Michael Otterson advised the press: to understand Mormonism, go to the source and allow Mormons to define themselves. But what if these Mormons are survivalist Joel Skousen, Tea Party painter Jon McNaughton, or Tammy, an anti-government gun-toting rodeo queen from Overton, Nevada? All three were lengthily interviewed on French national radio. What if this Mormon is a high-ranking Church representative who answers questions evasively in robot-like fashion, as one Belgian journalist remarked? What if these Mormons are a Utah couple who, after Obama’s reelection, sent a dramatic email to a friend of mine, a non-Mormon Flemish politician, to say that the U.S. had “passed away” and that “killed in this same massive, catastrophic, progressive wreck were personal freedoms, American values, The Constitution, economic growth, conservatism, fiscal sanity, American unity, free markets, life’s sanctity, marriage between man and woman, Republicanism, free will, self-reliance and many more.” This Mormon couple used to be good friends with this Flemish woman — until they discovered she belonged to a green party. “No reasonable discussion was possible anymore”, she told me. All she receives now from them is extremist mail.
But, thank heaven, there is also Jim Dabakis. More later about him.
A lot of attention has been given to the so-called “Mormon moment” in the U.S. How has a similar phenomenon affected the perception of the Mormon Church abroad? I can only speak about its effect in parts of Europe. I sampled media reports from a dozen countries. They are exceedingly varied, from a few acceptable analyses of Mormonism, to dozens of superficial and flawed ones, including the cheapest ridicule. Some countries have more than others, largely in line with known groupings: countries critical toward new religious movements, like France, Germany, and Belgium, have more; countries less sensitive have fewer. Links in this post are only to a fraction of the reports I read and heard. Moreover, I did not include in the assessment the myriads of blogs and comments, nor a handful of recently published books on Mormonism, nor the always active anticultist propaganda, which all also contribute to the perception of Mormonism. I do not claim this to be a thorough analysis, rather an overall impression.
The Mormon traits that stick
The global result is, in my opinion, rather negative, in spite of Mormon triumphalism claiming that the Church is the “real winner” of the presidential election. Perhaps in the U.S., not in Europe where Mormons are so often misrepresented that we are delighted when a media report portrays us without venom, even if the presentation is shallow and deformed. We are elated when a piece is on the whole balanced, like one surprising TV-documentary in Romania. But a global assessment should weigh more reports and also differentiate between the surface and the loaded message underneath. The surface may display the usual positive Mormon images – snippets of pioneer history, missionaries, a glimpse of a Sunday meeting, a loving family, and, with some luck, welfare and humanitarian work. The loaded message, however, sits in the impressions that last. That message can be overt, even hard-hitting, like in the infamous BBC documentary by John Sweeney, which was rebroadcast in other European countries. Sometimes the overt message is spiced with a vicious dose of satire, as in this German article. But often the stings are stealthy under the surface. Most journalists, even in an overall objective report, include provocative items in order to sound critical and to generate better reader-and-viewer ratings. There are plenty of items to select from and that manage to slither into the text: temple secrecy, rigidity, racism, gender inequality, sexual repression, homophobia, baptism of Holocaust victims, extreme wealth, three-hour Sunday services, garments, creationism, Kolob, divinization, polygamy, polygamy, and polygamy. These are traits that catch attention, but which also stick in the audience’s memory.
Talking about our efforts to bring the Church “out of obscurity”, Michael Otterson discerned phases we deal with: “If Phase 1 had to do with the church’s visibility, then Phase 2 — which will be about achieving understanding — still mostly lies ahead.” Indeed.
Mitt Romney: his impact on the view of Mormonism
Europe is overwhelmingly pro-Obama. So is most of the world: according to this MSN poll, 81% of people outside the U.S. would have voted for Obama. That means that from the onset European journalists, even in so-called objective reports, tended to pick up the negative Romney image: a wealthy, harsh businessman, stiff, unsociable, unfriendly to women’s issues, etc. Romney himself did not help to change this perception. His trip to Europe in July 2012 was unimpressive to put it mildly. His repeated negative references to Europe in campaign talks and his view of a bipolar world order reminiscent of the cold-war era did not earn him much sympathy abroad. Not that he needed that sympathy to win in the U.S., but as Joe Twyman said, “ … history has shown that when a president is unpopular with the people of Europe it can have a far-reaching effect on how those people view the whole United States”.
In the same vein, to the extent that Romney was depicted as Mormon – which happened recurrently and triggered the media interest in Mormons –, it also affects how people view the whole of Mormonism. The effect is dual.
On the one hand, the image of a clean-cut politician at that leadership level, former governor of Massachusetts, probably surprised the public: apparently not all Mormons belong to an Amish-like cult in the American West nor are they pioneer-dressed polygamists (though it was still often stressed that Romney descended from polygamists who fled to Mexico to escape American law). Telling is that the media almost always referred to the “Mormon church”, and not the “Mormon cult”. One French analyst concluded that to still call Mormonism a cult is “as cruel as it is unjust”. That in itself represents progress.
On the other hand, a number of aspects tainted the picture. Romney’s self-proclaimed “severe” conservatism is perceived as tied to his Mormonism. That connection is easily and superficially broadened to the overall image of extreme American religious conservatism (discussed in the next point). Another frequent parallel drawn between Romney and the Mormon Church concerns “immense secret wealth”, as in this German article. Romney’s America-centeredness and exceptionalism is equally tied to Mormonism (also discussed further). Offending Palestinians by belittling their culture is, according to this German journalist, the thing to do from Romney’s Mormon pro-Israel stance. Romney identified Russia as the “number one geopolitical foe” – a statement which made headlines in the U.K and elsewhere in West Europe. Even more of course in Russia, where negative reactions connected Romney with Mormonism as this or this Russian articles show. Directly or indirectly it has consequences in public protests against the Church in Russia and a current anti-Mormon campaign.
As the presidential campaign progressed and Romney started his move to the center, then won the first debate, some journalists began to present Romney in less derogatory terms, like this one in Spain. Some journalists also noticed the diminishing impact of religious affiliation in U.S. politics, like this Dutch broadcast or this Swiss article, implying Mormonism was losing interest and impact. Toward the end, one Belgian political analyst titled an article Romney is no freak, named him a “valid candidate”, and chided the press for having distorted his personality. It was a lone late voice.
