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.

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So You Want to Be an Anti-Mormon Writer? Here are the Rules of Engagement

Having read more than my fair share of criticisms of the LDS Church, I’ve found that the nastiest ones tend to follow a fairly consistent set of rules.  A recent example appears in the Huffington Post (which, as far as I can tell, doesn’t enjoy a sterling reputation for impartial commentary about anything), in a post from Sharon Toomer, the publisher of BlackandBrownNews.com.  (A link to her article appears at the bottom of this post.)  The article, bearing the cumbersome title, “Probe Mitt Romney’s Affiliation with the Mormon Church–It’s Not Too Late and It’s Required) is an attack piece focused on issues of race.  But it follows the same tired rules as most articles of the same ilk.

The rules are fairly simple to follow:

1.  Make an obvious mistake that destroys your credibility.  

Anti-Mormon writers tend to fall into two camps.  The first are former Mormons with some sort of beef against the Church.  The second are non-Mormons who know virtually nothing about the Church and base their criticism on second- or third-hand sources.  Ms. Toomer falls into the second camp, and she wastes no time demonstrating her complete ignorance about the Church.  She says that Mitt Romney “is a faithful, longstanding Mormon, who rose to Bishop–the highest Priesthood office.”  Anyone who has bothered to poke their nose into a Mormon congregation should know that in Mormonism, a bishop is merely the leader of a local congregation.  Above him are a host of offices, including Stake President (she should have screamed about Romney holding that position, since he did), and Area and General Authorities of the Church.  It in no way compares to, say, the position of a Catholic Bishop (they have way better hats), nor is it a permanent or paid position.  At best, it is the equivalent of a local lay minister.  When an author does not understand even the basic organizational facts about the Church, you have to suspect that the rest of her analysis will be lacking.

2.  Quote an obscure statement that nobody has ever heard of and label it a “core” doctrine of the Church.

I’ll be the first to admit that if you dig through the Journal of Discourses, which is a collection of early talks by LDS Church leaders, you’ll occasionally stumble over something unusual.  That’s the result of several factors, including unreliable recording of the discourses and–not afraid to say it–non-doctrinal opinions about things that don’t reflect the actual teachings of the Church.  Ms. Toomer hasn’t bothered to do the hard work of wading through the Journal of Discourses herself, but passes on a quote reported in the New York Times in which Brigham Young says something about interracial sexual relations that we certainly would find offensive today.

The problem with this is that 90% or more Mormons have never heard such a quote.  Why?  Because it is inconsistent with the established doctrines and teachings of the Church.  If you want to know what the Church teaches, it is ridiculously easy to find out.  Every lesson for every class in the Church is publicly available on the Church’s official website, lds.org. So is every General Conference talk and every article from official Church magazines.  Nothing is hidden.  Obscure comments, on the other hand, are just that:  Obscure.

On top of that, the game of “look what I found” as it relates to 19th century talks can be played by both sides.  I can point to a statement by Brigham Young in which he condemned whites’ treatment of blacks and declared that “For their abuse of that race, the whites will be cursed, unless they repent.”  (Which apparently you can find in Nancy F. Cott, Public Viows:  A history of Marriage and  the Nation,” (Harvard University Press, 2000), although I admit I don’t have the original book myself).  The problem is that in many respects the Journal of Discourses is about as reliable as an old Yugo.  Many of the talks were recorded longhand, and I know that if you asked me to write out a talk longhand I wouldn’t be able to offer up much more than Woody Allen’s summary after speed-reading the Bible:  “It dealt with God.”

3.  Make broad accusations with no support.

Ms. Toomer flatly states:  “Mormons still carry on the belief that blacks are not equal.”  Her support for this?  Well, eventually she points to some black athletes at BYU who claim that they aren’t punished as severely for honor code violations as white athletes.  We’ll get to that nonsense in a minute.  But even if that allegation were true, that’s a far cry from demonstrating that racism is part of Mormon doctrine, a notion that I find offensive, given that the Church is well on its way to having a non-white majority.  And we just keep going out and inviting non-whites to join the Church.  We hate them so much we just can’t wait to be surrounded by them.

4.  Quote a Mormon who has no authority but who has said something stupid.

Ms. Toomer then quotes a remarkably stupid recent comment from a BYU professor in which he tried to justify the past exclusion of blacks from the priesthood.  How do I know his comments were idiotic?  Because every Mormon I have talked to about it has said the same thing:  “What an idiot!”  But keep in mind that BYU professors aren’t General Authorities of the Church, and even when General Authorities publish their own writings, they caution that their opinions are their own and not the official position of the Church.  BYU professors are more than just a step down from General Authorities, and their writings do not constitute Church doctrine.

5.  Pass along rumors or quote someone with an ax to grind.

Ms. Toomer then goes on to describe how black athletes are held more accountable for honor code violations than are white athletes. She cites a statistic showing that blacks are disproportionately represented among honor code violations (falling back on the fallacy that any statistical difference between blacks and whites is, by definition, the result of racism).  She also quotes, not surprisingly, black athletes complaining that somebody else got away with what they did.  Quoting a Slate.com article that in turn is quoting the Washington Post, she tells us that “Several former BYU football players told us that their white teammates routinely broke the honor code and got away with it, either because they didn’t get caught or because their violations were covered up.”  Well, THAT certainly closes the inquiry.  We should all be outraged that students who didn’t get caught weren’t punished.   This is gossip, not analysis, as evidenced by her inclusion of a story from an unnamed football player claiming that he went to an “orgy” on a recruiting trip to the Y.

