LDS ‘evolving’ on sexuality? Says who?

You know that whole asking-questions thing that journalists are supposed to do as part of their work?

You know, that thing where the journalist tries to ask the obvious, logical questions and then prints what people — especially people whose training and experience yield on-the-record, authoritative information — have to say that is relevant to the story?

This process is especially important when dealing with issues that push people’s buttons and cause conflict in large, symbolic, even controversial groups. When these conflicts exist, it’s especially crucial to talk to people on both sides — on the record.

Religion Dispatches ran a story last weekend that demonstrates what happens when this process breaks down or, worse, is ignored.

The story is about an openly gay man named Mitch Mayne who has just been named as a congregational leader in a San Francisco congregation — a real, mainstream congregation — in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. As you would imagine, this has caused some buzz on the Internet. To add to the intrigue there’s this:

Mayne was also in a committed, monogamous relationship with his male partner. About a year ago, Mayne decided to end his relationship, for reasons not related to religion. It was, he said, the hardest thing he ever did: harder, even, than burying his parents.

Mayne felt he needed time to heal, and he chose to take a break from relationships altogether.

A few months later, Bishop Don Fletcher of the San Francisco Bay Ward called and asked Mayne, as readers are told, to “serve as ward executive secretary,” which is a lay-pastoral or bishopric-level leadership post.

This raises a rather important question for millions of Mormons and you can probably guess what it is. Thus, the story notes:

After a frank discussion with local Church leaders, Mayne committed to adhere to the same standards of sexual morality expected of heterosexual members of the LDS Church, and he agreed to serve.

All together now: What is the logical question? Remember that this active Mormon has previously been involved in a “committed, monogamous relationship” with a male partner. So the logical question is: “What precisely are those ‘same standards’ in sexual morality that Mayne has agreed to follow?”

The assumption — I must note that assumptions are really, really bad in journalism — is that this means that he has agreed to be celibate. But readers don’t really know. The story also skips over another question: Was that previous same-sex relationship official in any way, through rites either secular or sacred? Was the partner Mormon, too?

All logical questions that could yield crucial information. Instead, reader are told:

A home. A welcoming home in a religious tradition that has a profound and lasting impact on its members, and a chance to express their faith through the path of service: that’s what Mitch Mayne and many other LGBT Mormons want.

In LDS communities, where lay congregational leaders have positions analogous to those of priests, pastors, and rabbis, news of Mayne’s calling is having an impact, revealing continuing divisions among Mormons and questions about evolving Mormon views on homosexuality.

Mormon views on same-sex relationships are evolving?

Back that statement up with some on-the-record quotations from people in positions of LDS authority and you have an A1 story in every newspaper in America. After all, it is almost impossible to overstate the importance of eternal marriage, family and children in the sweep of Mormon theology.

Instead, alas, readers are offered this:

There is, in fact, no consensus Mormon view on homosexuality. While most Mormons view homosexual sexual activity as a sin, Church leaders have expressed divergent perspectives on LGBT issues, ranging from condemnatory and derisive to ameliorative and compassionate.

In the past, LDS Church leaders have endorsed conversion therapies, or encouraged gay Mormons enter heterosexual marriages. Some have declined to use the terms “gay and lesbian” and instead have used the words “same sex attraction” in order to make the case that homosexuality is not an inherent and lasting feature of personhood. Consequently, many conservative Mormons continue to believe that sexual orientation is changeable, a gravely sinful “lifestyle” choice to be simply rejected, or a condition to be “struggled” with and overcome, like alcoholism.

Liberal Mormons tend to view homosexuality as a naturally-occurring human trait that is not abhorrent to God. Some congregations welcome participation by openly gay people who maintain chastity. Other Mormons, however, feel that it is unjust and impossible to expect gay Mormons to abstain from intimate relationships their entire lifetimes.

What is missing from these amazing paragraphs?

What you are looking for can be summed up in this word — a-t-t-r-i-b-u-t-i-o-n-s. Where are the crucial names and titles that make these claims matter? In other words, where is the journalistic infrastructure? Is this article news or opinion?

So what does this story actually state as fact? Next to nothing. This is either a story or tremendous importance or it is not. The basic facts are hard to interpret, simply because the editors at this website have failed to get essential questions answered.