Mormons: extreme religious conservatism, even “integrism”
In the past, media reports in Europe often stressed Mormonism’s mysterious seclusion on the Wasatch Front. The recent presidential election made them position Mormonism in relation to American politics and other churches. The prevailing message now is that the Mormon Church is “an extreme-conservative Christian church”, which, moreover, is moving toward a menacing right-wing coalition with evangelical fundamentalism and Catholic ultra-conservatism. Prop 8 had already shown the coalition with Catholics. Romney’s ultimate acceptance by the religious right proved the developing alliance there. That thesis is also found in more academic analyses, like in Prof. Lernout’s Jezus in Amerika. Rigid standpoints on abortion, contraceptives, euthanasia, or stem cell research, as defended by the Catholic Church, are therefore identified as “Mormon” as well. Romney’s choice of Paul Ryan as running mate reinforced that perception. It does not mean that conservatism as such is despised, but the association with radical and quaint religious viewpoints. At one point an article identified Romney as one of those lunatics who believed that “Moses walked with the dinosaurs”.
Rank-and-file Mormons unwittingly confirm this depiction of extremism by their own focus. In various European media reports, local members, when asked what it means to be a Mormon, mostly answer that they don’t smoke, don’t drink alcohol, coffee or tea, and have no sexual relations outside marriage. They define themselves by strict interdictions. In one TV-broadcast a Mormon woman stated that from her youngest age she had three objectives in life: the first never to drink or smoke, the second not to have sex before marriage, and the third to marry in the temple and become a stay-at-home mom. She proudly confirmed her achievement of all three. Mormons know how these objectives fit into a much broader framework. But for a public ignorant of Mormonism, the formulation evokes a narrow, controlled life of prohibitions and of a submissive marriage, the kind of existence outsiders also imagine for women in strict Hasidic or Wahhabi traditions.
All this makes some media, as in this Swiss report, use the term “fundamentalists” to identify all practicing Mormons (as opposed to non-practicing ones). They also use the even scarier term “integrists” as in this French article. Integrism, in Europe, has the religious connotation of anti-modern radicalism and potential for violent militantism. Integrists want to integrate all aspects of a nation under a single, dominating ideology. The fear of integrism is real in West and East European countries that have known fascism or communism. It helps explain current anticultism and islamophobia. Some ex-Mormons are eager to confirm Mormon integrism to journalists whose reports thrive on controversy and fear-mongering. These ex-Mormons, who paint the Church as a sinister power, surface in media reports in several countries, like in this German one or in the already cited BBC documentary. For these opponents it is not difficult to locate verbal integrism in Mormon Scriptures, hymns and parlance, to point to our massive proselytism as the menacing narrative put into action, and to portray the Church’s excessive demands on individuals and families and its “insidious” social control through home teaching and worthiness interviews. In some reports we come out as a bloodcurdling cult.
America-centeredness and U.S. exceptionalism
Of particular interest to some journalists is the relation between Romney’s America-centeredness and exceptionalism (restore America’s greatness, reaffirm global world leadership, pro-Israel support, etc. ) and Mormonism’s America-centeredness and exceptionalism (Book of Mormon themes, God’s chosen land, New Jerusalem, etc.). “God created the United States to dominate the world” – dixit Romney from his “Mormon lyricism”, according to this article. A Flemish radio journalist, Bert De Vroey, confronted me with that topic, as well as our T&S blogger Craig Harline, former missionary from Flanders and now an expert on Flemish religious history. It was interesting to notice how Craig and I somewhat struggled with an acceptable answer. We cannot deny the obvious Mormon scriptural basis for America’s centeredness, but we can clarify it does not say “U.S.A.” Moreover, as Craig explained, American centeredness is an “American” thing, shared by many, not just Mormons. At the same time the internationalization of the Church and the concept of multiple Zions invites one to broaden the horizon to a universal perspective, which is the present Church’s message. Since the 1990s, doctrinal America-centeredness has been virtually absent from General Conference talks and Church magazines. Craig conveyed it all very well, and in fluent Dutch, in Bert De Vroey’s radio interview (scroll down, select 2012-11-01, play, go to 36’25”).
But among media reports it was exceptional. Mormons à la Joel Skousen, Jon McNaughton, our Tammy in Nevada, and thousands of other Constitution-devoted American Mormons are eager to tout their veneration for a strong U.S.A., some even including white-horse-prophecy folklore. That is what media prefer to point out, as in this Belgian one or in this Italian one. Mormonism is presented as “quintessentially American” in its quaintest aspects. In a German article on national level, Chris Herrod and his wife Alia, identified as Mormons, affirmed that Obama wants to change the U.S.A. into a socialist country like the Soviet Union. Mormons are out to save America as the hope of the world.
In her also rather negative assessment of the Mormon moment abroad, Laurie Maffly-Kipp remarked how much the “Americanness of the Mormon faith” has been reinforced by Republican Mormons and their U.S. patriotism. She is also right that in some countries the image of “clean-cut, white-shirted missionary dyads set off alarms within jittery foreign governments” because of the rumor that scores of them work (or will later work) for the CIA.
Many journalists who visited the “Mormon West” this past year were keen on finding a variety of voices – certainly not only official Church representatives because, as several journalists told me, these representatives – “always men” – tend to be “shielding” and are “as courteous and tense as State guides in Moscow in the 1970s”. It explains why an experienced journalist like Daniel Mermet wanted to find a range of independent, stress-free witnesses, from Tea Partyist Tammy to Jim Dabakis. Other journalists did too.
Thank you, Jim. In his warm, jovial way, Jim steadfastly defended the Church by rectifying misconceptions and by pointing at positive developments in terms of tolerance and diversity – all the more credible because he speaks as an unconventional Mormon, gay, and Democrat. Interviews with Jim can be found in national outlets such as the German Frankfurter Allgemeiner, the Belgian De Standaard, and the French France Inter (start at 34′ 50″). In the latter interview, he bursts with enthusiasm: “Mormons are big hearts, they’re generous, they are warm, they are great neighbors. I’ve lived here for many years. I’m the gay head of the Democratic party and I have had only great exchanges with Mormon church leaders.” Jim reassures audiences that the Church has no political ambitions. He points at the Church’s emphasis on the human side of immigration. Sure, a moment later he lambasts Republican “extremists” in the Utah legislature, but clarifies “it doesn’t come from the Church”.