By all means, if you haven’t got facts, say the word “orgy.”

What Ms. Toomer does not tell us is whether the quoted players were disciplined for honor code violations.  If they were, as I think the article suggests, then they certainly have an ax to grind against the university.  Moreover, they are people who break their written agreements as to their own behavior.  It doesn’t take a lawyer to see that there is a credibility gap here.

The internet is full of articles and complete websites that follow these same rules of engagement.  Unfortunately, most readers know so little about the Church that it is difficult to sort out fact from fiction.  Writers like Ms. Toomer feast on that lack of information, because it allows them to turn accusations into convictions, without them ever having to prove their case.

If you care, Ms. Toomer’s article can be found here:  http://www.huffingtonpost.com/blackandbrownnews/prob-mitt-romney-affiliation_b_2025327.html

Tell the Truth About Mormons First, then “Share Christ” With Us

There is a small cottage industry among evangelicals focused on selling books and giving seminars about how to minister to “non-Christians” like Mormons. The approach taken in virtually every example I have seen is the same: Explain specific Mormon beliefs and then show how those beliefs don’t square with the Bible.

Oh, and make sure not to tell the truth about those Mormon beliefs.

A recent example is an article on Baptist Press’s website by a Baptist teacher shilling a book on the subject. You can find it here if you have an interest: http://www.sbcbaptistpress.org/BPnews.asp?ID=39001. The author’s purpose is to show that Mormons reject the Nicene view of the Trinity. He will get no argument from me on that point. I’ve said the same thing over on my other blog. But instead of describing actual differences, he offers up some characterizations of Mormon doctrine that aren’t close to being accurate. Not even in the ballpark.

Let’s give this expert a little fact check.

Starting with the nature of God: He says, “Mormons believe that God is the ruler of our planet. He is the ruler of only this particular planet. He acquired that status over the earth over a progression of time. He has a physical body and flesh.” He contrasts that with more genuine Christianity, which he says believes in only one God, manifested in three forms (an idea that isn’t mentioned in the Bible and never really caught on until four centuries after the crucifixion of Christ…there’s orthodoxy for you). His recitation of supposed Mormon doctrine about God the Father includes two significant mistakes.

First, Mormons do not believe that our Father in Heaven (or Jesus Christ for that matter) rule “only this planet.” Instead, we believe exactly the opposite. In the Book of Moses, which we believe is an inspired restoration of certain books of the Old Testament, there is a dialogue between Moses and God, in which God declares, “And worlds without number have I created; and I also created them for mine own purpose; and by the Son I created them, which is mine Only Begotten.” (Moses 1:33, emphasis added). Instead of believing that God is limited to this earth, we believe that His creations are innumerable.

Second, Mormons do not believe that God acquired his status over earth over time. The rest of that same chapter of Moses describes God’s creation of the earth through his Son. Thus, he was God, right from the start. Now, granted, if you want to get into “deep” theology, we do believe that all beings progress eternally, and we suppose that our Father in Heaven likely went through some process of progression, but it is not something that we spend any time teaching in the Church, because not enough has been revealed for us to talk intelligently about it.

With respect to Mormons’ belief about Christ, our intrepid expert tells us, “Mormons teach that Jesus is God’s firstborn spirit son. Jesus, like God, was a human being but attained his godhead status by living an upright life.” Right as to Christ being the Firstborn, but a swing and a miss on the rest. I just addressed this on my other blog, if you’re curious: http://reallywanttoknow.wordpress.com/2012/10/28/do-mormons-believe-that-jesus-was-just-a-man-who-became-god/. But suffice it to say that we believe that Jesus was God before coming to earth. He created the earth and was Jehovah of the Old Testament. He wasn’t just some guy in sandals who became God as a result of making good choices. He was God, condescending to come to earth to be a sacrifice for his creations.

What’s more interesting is when the author lists things that “Christians” believe, implying that Mormons don’t: “We Southern Baptists believe the Bible teaches that Jesus has always existed (John 1:1) and is one with the Father (John 10:30). He was born of a virgin in a non-sexual union. He is far above the angels (Hebrews 1), including Satan.” Why does he only make the implication? Probably because Mormons believe that Jesus has always existed, that he is one with the Father (in the same sense that he wanted his disciples to be “one”–John 17:21), that he was born of a virgin, and is far above the angels, including Satan.

Finally, with respect to the Holy Ghost, the author claims, “Mormons believe the Holy Spirit does not have, as God and Jesus have, personhood in the Trinity. Instead, he is nothing more than a spirit manifestation that is from the Father.” I’ve been a member of the LDS Church for 39 years, and I don’t even know what that means. I’ve been taught all of my life in the Church that the Holy Ghost is a separate member of the Godhead and is a “personage of Spirit.” (Doctrine and Covenants 130:22). He is not a “manifestation,” but rather is the third member of the Godhead.

In fact, our Baptist friend has his theology upside down when he says that Baptists believe that the Holy Spirit has “personhood” and the Mormons don’t. The Nicene view of the Trinity (which he previously points to as orthodox Christianity) is that God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit are all three representations or manifestations of the same God, each sharing the same substance. The notion of the Holy Ghost having its own distinct “personhood” is Mormon Theology 101.

It really doesn’t bother me that Baptists feel a need to “minister” to Mormons. We’re a missionary Church, too, and are far more likely to come knocking on your door than are the local Southern Baptists. What is irritating is when someone attempts to justify such a ministry by making demonstrably false statements about what we believe. Show me that you are a friend of the truth first, and then I will listen to you describe your friendship with Christ.