So where to turn? To veteran Peggy Fletcher Stack at the Salt Lake Tribune, of course. While it’s clear that there is some mystery in this event, her subsequent report does contain on-the-record facts:

Though many liberal Mormons and gay activists are heralding Mayne’s appointment, it does not represent any change in LDS policy, which says it is no sin to have gay attraction, only to be sexually active outside the bonds of marriage between a man and a woman.

“Obviously we are not changing the standards of the church in terms of what you have to do to qualify to go to the temple or hold a church position,” said Roger Carter, Mayne’s LDS stake president. “There is no reason that men and women who have same-sex attraction cannot be participants in our meetings and in our congregations. They should be.”

And then there is this signal that debates are continuing behind the scenes.

Mayne was in a committed, monogamous relationship with a man, but that ended a year ago. Since then, Mayne said, he has lived by LDS standards, and his ecclesiastical leaders found him worthy to serve.

Mayne triggered some criticism by online Mormon commenters when he wrote on his blog that he couldn’t promise a “lifetime of celibacy.”

“I don’t have a crystal ball or psychic powers,” he said in a phone interview. “I don’t know where the road will lead me, but my intent is to live my life according to the savior’s will, with him by my side. That’s embedded in my DNA as a Mormon.”

Stay tuned. And if people make claims about evolving Mormon doctrines, look for names, titles and clear statements of attribution. In other words, look for some journalism.

IMAGES: A “sealing” altar used in Mormon “eternal marriage” rites. Second image: Two activists seeking changes in Mormon doctrines on sexuality.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Douglas A. Deming, Sr.

    Thank you for this informative article. What made it important to me was the premis that some “News” is opinion rather then fact. I am a Mormon. Been one for 35 years. Joined at the age of 36. Investigated for 9 months. So? I took the time to listen to both sides and decide what was right for me. A friend once said, “If you want the truth about a Ford, you don’t go to a Chevy dealer.” He was right. If you want to know the current policies, standards, covenants of a Mormon check with those at the top, the 1st Presidency and especially Thomas S. Monson, the current President of the Church. He is sustained as a prophet, seer, and revelator. (That’s hard for some to believe in these days of nay-saying that any man could speak for God, but we believe it and sustain him as such) So there is our authority. Anyone else, regardless of his position in or out of the Church is just opinion.

  • Ben

    I read this story in the Salt Lake Tribune. …

    This is coming from an active gay Mormon.

  • tmatt

    BEN:

    Note that your comment is about the RELIGIOUS issue in the post, not the journalistic subject of the post itself.

    So, what did you think of the anonymous, unsourced nature of the JOURNALISM in the Religious Dispatches article?

    Please, focus on journalism — not your own opinions of the religious debate. I edited out all of your comments that were not about journalism.

    See what’s left?

  • Julia

    Looks like the words “celibacy” and “celibate” are evolving into synonyms of “chastity” and “chaste”.

    “Scandal” also evolved from its long-time meaning due to the evolving understanding of people outside the group that originally used the word. The individualism of modern society precludes any sense that one person can be held accountable for corrupting others by setting a bad example; so now “scandal” just means “shocking”.

    It’s interesting to watch the process as time goes by and it gets more and more difficult to use words with precise meanings when speaking to a younger generation with an evolved sense of what those words mean.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Sorry, self-proclaimed “gayhater” — this is not the blog for you.

    Journalism, folks….

  • Jeffrey

    This is a blog post by someone who writes as a Mormon insider, in that way no different from when a blogger here writes as an insider without attribution. So what is the standard for that kind of “journalism”?

  • Mike

    I make a distinction between the piece by Peggy Stack in the Salt Lake Tribune and the one by Joanna Brooks in Religion Dispatches. Peggy’s coverage is straight news and should be fully sourced. Joanna’s isn’t straight news — it’s advocacy, opinion-based journalism. My source for this is Religious Dispatches itself, which states its purpose is “highlighting a diversity of progressive voices and aimed at broadening and advancing the public conversation.” Most readers who follow its dispatches are probably looking for stories that reinforce their progressive points of view, rather than objective, sourced coverage of an issue. As such, Joanna’s piece is an an essay about a news event rather than an objective story on the event itself.

  • Mike M.