Regretfully, Jim’s input was limited in the vast wave of media reports. But each of his interventions was precious as counter-weight. He deserves our gratitude. And, of course, also Harry Reid, though I could not find European articles where he was interviewed. But to parade our diversity, church PA has been repeating ad lib to scores of journalists: “No, not all Mormons are Republicans. Harry Reid … ” The fact that he is in favor of gay marriage and a member in good standing is touted in a panel with church representatives in this BBC radio broadcast (at 31’13”). For church PA, what better illustration of Mormon diversity and tolerance? But how fellow Mormons treat Harry Reid in reality, especially in Utah, is quietly passed over.
To conclude, some considerations
1 – Church PA and the rest of the world.
Jason Horowitz mentioned in The Washington Post that “the perception Americans and the world have of the church is the chief concern of the hierarchy in Salt Lake City. In recent years, the church has heavily marketed itself as a multiracial, multicultural and exceedingly Everyman faith. It spent millions on an “I’m a Mormon” ad campaign that appeared on billboards and televisions across the country.” Those efforts may bear fruit in the U.S. (?), but in European countries the road is still long and arduous. Moreover, “perception” is one thing, but to what extent does it reflect reality? Church PA seems fixated on conveying a “perfect image”. Honest questions are answered summarily and evasively. “Less is better” seems the rule. The interviews I heard and read with Church members were often contrived, tense, and, especially, empty – with a few exceptions. Interviewed church representatives played defense, as they allowed journalists to focus on controversial topics. They were seldom able to redirect content and articulate Mormonism’s strengths and unique perspectives, as well as honestly discuss some of its challenges. It is painful because they are very dedicated and want to do their very best. The media managed, almost naturally, to let Mormons define themselves in rigidity and interdictions, or as the last lone defenders of familial and moral values in a permissive world.
One of the paradoxes we face is that the Church’s pursuit of normality and mainstream acceptance equals loss of media attention. Journalists are not interested in a story that shouts how ordinary we are. Journalists pay attention when Mormonism and Mormons have something to contribute on a newsworthy level. Romney was a temporary attraction and thus a springboard for media reports, but that appeal is gone. In the U.S. church PA and American members have enough leverage and networking to generate continued attention to Mormonism, but what can be done elsewhere? It does not help to send weedy news releases to general media outlets. News comes from original and intriguing items released to topic-specific journalists who are on the lookout for such. For example, the recent Owlet Baby Monitor was also an instant article in a main Belgian newspaper, but PA missed the chance to channel it first to the media and highlight the Mormon connection. In each country PA should immediately know of such unique opportunities and instantly mail the info to topic-specific journalists. On the spot transmitting of newsworthy items is only one example. There is much more to be done.
2 – Something preposterous.
Vocal Mormon Republicans, devoted to a strong U.S.A. and unable to separate religion and politics, contradict the perception of diversity and tolerance the Church wants to market. These people gain attention from the media as they have an aggressive, controversial story to tell. Journalists use the voting figures from Utah to confirm how Mormons think. They continue to bring up Prop 8. An audience abroad, unaware of tendencies and nuances, is thus easily led to believe that the Mormon Church is deeply America-centered, ontologically Republican, and conspiring with the religious right for political power. Not true? The recent disclosure of the political affiliation of most members of the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve is devastating for the image of an international, politically neutral church. There is something preposterous to claiming the status of “world religion” when the highest leadership is affiliated with the American party most despised by the rest of the world.
3 – Filming church services.
In a number of documentaries, TV-crews were allowed to attend church services. That should be a unique chance to give audiences a feeling of our worship. But the prohibition to let them film prayers and ordinances (baptism, sacrament, baby’s blessing, ordination) reduces Mormon worship to talks and lessons. Of course, there should be respect for the sacred and there are privacy concerns, but in many cases it is feasible to make proper arrangements with willing, missionary-minded members to film glimpses of those special religious moments. That way audiences get an idea of what constitutes the deeper, spiritual appeal of Mormonism. This core aspect of our faith is totally lacking in media reports simply because we don’t give access. Why then lament that outsiders don’t understand us?
4 – Our frustrated brothers and sisters.
Some ex-Mormons (or inactive Mormons) have a serious negative impact when voicing their bitter stories in the media. However, it would be unfair to dismiss them as having a destructive agenda. They also convey the message that as a Church we failed toward them. Their frustrations should make us reflect on causes we may be responsible for: unreasonable pressures from parents and leaders, the all-or-nothing rhetoric pervading many talks and lessons, or offensive reactions to a personal crisis. It is a difficult topic, this balance between requirements and leniency, one I question in this post as an unsolvable dilemma, but which deserves more attention, in particular in countries where retention is a major problem and lost sheep are bleating on the internet and to the press.
5 – The effect on members.
For members in Europe, who feel already badgered for being part of a misunderstood minority, the barrage of incorrect, unbalanced, and sometimes obnoxious portrayals can become traumatic. Such media reports deeply affect members who have been serving for years if not decades with unrestrained altruism and who exhibit in their daily lives true Christian charity. Their children are often the only Mormons in their school. These members are a tiny minority, part of small church units. They suffer when coming across another article with distortions. They cringe when yet another TV-documentary presents Warren Jeffs as a “Mormon leader”. I just want to express my admiration for these saints, but I reproach church PA for not providing the means to counter such media reports appropriately.
A final word. My overall “rather negative” assessment of the Romney-related “Mormon moment” in Europe is not to be seen as pessimistic for the future. This moment was only a segment in a long chain of episodes. Some episodes have been highly successful in Europe, such as the Osmonds-era in the 1970s, which brought thousands of young people into the Church, many of whom our now seasoned leaders, men and women. But I also believe the intensity of the latest episode, around Romney, should invite to more analysis and critical reflection with an eye to improvement.
Comments are appreciated. However, this post is not about political choices and controversies, but about Mormonism in the international media and the causes and consequences of perceptions.
“But what if these Mormons are survivalist Joel Skousen, Tea Party painter Jon McNaughton, or Tammy, an anti-government gun-toting rodeo queen from Overton, Nevada?”
