Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Two vastly different stories

Tuesday had two vastly different stories about Mormons in the International Press.

As for the first story -- it is a solid, mostly accurate -- piece about Mormons in Liverpool.

My own Williams ancestors came from Liverpool.  It does, unfortunately, push a misunderstanding of the Book of Mormon forward by saying that is the story of a Jewish family.  It is significant doctrinally that the Book of Mormon story begins with the story of a family from the House of Joseph, not the House of Judah. 

It also openly said the stereotype of Mormons is an American in a business suit.  (Our Mormon missionaries do dress nicely, so, I suppose that is an OK stereotype, as these go, but business suits -- there are linkages with Mormon business and all the negative historical baggage that goes with that -- in the same way Jews are stereotyped as money-grubbing.) 

Be that as it may, I liked the piece.  It seemed fair-minded and was light-hearted and mostly positive.

The second, unfortunately, had little to recommend it.  It was prominent on the front page of the Los Angeles Times -- sometimes I wonder if the L.A. Times likes to pick on the church -- in its daily front-page feature, Column One.  The article is about an excommunicated Mormon who published a calendar featuring provocative men without their shirts on.  

As a Mormon, I always get a kick out of so-called controversies media say are playing within the church, pitting liberals against conservatives, a "flashpoint of controversy," like that.  They are so different from the way I experience these things.   In my local ward, no one has talked about it.  No one I meet has ever talked about it.  Now, I sure some do care, somewhere, but it isn't something we spend a lot of time on.  It is a tepid controversy, at best. The Times, therefore, must provide better evidence than a few blog posts that it is a huge controversy if they say it is a flashpoint when experience says it isn't.  

That the L.A. Times considers it worthy of the front-page suggests that they believe it has news value of both controversy and unusualness and breaking of labels -- going against type -- the types the L.A. Times holds of Mormons. In those assumptions about us, there are misunderstandings and misrepresentation, which are painful.

As for the details of the young man's excommunication, I wouldn't speak to them save to say that excommunications are private affairs and church leaders, out of respect for the process and the person, generally say nothing publicly about what happened.  There are perhaps people in my congregation who have been through an excommunication about which I don't know - or not.  It is out of kindness and repentance that we don't talk about it.  Excommunication is a way for a person to work out their mistakes in private.  So, we only get one side of the story here -- journalism needs both sides.

As a person who studies Mormon portrayals, however, my main issue with this article is that there is an irony worth noting.  The story quotes someone who says the calendar is about taking Mormons out of the robotic box that we supposedly live in, about breaking stereotypes of a repressed religion.

This is a common stereotype and unfounded.  My reading of Mormon doctrine -- I wouldn't speak for the church in an official way -- is that we have a very healthy attitude about intimate relationships, that such are healthy and normal and god-given, but that they are for the bounds of marriage between a man and a woman and should be treated with care and respect and sacredness.  So, Mormons abhor pornography and all gratuitous titillation -- not out of fear or some sense of control, but out of respect for the appropriate place for intimate relationships and out of respect for ourselves and others.  We would not objectify another person.

We take it so seriously that we believe adultery is just beneath murder in the realm of sin, but that doesn't mean we are repressed somehow -- we just put these powerful feelings in what we deem their proper place.

What is ironic is that Mormons have from the early days of the church been seen as dangerous for the way we deal with intimate relationships.  What has changed is the way such danger is portrayed and understood.  In the 19th century and into the 20th portrayals, Mormons were the most dangerous of predators, sending out missionaries who grabbed women for their harems -- something like that.  This is what popular fiction of that era portrayed Mormons as.  But today, the danger, portrayed in such plays as Angels in America and in media representations is that Mormons are the opposite -- too repressed and repressive.  (This article is a perfect case study of this kind of stereotype.) As a Mormon, therefore, you can't win.

It is a reminder that stereotypes say as much about those using them as about those whom the stereotype is supposedly about.

The L.A. Times can do better.

