Secretive or standard operating procedure?

Having a personal history with the Mormon church, I think I’m more aware than most that the church is controversial. There are certainly elements of the church’s theology and history that feed that perception, but the fact remains that much of the news coverage of the church has a whiff of sensationalism.

Unfortunately, this Vancouver Sun piece, “B.C. Mormons open temple to counter ‘secretive’ image,” was a bit over the top. It didn’t help that this information was right under the headline:

Filed under: polygamy, prophet, Mormon fundamentalists, Mormons, L. Ron Hubbard, Joseph Smith, Glenn Beck, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, secrets, conversion

Yikes. That’s a lot to wrap into a story. (Though I have no idea why L. Ron Hubbard is listed — neither he nor Scientology are even mentioned in the story.) It doesn’t waste time getting to the juicy details. Here’s the lede:

In a province in which a breakaway sect of Mormon fundamentalist polygamists in the Kootenays draws continuing controversy, the main line Mormon Church realizes it has to work hard to show its wholesome face to the world.

That’s one reason patriarchs of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons) are this month inviting the public to have a rare look inside the luxurious interior of their new temple in Langley.

Well, that may be one reason the church is opening the temple. But the main reason why the LDS church is opening the temple is that they always open temples to the public for tours before they are consecrated. It’s standard operating procedure when they build a new temple, and no where does this article make that clear. The insinuation that the church is taking some extraordinary action here to combat the negative image of some breakaway sect that the church isn’t responsible for is a bit over the top. And that doesn’t even count that I think the title “patriarch” is misused here. Each stake — which is comprised of a handful of wards — has a patriarch that administers patriarchal blessings. But I don’t think that’s what the reporter is referring to.

The article repeatedly emphasizes that church leaders are at pains to dispel the image of the church being secretive — which is why they’re giving journalists tours of the B.C. temple. But if you’re curious about what goes on in the temple and reading this article, you’re out of luck:

Walker showed a handful of journalists on Wednesday the extravagant indoor pool, built on the top of 12 sculpted oxen, on which living Mormons are baptized on behalf of deceased loved ones, so the dead can have eternal life.

Walker also guided journalists to a small, 25-seat room reserved for “eternal weddings,” in which women and men are believed joined together in matrimony forever, including in an afterlife.

That’s all the information the reader is given about the rites that will be performed in the temple. Surely many readers would like to know more about the doctrines and theology involved. But again the writer of this article seems more interested in sensationalist topics:

Most Mormons and most Christians continue to see the two traditions as different religions, [John] Stackhouse [professor of theology at Vancouver's evangelical Regent College] said. “They use similar words — like ‘God’ and ‘Jesus’ and ‘salvation,’ but mean very different things by every one of them.”

This long-standing religious competition came to a head last month when one of the most famous Mormons in North America, popular Fox TV political commentator Glenn Beck (left), told Christians to leave their churches if their clergy ever use the term “social justice.”

Despite the outcry from Catholics and Protestants, Walker said Wednesday that Mormon elders are not attempting to rein in Beck. “He certainly doesn’t speak for the church,” Walker said. “Some Mormons would agree with him, and some wouldn’t.”

The term “social justice” is fairly controversial even within mainstream Christianity. I’m not sure a conservative cable news host known for dramatic antics inveighing against a term that is frequently a shibboleth for a church’s liberal political agenda (but not always, of course) really creates a that much of a rift between Mormons and mainstream Christianity — particularly since the latter isn’t exactly a monoculture.

I suspect Beck’s opinion about the term “social justice” would garner from support from Christians, as well as enmity in roughly equal measure. But the suggestion that this created such a rift or that the church is so desperate to be accepted by mainstream Christianity that they would rein him in over his comments is, again, a bit over the top. (Sarah Pulliam Bailey discussed these issues well last month.)

It’s also wandering very far afield from an article that’s ostensibly about a local temple opening. The article does have some good information, but more hard facts about the church and the temple and a lot less courting controversy would have been a big improvement.

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  • gfe

    It’s hard to know where to begin with an article like that. One of many mistakes:

    Up until now, the roughly 12,000 Mormons who live in B.C. have been gathering in scores of “meeting houses.”

    Technically, I suppose, that’s correct, but the wording suggests the temple and meetinghouses are used for the same purpose. More accurate to have said would have been to say that “until now, the roughly 12,000 Mormons who live in B.C. have had to travel to Alberta or the Seattle area to participate in temple rites.”

  • Chris Bolinger

    The article does have some good information…

    Other than that, how was the play, Mrs. Lincoln?

  • Julia

    When a reporter starts divining motivations, that’s a recipe for getting the story wrong. It’s not that hard to ask somebody why they are doing something – then report what they say.