Great because they are Mormons too, and the American Press sadly pretty much ignored average members. Instead there was quoted Mormon (non-BYU) college professors and liberal commentators who didn’t actually represent mainstream Mormons. The only instance that wasn’t the case was Bott whose comments were out of context and then completely attacked even by the leadership.
“Europe is overwhelmingly pro-Obama.”
That in a nutshell is why this pipe dream of quoting the “politically correct” Mormons is not going to happen. Mormonism is conservative in this liberalized world, and a few continue to believe otherwise no matter what evidence they see around them. Europe, and now the United States, is considered by many active Mormons as a moral and religious lost cause. Have you interviewed average Mormons to see if they agree with the views expressed here or the list of names introducing the topic?
Have you presented this message to PA? Really, you ought to work for them!
Great piece Wilfried. Jettboy, it’s never easy to identify “mainstream, but I’d say the first three people you cite aren’t exactly it, which is Wilfried’s point: the European media tend to go after the least ordinary sorts of people and quotes, when it comes to Mormons, or other groups they don’t know well. No doubt presses elsewhere do the same. And college professors may not themselves be mainstream, but they’re asked things because they’re supposed to have a handle on broad trends–on what the mainstream is doing and thinking–rather than for just their personal opinion on this subject or that.
Thank you, Jettboy. Though my post favors some non-Republican voices to create balance in the media-imagery, it does not mean it wants to silence others. All Mormons are welcome to add to our diversity, also the ones I introduced at the start of the post. As a matter of fact, Tammy is to be congratulated on her missionary courage: without any reluctance, she makes it clear to the French journalist what the Book of Mormon tells and what the gospel means – much better than those who limit our identity to the interdictions of the Word of Wisdom and of sex. At the same time she is a radical Tea Partyist married to a union-affiliated workman – which leads to some funny sparks in the interview. These are adorable persons. Others, however, are more difficult to position in a Mormonism respectful of people with different opinions. I mentioned the example of the Utah couple not willing to continue to befriend a non-Mormon.
This post deals with media issues and the image of the Church abroad, but it also stems from concerns. Within the membership of the Church there is a problem of unity which politics have triggered. In a comment on BCC, Dan Weston said in connection with changing perspectives: “The primary concern of LDS leadership now has to be to ensure the cohesion of the membership and preventing and deterring intramural (and especially geographic and intergenerational) strains from occurring.” The question is how we can contribute to this cohesion. One is tolerance for diversity.
As to your remark “Europe, and now the United States, is considered by many active Mormons as a moral and religious lost cause” – this post is not the place to discuss it. As I asked: This post is not about political choices and controversies, but about Mormonism in the international media and the causes and consequences of perceptions.
My point Wilfred, is that I see your vision of Mormonism representation as distorted in my mind as the ones you point out internationally. In fact, I would go on to say that the international view you criticize (although distorted in its own ways) is closer to the truth than Joanna Brooks or to a lesser extent Jim Dabakis. It is both more diverse and less diverse than either picture.
Apologies for the somewhat off topic comment, but hats off to folks like Jim Dabakis and Ben McAdams, who have worked hard and made significant progress in making the Democratic party in Utah welcoming to Mormons, and vice versa.
I think it’s regrettable that Mormonism has become so closely associated with the Republican party, even though I am myself considerably right wing. And I don’t like the way that right wing sillies use their connection to the Church to further their own agenda, any more than I like it when Joanna Brooks does it.
But the Democrats drove Mormons and other Christians out. Certainly there are scriptural justification one can make for social welfare, even if I think they’re misguided. Mormons, including my ancestors, used to have no problem voting Democrat. But that was before the Democrats made clear that there was no room to question unfettered infanticide, and no room for religious freedom to get in the way of social engineering (the HHS birth control mandate being only the most obvious example). On the left, people who actively support a traditional family structure are scorned. So long as that remains true, there will never be more than a minority of Mormon Democrats. And it isn’t the fault of Mormons.
Since you are European, I have a (non-rhetorical) question for you. It is my impression that, in Latin America and former English colonies, Mormons typically support the right wing parties everywhere. In America they vote Republican, in England they vote Tory, in Australia and Canada they vote Conservative, in Mexico they vote PRI, etc. Moroni Torgan in Brazil is a conservative. It’s anecdotal, but that is what I’ve been told by people from all of these countries.
Do you find this to be true in Continental Europe as well?
MC (7), thank you for the comment. Your first paragraph belongs to the discussion inasmuch at it exemplifies the problem of the political associations with church membership. This is, indeed, what permeates the media interest, in particular lately as triggered by the presidential election. The problem, of course, is older and dates back to the end of the 1960s when moral and cultural issues started to define parties more and more. The slow Mormon shift to the Republican party and the present polarization mainly started there.
Your second paragraph threatens to derail the discussion here. Let’s keep it out here and focus on media. Of course, to the extent that media reports distort the positions of opponents (as is obvious from your text), the topic is worth discussing. But then we need to concentrate on the causes and consequences of the wording of positions.
MC (8), the way Mormons vote in other countries is an interesting question. Historians and sociologists are in a better position to answer, but I can point at a few items. I think it is relevant for our discussion because it can illustrate the uneasiness the international membership may feel when reading about the political preferences of Church members in the U.S., as reported by the media.
There is, overall, a long leftist tradition among Mormon converts in foreign countries. See my post here and the various comments.
For more recent situations, there is one major study by Christian Euvrard about the political leanings of Church members in France: they cover the whole spectrum, from far left to far right, with a majority in the center. I will try to locate other studies, but perhaps readers can help.
My general impression is that members in most foreign countries would usually cover the whole spectrum of choices, mainly because left and right in other countries are not so clearly polarized around moral issues as in the U.S. and because there are many parties to choose from, all with different combinations on various issues.
My second paragraph was a response to your comment that “There is something preposterous to claiming the status of ‘world religion’ when the highest leadership is affiliated with the American party most despised by the rest of the world.” In my first paragraph I expressed my regret that the Church should become so closely associated with any political party. In my second paragraph I despaired that there was anything much to be done to counter the impression, as I do not believe (as you seem to) that the hostility of the left wing to traditional Christian values is merely a media distortion. But I won’t make any more comments on that if you think it’s off topic.
Brother Decoo (10), I would love it if the U.S. parties were less polarized about social issues. As it stands I don’t want my side to capitulate to make that happen, and neither does the other side. So we’re probably stuck with it for the foreseeable future, unfortunately.
