there is only so much manipulation you can stomach.  The press desperately wants the Kelly excommunication to be a huge story that they can leverage to expose Mormonism as whatever-it-is-that-non-Mormons-think-we-are.  I get that.  But when you put an article like this under the light of scrutiny, you have to who it is that is running the scam.

What is Apostasy?

This explanation from Elder George Q. Canon clearly defines the difference between an honest difference of opinion and apostasy.  It was published by the folks over at FairMormon and is worth a read.  I”m including the URL but also the text in full:

http://blog.fairmormon.org/2014/06/23/what-is-apostasy/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+fairldsblog+%28FAIR+Blog%29

 

What Is Apostasy?

Posted on 23 June 2014 by 

The following definition of “apostasy” was penned by Elder George Q. Cannon, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and editor of the Deseret Evening News, in which paper the following was published on 3 November 1869.

Here Elder Cannon sets forth the difference between “honestly differing in opinion from the authorities of the Church” and “publishing those differences of opinion, and seeking by arguments, sophistry and special pleading to enforce them upon the people to produce division and strife.”

A copy of the original publication is available through the Utah Digital Newspapers Program.


George Q. Cannon

A friend came to us this morning to question us respecting our reviews concerning apostasy. He wished to know whether we had said that we considered an honest difference of opinion between a member of the Church and the authorities of the Church apostasy, as he said, we had been credited with having made a statement to that effect. We replied that we have not stated that an honest difference of opinion between a member of the Church and the authorities constituted apostasy; for we could conceive of a man honestly differing in opinion from the authorities of the Church and yet not be an apostate; but we could not conceive of a man publishing those differences of opinion, and seeking by arguments, sophistry and special pleading to enforce them upon the people to produce division and strife, and to place the acts and counsels of the authorities of the Church, if possible, in a wrong light, and not be an apostate, for such conduct was apostasy as we understood the term. We further said that while a man might honestly differ in opinion from the authorities through a want of understanding, he had to be exceedingly careful how he acted in relation to such differences, or the adversary would take advantage of him and he would soon become imbued with the spirit of apostasy, can be found fighting against God and the authority which He had placed here to govern His Church.

We know that there have been people in the church at various times who have had peculiar views in relation to apostasy. [William] McClellan, [John F.] Boynton, [William] Law and others did not think that they were likely to become apostates when they began to differ from Joseph. They professed to believe the doctrines which Joseph taught; but they could not endorse Joseph’s policy upon every point. They began by entertaining what they doubtless called honest differences of opinion respecting the council which Joseph gave; but they ended by becoming undisguised apostates. It was wonderful the sensitiveness those men felt for liberty. Joseph had suddenly become an odious tyrant in their eyes, and they stood forth as the champions of freedom. They were eager to disenthrall the masses from the subjugation in which, according to their views, they were held by him; and they would have been pleased, for a time at least, to have had the privilege of remaining in the Church. But every one, who had any of the Spirit of the Lord, saw, that it was

“License they meant, when liberty they cried;”*

and they were expelled from the Church.

In a system such as the gospel of Jesus Christ is, honest differences of opinion do not impel men to stir up division and strife, or to assail the authority which they profess to believe comes from God and is divinely inspired by Him. We know that there are persons who appear to entertain the idea that they are under some obligation to exercise a liberty of this kind, and that they are neither free agents nor honest men unless they do. But we have failed to discover that any greater degree of agency, honesty or freedom is exercised in raising a storm of opposition, in disobeying or rebelling, than being obedient, united and submissive, it the obedience, union and submission are on the side of right and truth. It is on this point that the Latter-Day Saints are so misunderstood by people who do not know them. They cultivate union, obedience and peace, and many persons imagine, therefore, that they do not exercise their agency as free men; but are abjectly servile. But let anyone whose authority they do not recognize attempt to dictate them, and then what follows? They quickly show that rather than part with liberty they will suffer the loss of all earthly substance and even life itself.

There is no people in the world who love freedom more, or exercise true liberty to a wider extent than the people of Utah; but, happily for them, they have been able to draw the line between liberty and license. They assign the widest range for thought and speech consistent with liberty and right; but they do not countenance that unbridled license which produces confusion, discord and division, and which does not exist in the kingdom of heaven, and those who attempt to exercise it cannot have their fellowship.


 

* This is a line from “On the Same,” a poem written in 1645/46 by John Milton.

This Is My Church, Too.

“This is my Church, too!”