    Even op-ed pieces can get way off base in assessing politicians’ motives. Sometimes retiring office-holders really do retire to spend more time with a long-neglected family.

  • joye

    It’s weird that the article keeps using words like “extravagant” and “luxurious”. Mormons believe in total body immersion during baptism, if I remember correctly, so having a large pool is necessary, and as for the statue of oxen, religious traditions the world over value beauty and art in the decoration of their religious spaces and objects.

    Would this author describe the sweep of a roof of a Shinto temple as being “extravagant”, or call an ornately decorated ceremonial knife used by Wiccans “luxurious”? Perhaps, but I doubt it. These are not value-neutral words, and in this context, the connotation is bad.

    The whole tone of this article is sensationalistic.

  • Carol

    Having just read the article that this article responded to, I must say the writer of the response was rather understated in his critique, for how does one reporter manage to get so many things wrong in less than 1000 words…?

    Perhaps the attitude that prompted him to repeatedly put the word misunderstandings in quotes (Misunderstandings? Yeah right, I’ve got your number) could have been left at home and replaced with a sincere desire to understand.

  • Otto Krog Krogh

    I have been a member of the Church of Scientology for 35 years, and can garantee the reader, that the generalities saif about controversial Churches are in main untrue.

    Otto Krog Krogh

  • Jon in the Nati

    Walker showed a handful of journalists on Wednesday the extravagant indoor pool

    Most folks call that a baptismal font. This reporter makes it sound like Michael Phelps was swimming laps. Incredible.

  • Greg Smith

    When a reporter goes to _another_ denomination to “explain” a faith, one can be sure that either ignorance or malice is afoot. At the very least, error is inevitable. Would one go to an evangelical college professor to explain Catholic thought on the pope? To Muslims to explain Seventh-Day Adventists? To Mormons to hear about evangelicals?

    Error and caricature is inevitable.

  • Tracy Hall Jr

    Good reporting on reporting, Mark, and “amen to every comment so far.”

  • Jettboy

    The thing is, this isn’t the only Canadian report I have seen that treats this as a “new move” by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Less sensationalist than this story, but all Canadian reports give almost no actual information other than what it looks like inside. Having gone through a few of these I know the information given can be sketchy on the tours, but they at least explain the basics of the font and endowment rooms. What ever happened to reporters actually doing some research?

  • Raymond Takashi Swenson

    It is odd that the reporter devoted so much space to the opinion of an Evangelical professor, speaking from a tradition that has largely institutionally declared its hostility to Mormonism, without a balancing view from the Mormons, who have plenty of qualified professors who could comment on the same question. They wouldn’t even have to be professors at BYU. For example, Professor Richard Bushman, a historian at Claremont Graduate University in California, and former professor at Columbia University in New York, who authored the most widely respected (from all sides) academic biography of Joseph Smith (Rough Stone Rolling), could be asked to comment. Another respected Mormon scholar is Teryll Givens, University of Richmond professor of literature, who has authored academic as well as popular books for Oxford University Press about the Mormons and their beliefs.

    I am sure that when the reporter took the temple tour, he was given a fact sheet about the LDS Church and its beliefs, so the fact he got so many simple points so wrong–for example, the notion that the Mormons are going to hold Sunday worship services in the temple–demonstrates utter laziness. If this were written for a high school course, it would not get a “C”. The newspaper’s readers would be better served if the paper just printed the announcement of the time and place of the temple open house and let them find out for themselves.

    The idea that the Book of Mormon says Jesus Christ visited US territory anciently is ludicrous. The balance of opinion of scholars who have studied what the text actually says have concluded that the entire narrative in the New World takes place in a small area comparable in size to the Holy Land, near one of the several isthmuses in Central America. That would place Bountiful, the temple where the Savior made his post-resurrection appearance, to the area of southern Mexico or northern Guatemala.

    Catholic sociologist Thomas O’Dea said that the Book of Mormon is one of those books that people generally believe they don’t have to read to have a dispositive opinion on. Obviously the plain and simple facts were too mundane for the author of the article, so he had to jazz it up by adding in irrelevant points like a discussion of Glenn Beck–not that Beck was ever asked to comment, I am sure.

  • J. Lahondere

    It’s articles like this that just make me proud to be a Mormon. In the words of Tim and Eric: great job!

  • John Pack Lambert

    Mormons dedicate temples, they do not consecrate them. Mormons consecrate oil to use for blessing the sick, and they also speak of consecration in relation to devoting energies and abilities to build up the church. However, buildings are dedicated.

    This may not be a big issue, but in reporting on what a group does, using the term they use is generally the best course. I have seen some reports on Mormon activities, where I a practicing Mormon had to read two or three times before I could guess what they were really saying because they had used all the wrong terms.