We could definitely benefit from a wider array of parties like in Europe, but that probably require getting rid of “First Past the Post” voting, which has its own problems.
Thanks for insight into Europe. “..to understand Mormonism, go to the source and allow Mormons to define themselves..” This presupposes the media truly wants to understand. My unlearned opinion of the journalism profession is that they are in the business to sell articles that generate readership so they can in turn sell ad space. I’ve never been under the illusion that public media outlets have an interest in understanding Mormonism. All things religion aren’t particurly interesting unless there is a hint of scandal within. Hence the focus on “polygamy, polygamy, polygamy.” The First Vision, Book of Mormon, and so forth, does not sell ad space. But sex (polygamy) drugs (Joseph Smith alleged ability to dupe thousands) and rock and roll (the vocal minority of Saints who have something to gripe about) do.
Wilfried, in all of Europe, there are something like two public affairs offices with full-time professional staff members, probably less than a dozen people in all. I suspect your expectations of what they can accomplish, compared to a continent consisting of dozens of nations and languages, are probably exaggerated. And it’s also worth considering what the two offices could have done for individual members. Wouldn’t an extensive question-and-answer guide (in how many languages, and for how many local contexts?) have involved a great deal of work for little payoff, particularly if it resulted in the impression that all Mormons have been trained (or are compelled!) to recycle officially approved answers? The results of letting people answer in their own words to the best of their ability may not always be pretty, but it might be the better alternative.
Concerning how the Romney campaign played out in Europe, I’m sure your observations are correct. I’d like to see how your analysis would be restructured if you broke it down according to areas where the church can and should express itself more effectively to the media to minimize false impressions; areas where the church is simply out of step with much of the rest of society and is likely to remain so; and areas where journalists can be expected to do a better job when reporting on a poorly understood minority. Media appearances by dingbat members does not always mean that the church has failed, as dingbats are ever with us, and some journalists won’t rest until they find them. We shouldn’t leave the media out of the analysis and absolve them of all responsibility for coverage we think is faulty.
Part of me wonders if the vast number of conservative members in the U.S., and their focus on conservative LDS points (abortion, same sex marriage) and almost total ignorance of liberal LDS points (immigration stance, or the conservative Supreme Court’s wrongheaded decision regarding religious freedom in Employment Division v. Smith), makes a difference. For example, would the impact of foreign media be different if Romney had embraced the LDS stance on immigration instead of the ultra-conservative stance? Or if more members, themselves, understood and embraced that stance? I’m glad, at least, that Romney was more moderate than some of the other candidates–I think the backlash would’ve been even worse had, say, Rick Santorum been a Mormon and the GOP candidate.
I don’t think that conservative Mormons (of which I am one) are unaware of the “liberal LDS points”. They are bound to come up in any discussion of King Benjamin or the Sermon on the Mount. But abortion is just such an 800-lb gorilla. How does a 5-10% cut in economic redistribution weigh against the 1-2 Million babies killed every year? It isn’t an easy question. It’s really too bad that Harry Reid didn’t stay pro-life when he went into party leadership. It could have done much to untether party identity from the abortion issue.
You also should consider the extent to which the parties are tribal. The intellectual leaders of the left wing are largely hostile to traditional Christianity. Religious people see that, and for reasons not entirely related to policy they band together against the “foe”. And when people queasy about Christianity see the Christians banding together, they feel pushed to the left, again for reasons that have little to do with public policy.
I’ll comment one by one. It may take a little time. Thanks for your patience.
IDIAT (13), yes, I agree that understanding a religion presupposes that the media truly want to understand. That is a major problem. But I would not generalize to such an extent that the whole profession is only interested in sensationalism or weirdness. At one point I may have given that impression in my post. Some nuances are needed. As I also said in the post, there are journalists who produce acceptable analyses of Mormonism. There are professional journalists, specialized in religion, who are eager and willing to write a substantial and balanced report on Mormonism. Even the average news journalist writing for the public in general and on the lookout for the more tasty stuff can be lead to positive, colorful topics.
However, I think that we as members (or church representatives) often fail in providing sufficient information and adequate answers. Because of defensiveness, or unease, or lack of knowledge we often do not handle usual questions (essence of our religion, differences with other churches, women equality, past racism…) at an optimal level. We often fail in redirecting negative questions to related, more constructive and fascinating topics. And we should not avoid admitting our challenges because that makes us more credible. I know, easier said than done, but if we complain that the media do not understand our religion, we should ask ourselves how we can improve this. One example I pointed at is access for TV-crews, under proper conditions, to film glimpses of what are highlights of our religious life, like prayers and ordinances. How could anyone understand its sphere and its meaning without seeing them?
almost total ignorance of liberal LDS points (immigration stance, or the conservative Supreme Court’s wrongheaded decision regarding religious freedom in Employment Division v. Smith),
Kind of aside, but is opposition to Smith a liberal thing? I didn’t realize. But if it is, is this something that really exercises the European public much? My impression was that European countries on average had less stringent religious freedom protections than we do and that they feel that ours are just a little overboard.
I have a hard time imagining that Jean Publique is thinking to himself, ‘hmm, I thought those Mormons were crazed right-wing fundamentalist members of a cult, but now I see that they think crazed cults should have lots of protection under law, so I guess they’re good fellows after all.”
Okay. Opposition to Employment Division v. Smith (Five conservatives and one liberal versus three liberals) is a liberal thing, but you’re right that it’s a bad example in that Europe probably wouldn’t care one way or another (religious freedom or legal use of mild drugs? It’s a toss-up). It was written partially in response to MC’s #7 religious freedoms comment, and as such was probably off topic. I apologize.
The church’s immigration stance? 4th Nephi where the perfect society has no rich and no poor? Whether you agree with those or not (and I’m not saying you need to, and I’m not interested in analyzing 4th Nephi here), it would be nice if foreign media would pay attention to that kind of stuff too. “Look, the Mormon church seems to be on the left of many Europeans, and many Americans, on issues like immigration–maybe they’re not an ultra-right group after all.”