    I second Mike’s comments above. Joanna Brooks is an academic not a journalist, and she holds herself to different standards including advocacy. She got her story from the activity on Mormon themed blogs regarding Mitch Mayne and then added her own experience and opinion, though she did talk to Mayne. Peggy Fletcher Stack is a journalist who will talk to sources and cite them.

    tmatt, ultimately, I agree with all you wrote. I would say, however, that even expecting Religion Dispatches to print high quality journalistic content is probably a mistake. It has a different purpose in mind in its writing.

  • http://www.ephesians4-15.blogspot.com/ Randy

    There is an assumption here that information that is not included in the story must not be there because the question was never asked. I guess I am more cynical than that. Sometimes facts can be left out not because the reporter does not know them but because a biased reporter has deemed them irrelevant. They may well know that “the same standards of sexual morality expected of heterosexual members of the LDS Church” means not only not being in a sexual relationship outside of marriage but not being open to one either. Also not being open to the idea of same-sex marriage. So when he says he can’t promise a “lifetime of celibacy” he is really contradicting what he told local church leaders. LDS sexual morality means heterosexual marriage or celibacy. Could that information have been excluded to make less clear that there seems to be a contradiction in what Mayne is saying?

    I know we want to be charitable but we should not be naive either. Reporters play these games. They leave out important information not because they forgot to ask the question but because they want a position to look reasonable and including the info would expose a problem.

  • http://realclearreligion.org Jeffrey Weiss

    Here’s the journalism issue: Attribution versus doing one’s homework. A decade or two ago, I needed to attribute just about anything I wrote for a newspaper. These days, the standards for newspapers have changed and the standards for other media are all over the map. We are supposed to write with “authority.” Which is not a bad thing. Over-attributing can gum up writing to the point of incomprehensibility. And when the item in question is not really up for disagreement, cutting the “he said” is a good thing. However, it puts much more pressure on the writer to be correct. If I write with “authority,” no longer can I slough off an error by blaming it on a source or burying it in a quote. So the question here is: Did columnist Joanna Brooks do her homework?

  • tmatt

    JEFFREY:

    How would we know?

    I just know that if she has authoritative sources for what she is saying, this is one of the biggest religion stories of the year.

    If not, this is advocacy garbage.

  • http://www.muchmorethanwords.com gfe

    The journalism question is: What are the standards for something like Religion Dispatches? Are they, or should they, be the same as for something like the the news pages of the Washington Post or Seattle Times? Tmatt seems to be holding RD to the same standards as traditional news outlets, but I’m not sure that’s appropriate. We don’t hold columnists to the same standards of attribution as we do reporters, and as others here have said, perhaps we shouldn’t either for RD and similar sites.

    That said, I do think we should expect columnists and advocacy writers such as Ms. Brooks to be honest with their readers. This may be true as she says:

    Liberal Mormons tend to view homosexuality as a naturally-occurring human trait that is not abhorrent to God.

    But is she really being honest when she says the following?

    There is, in fact, no consensus Mormon view on homosexuality. While most Mormons view homosexual sexual activity as a sin, Church leaders have expressed divergent perspectives on LGBT issues …

    I would dare Ms. Brooks to find even one of the church’s general authorities who, on the record, does not view homosexual sexual activity as sinful. And I’d guess that 99 percent of people who are active members of the church would agree. If that’s not a consensus I’m not sure what is.

    For the church to take the position that homosexual intercourse is not sinful would require a major change in its theology. I’m not saying that’s impossible — the church believes in continuing revelation and has changed its theology before — but Ms. Brooks’ words seem to ignore how momentous such a change would be.

    It may well be that there is lack of consensus in the church on the political implications of its theological belief, and a lack of consensus about what to do with the issue. But in her advocacy, Ms. Brooks overstates her case about where the church is today — and that makes her less credible, not more.

  • Mike M.

    tmatt, you said “I just know that if she has authoritative sources for what she is saying, this is one of the biggest religion stories of the year.”

    I strongly disagree. More has been made of this event than should have been made. First, gay Mormons have served as executive secretaries before, just as they have served in other bishopric support positions (e.g., clerks) within LDS congregations. Second, there has been no change in LDS Church policy concerning what qualifies a person to serve in such positions. Third, Mayne is not the first gay Mormon to receive loving community support in his congregation.

    My own reading is that some writers want to make this into more of a story. Brooks hints as much at the end when she quotes someone as hoping that this is a sign of change in the Church. Mentioning this hope hints at the advocacy element in Brooks’s writing, but in and of itself is not actual news.