  • John Pack Lambert

    L. Ron Hubbard has nothing to do with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I had not noticed the topic filings when I read the article, however I think they explain why so much hate was in the comments.

    An interesting thing is that there are a lot of comments on the discussion boards of the LDS owned Deseret News by people claiming that recently build temples are too bland, that too much of the materials are just a cover over less expensive materials that form the bulk of the building, that “all temples look alike”, and that they feel the statue of the angel Moroni is not built of sfficiently high quality materials.

    In the comments to the Vancover article the general trend of comments was that the temple was a waste of money, that it was too lavish, that it looked like a palance and so on. In many ways some of these comments seemed to be baed on the false notion that only a slelect few Mormons get to visit the temple. While there are requirements of preparation and worthiness, the goal is to have everyone go to the temple.

    The way some comments were witten it seemed some people thought the temple was a residence for the top leaders of the Church. The temple is the house of the Lord (aka Jesus Christ) and only he lives there. All others visit the temple as guests.

    I would say probably the vast majority of Latter-day Saints in any ward or branch in the United States or Canada over the age of 25 who have been members for over a year and who actually show up at church meetings have been to the temple, and a noticiable majority have been to the temple in the last year.

    In some countries like Congo where it is a very long way to the temple (I think the closest is in Johanesburg, South Africa) I would not be as sure that was the case. Those states only apply to doing endowments and sealings. If we include baptisms for the dead, I would say over half of all church members who have attended at any point after turning 13 for more than about 3 months straight have been to the temple if we include doing baptisms.

    Since many of the people gripping about the temple in the Vancover paper claimed it was a case of the masses being conned into paying to build a structure for the elite, maybe we should look at how tithe payers stack up. I would say that close to 100% of tithe payers in the US and Canada have been to the temple to perform ordiances at some point in their lives. I would guess that probably at least 70% of those who are tithe payers at present have been to the temple at least once in the last year. In places like northern Peru and the upper Amazon basin in Brazil the percentage is probably much lower, which is why the Church is building temples in both these areas.

    Based on the comments that the article recieved it is clear they failed to explain what is actually done in the temple and were quite misleading in how they explain who could go in.

  • John Pack Lambert

    In some ways I would say the biggest failure of the article is that it never explained adequately the difference between an LDS temple and an LDS church building/meetinghouse/chaple.

    The article seemed to have settled for the term meetinghouse. This works for me, although I am not sure it is really sued much in LDS circles. However the article spoke of how “until now the Mormons could only meet in the so many meetinghouses in British Columbia”.

    This line gives the false impression that the temple in some way fulfills the function of a meetinghouse. This is not true in the least. Nothing done in the temple can be done in the meeting house, and nothing done in the meeting house can be done in the temple.

    Ordiances performed in the temple must be performed in the temple. Ordiances done in a meetinghouse can be performed anywhere. The meetinghouse exists because it is nice, the temple because it is required. The later is illustrated by the many cases where wards and branches meet in buildings that are not built as meetinghouses, and in some cases where they are used primarily for other purposes, such as school classrooms or a restraunt.

    This use of buildings other than those fully set aside to religion to hold church meetings buts Mormons on the same footing as many protestant churches. It also illustrates the fact that papers that report on temples without fully describing how they differ from church buildings in general and more church buildings specifically are not fullfilling their duty as reporters.

  • John Pack Lambert

    I think you are very accurate in your assesment.
    Calling the baptismal font a “extravagant indoor pool” was just wrong. It is not a pool. No one ever goes swimming in it. It is tiny by pool standards.

    The oxen symbolize the twelve tribes of Israel.

    The line “etneral weddings” is so totally wrong, “eternal marriages” yes, but you can not interchange marriage and wedding. Besides the failure to point out sealings can be done for the dead, the same as baptisms, the author also fails to point out that many sealings involving live people are not marriages. Many involve people who have previously been married, some of whom now heve children getting sealed to them. In addition if a couple adopts a child then they get sealed to the child in the temple.

    Two other points. It is not women and men joined together, but a woman and a man. When a joining is always one to one using the plural is totally misleading. No temple marriage ever is between more than two people (even when polygamy was permitted in the Church, the marriage was still between a man and a woman, this was not the polyamorous relationship of bi-sexuals some radicals are pushing for) and so the singular should be used.

    However the “reserved for” language really does strike me as misleading. Journalists should write in ways that they convey things accurately, and since in reality the majority of sealings performed in the room will either be on behalf of the dead, involving already married couples or the sealing of adopted children to their parents, the room is not limited in the way the writer makes it sound.

    Another point in support of Joye’s line about the emphasis of luxury. When was a 25-seat room small? My guess is when you are trying to portray others as extravagant wasters of funds. On the other hand, how many people limit the attendance at their wedding to 25 people? How many people have weddings where the man who performs the service does not get paid?