Jonathan (14), thanks for your contribution. I do not know how PA in Europe is staffed, but from what I have seen coming to the local units, PA in Salt Lake did not foresee how large the European interest in Mormonism would be this past year. Next, compare with what became available in the U.S. through the Newsroom and through the systematic and appropriate countering of erroneous information. Some of that could have been transferred easily to other languages. I think we lost opportunities. But my remarks have less to do with quantity than with the overall handling of journalists and media crews, also and perhaps mainly in Salt Lake where dozens if not hundreds of journalists and media crews from over the world landed the past six months or so. Though the PA people there are extremely dedicated and have been swamped with requests, it was also interesting to note that experienced journalists want to avoid church PA, or limit contact, because of what they consider a sterile and controlled PA approach. “Once in their hands, there is a strict schedule to foreseen places and no freedom anymore”. Hence the comparison with Moscow in the 1970s, as one journalist told me. On the other hand, I can also understand the PA trauma and their “high alert” attitude after the Sweeney-disaster.
I agree that a long question-and-answer guide for members is certainly not what we want. It would make contact with journalists even more contrived. Yes, also agreed, “letting people answer in their own words to the best of their ability may not always be pretty, but it might be the better alternative”. But that does not exclude some dynamic preparation in a number of principles and strategies to help break down sterility and fear, and some content preparation for the most frequent issues.
Again, fully agreed to make an analysis: “areas where the church can and should express itself more effectively to the media to minimize false impressions; areas where the church is simply out of step with much of the rest of society and is likely to remain so; and areas where journalists can be expected to do a better job when reporting on a poorly understood minority.” I am sure PA in Salt Lake and elsewhere is now in full mode of such analyses. They must have a wealth of data to go through. I hope they also ask critical journalists to assess their work.
Fascinating comments, Wilfried.
I am involved in our local public affairs stake group. One thing I’ve observed about the workings of Church-wide PA is the desire to totally control things. I was asked to participate in a two-hour radio program in Chicago. Since I have a PA calling, this request had to go up the food chain, and it was nixed. The local PA people figured they had managed to nix the whole interview, on the theory that if I weren’t doing it, no one else would. But the interview went forward anyway, with Patrick Mason and Jana Riess (a definite upgrade over me!) And they did a *fantastic* job. You can’t freeze if a difficult issue is mentioned; you have to be willing to engage those issues when they come up. PA people just can’t do it, they don’t want to do it and they don’t want anyone else to do it. And that is a huge problem in my view. If we’re trying to keep people like Patrick and Jana and Joanna (and yes, even little old me) from the press, then we’re doing it wrong.
In Australia I now live in an area where most members are conservative but I have previously lived in much more liberal areas. Abortion is not a political issue here. When we talk about family values it is about work life ballance, child care, a living wage. We have 6 weeks annual leave. We can not understand US conservatives, to whom family values mean, anti abortion and anti gay marriage, but nothing to help families.
But we have an American Area Presidency, and at present there is a letter on LDS.org.au written to all politicians and press opposing gay marriage, on the grounds that the true definition of marriage is one man and one woman (strange from mormons), only a marriage if it produces children (over 15% of marriages in Aus are childless), and there are deep consequences for the religious freedom of those who oppose it. 80% of Australians under 40 are pro gay marriage, and I suspect about 30% of members. (who do we want to join the Church – only the 20% ?)
We had the English documentary on Romney and the Church where our Apostle looked lost.
There are media outlets in much of the world that do try to present a balanced view of any subject. The church doesn’t present a balanced view even to its members. Imagine the ENSIGN presenting both sides of an argument. It is pure propaganda at present.
The Church doesn’t understand, and can’t cope with a balanced view. We can’t blame the media for not being complimentary when they try to present a balanced view.
Our Area Presidency are not at all culturally aware. We had a councilor in the Area Presidency at a conference recently who introduced himself as coming from corporate America. After the GFC not seen as a recommendation here. I doubt they were aware of how out of step with public opinion in the rest of the world, Utah culture and the Church are.
“Abortion is not a political issue here.”
You should count yourself lucky that the political process in Australia has settled into an equilibrium on abortion. It is precisely because the U.S. Supreme Court took abortion out of the realm of “political issues” that abortion became such a rancorous issue here.
Thanks all, in particular Kevin (21) and Geoff (22) for drawing attention to media & PA issue. I’ll comment later today on your contribution.
Tim (15, 19), MC (16) and Adam G. (18) discuss the aspect of focus in media reports about the Church. Indeed, the slightest mention of a different stance colors the total perception. E.g., the mention that the Mormon Church is not as “absolute” on abortion as the Catholic Church, or that the Church is nuanced in its approach to stem-cell research. For the audience, it means, as Tim said, “maybe they’re not an ultra-right group after all”.
As to immigration, yes, it would be very helpful if European media reports pointed to the Church’s position. But how many of our own representatives brought it up in interviews? The only article where I found it was, again, thanks to Jim Dabakis who mentioned it as an example of compassionate Mormon policies, “because, for the Church, it is only faith that matters”.
The topic of European versus American “religious freedom protections” deserves a separate discussion (I’ll work on a post on it), but suffice it here to say that those protections are different from country to country and that the European Union is working on coordinated legislation.
If the Mormon moment is over, I say good riddance. The gospel should be carried forward on its own truths, not American politics or what kinds of Mormons happen to receive media coverage at the moment.
It would seem that the LDS Church’s PA/PR efforts in foreign countries would be a lot more effective if we paid more attention to the members there. If we had more things to brag about. It would seem like a few small universities in Europe, Asia/Pacific, Africa, and/or South America might be in order. How about more humanitarian aid? We do some now, but we could be doing oh-so-much more.
Kevin (21), I must concur with your remarks on how PA sometimes works. Hate to criticize but the “control reflex” of some on higher levels is weird. I wonder if it has always been that way or if it is a consequence of the BBC-Sweeney and the Randy Bott-debacles. I can imagine some church officers had to take the blame and vowed “never again”. And then what were basically rare incidents lead to the present obsessive chain of controls.
To nuance the criticism, I should add that I have had excellent experiences working with our local PA on stake level (who actually cover the whole country but since Belgium is so small…). You need to be lucky with who is called.
I agree that stress-free and broad-minded members, like Patrick Mason and Jana Riess, can do an excellent job in interviews with media. I can imagine it must make some PA people nervous, but wise, jovial, nuancing, independent voices are much more credible. One step further: our best defenders are non-members who know the church well and appreciate what Mormonism represents.
More to follow.