I kept coming back to the same statement as I fumed in the Bishop’s office.  The issue was facial hair, and something had been said in a Sacrament meeting that both my goatee and I found personally embarrassing.  I was frustrated, not just because of that statement, but as a result of years of having people assume that I am equivocal in my testimony because my shirt isn’t white, my chin has hair, or because I don’t talk about or teach the gospel in the same way as a general authority.  I felt that, once again, I was dealing with the assumption my lack of piety actually is an apostasy starter kit.  And after four decades, it is beginning to make me nuts.  Because I really do love the restored gospel of Jesus Christ, regardless of what people might think, and I have no desire to join the ranks of those who refuse to darken the chapel doorstep because of offenses received.

Seeing as the Savior Sees

I have written elsewhere about the dangers of the culture of the Church overwhelming or taking precedent over the doctrine of the Church.  During my forty-plus years in the Church, I have seen the same scenarios play out again and again as foolish and hurtful comments are made to members or investigators about their dress, the length of their hair, their tattoos…anything that does not fit squarely into the traditional picture of a “Mormon.”  Too often when someone is offended as a result of such comments, members shrug it off dismissively and make self-righteous comments about how the person didn’t have a strong enough testimony or needs to just “get over it.”  Too little attention is paid to the problem of saying stupid and hurtful things.  We would not have to counsel people about not getting offended if we did a better job of not being offensive.

We all need to do a better job of seeing past what we see with our eyes.  Just as the prophet Samuel had to learn this lesson when he dismissed David out of hand because he did not have the look of a king, we need to set aside our assumptions and prejudices in order to see into other people’s hearts in the way the Lord would.  The danger in creating cultural expectations for other people is that it gives us a quick, easy, and utterly unjustified way to pass judgment on other people.  If I find ponytails on men to be sacrilegious, I don’t have to bother to know the long-haired person in front of me.  The hair–or the beard, or the tattoo, or the pierced ears–tell me all that I need to know.

Hugh Nibley addressed this issue with typical directness:  “The worst sinners, according to Jesus, are not the harlots and publicans, but the religious leaders with their insistence on proper dress and grooming, their careful observance of all the rules, their precious concern for status symbols, their strict legality, their pious patriotism… the haircut becomes the test of virtue in a world where Satan deceives and rules by appearances.”  Because Christ’s focus is on the eternal and internal, we are poor disciples indeed if our focus is on the transitory and external.

Hearing the Gospel in Our Own Language

A similar problem arises when we discount another person’s testimony because it is not expressed in the same way we would express it.  In my case, I’ve always shared my testimony with a fair amount of humor and, admittedly, a much more casual approach than you will find in General Conference.  I do that for several reasons.  The two most important reasons are:  (1)  It is who I am; and (2) I honestly believe that different people respond to the gospel in different ways, and sometimes my approach has worked.  I do my best not to teach any false doctrine or to belittle sacred things; however, I do try to keep as much starch out of my conversation as possible.  Some people don’t respond well to my approach, and that’s fine by me.  I’m not really talking to those people, and they have plenty of “traditional” voices they can listen to.  There is no danger of me being asked to speak in General Conference.

In the 90th Section of the Doctrine and Covenants, the Lord says that in the last days, “every man shall hear the fulness of the gospel in his own tongue, and in this own language.”  (Doctrine and Covenants 90:11).  I believe that promise is more than a matter of linguistics.  I think that in order for the gospel to be effectively taken to the world, it needs to be offered to each person in a way that it is best understood by that person.  The Spirit is always the same, and the doctrine should be the same, but the messengers are different, and sometimes one voice resonates with us very differently than another.  All of us have had the experience of thinking that we just heard a fantastic talk, only to overhear someone else say that it was the worst thing they ever suffered through.  I believe that is one of the reasons we do not have a paid clergy:  Over the course of a month, we will hear from 10-12 difference speakers, with diverse perspectives, experiences, and ways of expression.  With any luck, a couple of those speakers will touch something in our hearts and draw us closer to God.

Because of that, I think we need to be able to look past what we see with our eyes and listen to more than what we hear with our ears.  We teach that the gospel of Jesus Christ is universal.  It is meant to be a blessing to every man, woman and child who has, does, or will inhabit this earth.  We say that, but do we believe it?  Or have we convinced ourselves that our task is to fit people into a specific mold, and if the contours aren’t exact, to cast them out?

That girl with the tattoo?

That guy in the overalls?

The dude with the Easter pageant long hair?

The person who smells of tobacco?

The kid who just accidentally swore during his Sacrament talk?

The sinner, the leper, the publican?

Guess what?  This is their Church, too.