One odd note, however, it is the first time that I am aware that the heroic Book of Mormon figure -- Captain Moroni -- has been mentioned in the popular press.  Too bad it didn't talk about the dynamics of that powerful story in a modern era of terror, but turned the dramatic, miraculous Book of Mormon into a caricature of repression and militarism.

Monday, April 27, 2009


The New York Times Sunday did some unusual juxtiposition in its framing of Iowa's tolerant history by putting tolerance for gay marriage with tolerance for Mormons (Iowans allowed Mormons to cross from Illinois during the exodus to the West and is rightly remembered with grateful hearts by Mormons, who had been driven from neighboring Missouri) in the same article.

The article seems to be saying, Iowans are tolerant people.  They are with the times.

The article never mentions Mormon opposition to gay marriage, but can create an irony for those who know the church's position.  Those reading the story could choose to see Mormon opposition to gay marriage as intolerant and, potentially, ungrateful.  "You Mormons received tolerance, why can't you give the same courtesy back?" is a potential subtext here.

Once the debate about gay marriage is debated with the idea of tolerance as the core, Latter-day Saints have a harder framing challenge -- protecting families and children and traditions -- when debating it publicly.  Tolerance and civil rights have yet to be proven as the best frame on which to debate the issue -- just the most persuasive from a homosexual marriage point of view.

We can never forget that two men marrying changes what marriage is.  Not the least of this change is the powerful fact that two people of the same sex cannot produce children -- the reason for marriage from a societal viewpoint -- without adding a third person to the equation.  We are on the road to making marriage nothing as it becomes, essentially, any relationship between adults.

Framing, which needs more discussion than this short post allows, is widely accepted as an excellent way of understanding how media messages influence people in their opinions.

Not surprisingly, The New York Times did no service to Latter-day Saints in this juxtaposition by its framing choice Sunday.  It should be more careful.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Mormon Crickets

Friday, The Wall Street Journal ran a wonderful, whimsical story about the Mormon crickets.  IF you've never seen the crickets, they can appear like a biblical plague in the west deserts of Utah.  They are remarkable in their numbers -- they literally cover the ground such that you can hardly see the ground.

What the Journal left out was how the Cricket story is central to Mormon memory.  Having moved into the Great Basin in 1847, Mormons needed a significant crop in 1848 to support the families moving into the valley.  Survival was at stake in this desert environment.  In late May 1848, as the crickets began to destroy crops, worries grew.  Seagulls nesting near the Great Salt Lake came and ate numerous crickets, arguably saving the lives of the pioneers in Utah.  They have been honored as Utah's state bird and have a monument near the Salt Lake Temple.  See the Encyclopedia of Mormonism for more.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Typical of Mormon bashing.

Glen Warchol's Salt Lake Tribune blog this week about what he headlined the Mormon Mafia -- linked from the Trib's front page when he wrote it -- is typical of the archetypes of Mormonism used by anti-Mormons for more than 100 years and is an invidous comparison that deserves criticism.

Warchol's point, in which he quotes Vanity Fair, was somehow that three Mormons were involved in what he deemed crafting of torture memos and are hisses and bywords among many scholars. What Mormonism has to do with the whole thing is a little unclear other than some Mormons worked for Bush/Cheney

It is invidious because Mafia frames Mormons as dangerously secretive, an unfortunately common stereotype of Mormons. My doctoral research and the work of Pew and of Terryl Givens suggests that these kinds of linkages in national memory remain.

Nineteenth Century portrayals of Mormon portrayed us as a kind of dangerous Islam -- men with dangerous harems living in a desert with warlike tendencies. The on-going fascination with Mormon polygamy, with Mormon wealth, even to a lesser extent with the terrible Mountain Meadows Massacre are examples of how this frame continues to work. By linking Mormons with Mafia, torture and secret practices, he plays on the worst Mormon stereotypes and those stereotypes wound.

Why this blog

I blog for two reasons. I teach journalism and am a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and I wish to bring those passions together.

I am working on a Ph.D. on this topic.

Especially, I wish to point out things that people miss about Mormonism in the press, to correct errors.