Just an update: I’m working on comments to previous comments, but need some more time (while everyone else is visiting pant & tie shops). Come back soon.
Thanks for your patience. I will continue to comment in order!
Geoff (22), great to hear from Australia. My comments on your remarks here are in the framework of media and PA, and are not meant as discussion of the “moral issues” as such.
As to “values” I recognize your situation, pretty similar to Belgium. Family values, as followed up by political parties, are focused on daily life issues – wellbeing, child care, allocations to mothers, education grants, social help, etc. It explains the incomprehension of our population to standpoints of the Republican party in the U.S., and therefore the incomprehension that Mormons are Republicans. “Moral” issues are hardly current part of political discussions. These have been topics in the past when laws were discussed to permit abortion, euthanasia, gay marriage, but they seldom led to the virulent debates and lingering conflicts like in the U.S.
Interesting, your American Area Presidency and their letter about gay marriage. I read it online. It’s carefully worded, but it raises the known questions in terms of basic rights and tolerance, and therefore one can question its appropriateness from a PA standpoint. Did those three Americans assess the implications for the image of the Church in the long run for Australia (cfr. Prop 8)? They will not stay in Australia, while church members are. We should recognize it’s a done cause: gay marriage will become legal (and acceptable) all over the world, just like interracial marriage. As you mentioned, for the younger generation it is already overwhelmingly acceptable. Things change. In Belgium it’s not an issue anymore. Gay marriage is legal (we were the second country to legalize it in 2003 – it passed parliament 91 votes to 22; Catholics voted for). It has been a non-issue since; gays marry, period. They form families and adoption is allowed. It would be unthinkable that the tiny Mormon church in our country would have protested it. That would have been a PA-disaster in terms of intolerance.
However, can a religious officer marry a couple officially in Australia? Then I can see some concern for religious freedom (“we do not want to be compelled to marry gays”). Still, in that case I believe a better approach would have been to remain neutral about marriage itself (“let the representatives of the people decide”), but insist on the religious freedom issue. In Belgium only a civil marriage is possible. The religious one is just a ceremony for the church and must take place after the civil one. A church can refuse to perform the ceremony for gays since it’s only a ceremony without implications (but which leads defiant Catholic priests to do it anyway, thus slowly breaking down the barrier).
I’ll be back to say something more about “We had the English documentary on Romney and the Church where our Apostle looked lost”.
In Australia both and a Bishop and temple sealer can marry, but the legislation that was put up recently had a clause that no person would be required to marry a gay couple. With 80% of Australians under 40 approving gay marriage, it must come soon.
Our Prime Minister is not married (doesn’t believe marriage is important/necessary ) to her male partner, is childless, and one of the ministers is a gay woman whose partner has just had a child. You can imagine how their attitude to the church would be affected.
We did get a letter, from the Area Presidency, read over the pulpit, some months ago, asking us to contact our parliamentary leaders, and express our views about gay marriage. The Stake president attached a letter, to be read with it, saying it was a private issue, and we could express our view, whether for or against as we wished, and he did not want any discussion or pressure in church. Why the Area Presidency thought they needed to weigh in as well I do not know.
I think the AP assume we all agree with the Republican view of the world. Who is to tell them different? As I said probably 70% of members do. I also think the AP believe they are doing whats right without consideration for the consequences.
Has the sky fallen in, or the civil rights of those who practice hetrosexual marriage been damaged, or the institution of marriage?
Our PR depts have been giving awards to people “for doing something good” nearly always these are for right wing politicians for protecting family values (the republican type), they also get a copy of the Proclamation on the family. These are opposition politicians as we have a Labor Government at present. You can imagine the Prime minister getting one of these.
Thanks, Geoff (30). To quickly answer your question “Has the sky fallen in, or the civil rights of those who practice heterosexual marriage been damaged, or the institution of marriage [because gay marriage was made legal in Belgium]?” No, of course, not at all, life goes on. The assessment is overall positive and, actually, gay marriage has boosted marriage as such: it’s again “in” to marry, because of all the efforts to see marriage as a right and as a privilege.
I’ll come back later to other issues and the BBC-documentary. I also need to comment on Roger (26).
Aaron (25), I can see your point: “If the Mormon moment is over, I say good riddance. The gospel should be carried forward on its own truths, not American politics or what kinds of Mormons happen to receive media coverage at the moment.” I agree as to the first part, but I think we need media coverage of the more positive kind with open information (and especially outside the U.S.) so that people would view Mormons as normal and not threatening. If only anticultists are defining us on their websites and in their publications, it’s hard for our members. See what’s happening in Russia now. The main PA issue at hand, in my opinion, is to help the media find a good balance between critical items (unavoidable) and the lasting impression which should be rather positive.
Thank you for an interesting and engaging summary. Having recently lived two years in France I found your post to be dead on. Thank you again.
I am sad to say that I find much of this topic to be discouraging, and especially the discussion that follows. The church is perceived as right wing, and probably deservedly so. Attempts by the “official” church to counter this is seen as either deceitful or disingenuous. And right leaning members are confused and occasionally angered by it. Lots of moral indignation.
Roger (26), you’re on target with your question and suggestions about the effectiveness of our PA/PR efforts. You are right to point at more attention to achievements by local members. Such an approach de-americanizes the Church’s image. In some countries, where we have a sizable number of members, such stories start to emerge when Mormon artists, athletes, public figures earn the spotlight. However, it’s still minimal and usually temporary.
Your idea of a few small Mormon universities as eyecatchers is tempting, but probably unaffordable. Moreover, most countries, also in developing area’s, have noteworthy institutions for higher education. Before we could compete… See the reasons why the church closed the Church College in New Zealand. Providing loans (PEF) to Mormon students seems the present way to go. However, what would give visibility and prestige is fostering centers for Mormon studies at existing top universities, e.g. in faculties of religion or of sociology. Costs would be limited and there is a lot of interest in “new” religious movements. These and more ways could be pursued.
I’m not sure I agree with you about small universities. The church has a large university in Provo, a smaller one in Idaho, and I think one in Hawaii. Why not some in other parts of the world? I’m not sure New Zealand, because of its isolated location, is a good example.
The LDS Church has MTCs around the world, why not small colleges or universities. The LDS Church openly subsidizes its college educations in the US. But only provides loans for those in foreign countries (I’m not totally sure about this.)? Why can’t it subsidize colleges abroad?
This discussion is probably off subject, but it does relate perpherally to PA/PR.
Thanks for your patience, last commenters. I will come back to each. First, as promised, one more comment to Geoff (22).
You mentioned “We had the English documentary on Romney and the Church where our Apostle looked lost”. Ronan Head had an excellent response to it at the time. Meanwhile the documentary has been shown in various countries around the world, also in Belgium.
In retrospect, there is more to say about it than just regretting it happened. I think it was a watershed moment for PA in Salt Lake because of the involvement of an apostle, Elder Holland. We’ll probably never learn the details of the discussions that ensued on the highest level. Did Elder Holland blame PA for not having vetted the journalist (who indeed had quite a reputation of scandalitis), or did he blame himself for not being prepared to respond appropriately? What effect did the incident have on the present guidelines for PA? Was there overreaction so that now PA is even more stressed and controlling?
I know this is disrespectful, but somehow I was not unhappy to see an apostle being confronted with a situation that we as local PA or as simple members often endure: being confronted with journalists who put us in an awkward position, being compelled to be on the defensive, and responding poorly… Moreover, the members in the “mission field” are the ones that have to face the misrepresentation in the media and the consequences in our daily life. How much attention is being given in Salt Lake to those consequences and ways to ease them?
Sometimes such heavy media incidents produce some good. The Randy Bott incident triggered one of the strongest statements of the Church on racism. On the other hand, I have the impression that the Bott incident also triggered severe guidelines as to permission of BYU professors to speak to the media. Again, overreaction?
Roger (34), the idea of small Mormon colleges and universities around the world is indeed very attractive. It does connect with “presence” and thus with PA. As a matter of fact, the Church considered it, I think in the early 70s, before the oil crisis hit. After that, I’ve heard the idea suggested at times. Main motive to try it, however, was to duplicate the BYU dating opportunities.
As far as I know the two main reasons that sank the idea were financial and educational. Even a small college costs millions and requires continuous investment for many years. Cover partly by tuition? In most countries around the world college education, paid by the government, is very cheap for students, compared to the U.S. The Church could not compete with those official universities. Next there is the educational aspect: many Mormon students would not attend a new Church college in their own or a neighboring country because its degrees and diploma’s would not be recognized at par with the official institutions.
These and other reasons caused the Church to close the Church College of New Zealand. It was a painful decision, but the reasons are valid for many other parts of the world. These reasons are well explained in Scott C. Esplin. “Closing the Church College of New Zealand: A Case Study in Church Education Policy”, Journal of Mormon History, Vol. 37, No. 1, Winter 2011, 86–114.
PEF is the alternate solution the Church proposes for a number of countries where this kind of help allows poor students to go to mainly professional schools. We do not know how succesful it is in the long run. The Church does not release assessment reports.
Wilfried, how about in developing countries where higher educational opportunities are limited? And where the education (technical and traditional) is more important than the status of the degree?
Thank you for your thoughtful response.
I take your points on why church schools don’t work very well abroad, but what about church-sponsored residences for university students? Most European countries have multiple universities so picking one to sponsor an LDS apartment or residence would allow concentration (which, admittedly, would be primarily for dating and fellowshipping purposes). Of course, if European countries all provide generous living stipends in addition to free tuition, this would also be pointless.
In fact, something like this strikes me as a good way to expand a quasi-church school experience in the US too. Pick a few fairly cheap universities in regions around the United States and set up a few subsidized Mormon apartment buildings in connection with the local Institute. Perhaps even negotiate a deal with the University where the students can get some general education credits for Institute classes, maybe in combination with a distance learning arrangement with BYU. Then give the kids a “Purdue-BYU” or a “Washington State-BYU” diploma when the graduate. Actually, the easiest place to set this kind of thing up may be in Utah.
Before I share some more thoughts about schools and PA, I still need to respond to Stephen Hardy (32). You raise a question that seems to become more and more acute, i.e. the polarization that divides the church membership on some issues and that, no doubt, is reinforced by the media. Journalists like to write about controversies, and with the comment-feature now part of most articles, it generates even more controversy. Each side tries to find in the church teachings and statements backing for its standpoints. Worse, as you point out, is that (alleged) “attempts by the “official” church to counter this [in this case a right-wing standpoint] is seen as either deceitful or disingenuous“. And then “right leaning members are confused and occasionally angered by it. Lots of moral indignation.”
The other side may feel the same at different occasions. The Church, of course, has always faced challenges to ensure unity and cohesion. But with the increasing power the (social) media have, the speed of information, and the fact that many people can be vocal while hiding behind anonymity, we must wonder how the Church will find ways to channel all this. Mostly by walking on eggs and slowly and diplomatically giving its signals, it seems. But statements related to certain issues have become so sensitive…
Roger (37) and Adam (38), I wouldn’t know what the best answers could be to those interesting suggestions. Just a few thoughts from my experience but also from imagining variables:
– There is a wide variety of situations, both in developed and developing countries, in terms of number of members and number of Mormon college students: some suggestions could work in one country, not in another.
– In many developing countries, let’s not underestimate the higher educational opportunities given to the young people who make it successfully through high school (kids from the higher social layers or pulled through by religious organizations) — most of these usually go on to universities in the larger cities and the very best (or the most influential) get grants to go abroad; not sure the Church would need to organize an own college to supplement lacking educational opportunities; the real problems are at “schooling or not” on elementary school level and the opportunity to start high school.
– If there is a critical mass of Mormon students in one location, the idea of church-sponsored residences might work; the combination with BYU distance learning sounds interesting, in particular for the U.S. where the credits would be recognized. But in many countries with a limited number of members, I suppose we do not have the critical mass. In Belgium, you may have one or two Mormon students on one campus…
– In Europe, the spreading of smaller college units to other cities, but connected to larger universities, combined with the excellent network of public transportation, makes that more and more college students continue to live at home.
– There is perhaps a risk that church-sponsored residences may tend to keep Mormon students clannish.
– Dating opportunities seem to have improved through frequent and well organized activities for young adults and through the social media; also the church policy of withdrawal to “centers of strengths” in larger cities (“consolidation”), rather then the thin dispersion we had in the past, makes that young adults have more opportunities to meet.
These are just some quick thoughts…