  • Arthur

    As others have pointed out, there’s not much of a story here. Though highly visible and important the exec. Secretary is administrative support, not priesthood leadership, and other celibate gays have served on high councils and bishoprics in the past. In the politically charged world post Prop 8 some people are desperate to find any cracks in the armor.

    To the extent there is a story it would be that Mayne presumably was never disciplined by the Church for having been in a relationship – but that would require asking questions, questions that in general are not considered appropriate in many quarters. Leadership in a generally liberal area ignoring what would be considered standard procedure elsewhere in the world is unexpected but not unprecedented.

  • Peter Hansen

    Good article. Attribution always helps. One other item that should be clarified is that a ward executive secretary is a clerical position that supports a lay-pastoral or bishopric-level leadership post by scheduling appointments (i.e. meetings & interviews) and performing other clerical duties.

  • David R

    TMatt,

    You mentioned that the following quotatation from Joanna Brooks’ article shows a need for attribution. “There is, in fact, no consensus Mormon view on homosexuality. While most Mormons
    view homosexual sexual activity as a sin, Church leaders have expressed divergent
    perspectives on LGBT issues, ranging from condemnatory and derisive to ameliorative
    and compassionate.”

    Whil I agree, I wonder if Ms. Brooks is importing an assumption that many of readers are Mormon and, already know from whence she derives her statement. As you also said, assumtions are not good in journalism.

    ASo, in addition to assuming her target audience, Ms. Brooks also cembeds certain words that, even in an article to stimulate, really leantoward all out persuasion. For example, she speak of the “confusion” among conservative Mormons rather than their “traditional” or “historica” stances.

    By doing this, Ms. Brooks paints the more progressive wing of Mormonism as having the more definite posture. This is a subtle technique we also, of course, pick up in the reporting of mainstream politics from time to time.

  • Rigel Hawthorne

    This is a good article and good comments afterward. I agree with Mike #7 and Mike #8. I don’t completely agree with gfe #12. There IS a consensus view of homosexual ACTS (although it certainly is not universal among the membership). Regarding homosexuality from the perspective of orientation alone, there have been sermons from Apostles that use kind and inclusive language and others that use more dismissive language. Many of her readers still have fresh in their minds the comments of Boyd K. Packer as an example of the latter. Her lack of attributions could reflect a wish to avoid directing negative messages toward one or two particular Apostles and thereby avoid being a catalyst for causing Liberal Mormons to become even more defranchised. Many who were discouraged by those dismissive comments may have just put those things behind them.

    Attribution may also have been considered redundant for her readers who have participated in online blogs where this topic has been debated repeatedly. More than any other reason, however, for lack of attribution, would be that the literary form is essay rather than reporting.

    If the readers want to know more details of Mr. Mayne’s past relationship and how it was reconciled between he and the leadership of his congregation, those issues are respected as confidential by fellow-worshipers. It would not be considered appropriate for someone actively serving in a bishopric level position to discuss private counsel that took place between he/she and his/her ecclesiastical leader.

    For me personally, the news is that one who is marketing himself as an openly-gay Mormon was appointed to the calling. It has been one phenomenon for gay individuals to serve when they keep quiet about their sexuality and blend in. In congregations away from San Francisco many, and I dare say most, have not had a member proclaim with recognition by position as a member in full fellowship that being gay is the way God made him and that he yearns in his heart to marry the man he loves.

    It is unheard of for an individual newly assigned as an executive secretary to market his calling with an internet site and professional head shots. Some could criticize Maynes by saying that he is using his position to obtain publicity for a ‘pro-gay’ agenda, but as a tool to reach out to disenfranchised gay Latter-day Saints, his marketing is really genius.

    The other news story here that is there if you dig is that Mr. Maynes has really been in the forefront of LDS/Gay reconcilation for years and in a public way since the Oakland Stake began its work towards healing the post prop 8 rift. As such, the ecclesiastic leadership that sought Mr. Maynes for this position did so with total transparent knowledge of Mr. Maynes views and boldness. It is boldness that likely makes many in LDS leadership uncomfortable. If the leadership at the top IS, on the other hand, comfortable with it and acknowledged it, then it would result in a major shift in hearts among the conservative membership.

  • David R

    Rigel,

    You said, “Attribution may also have been considered redundant for her readers who have participated
    in online blogs where this topic has been debated repeatedly. More than any other
    reason, however, for lack of attribution, would be that the literary form is essay
    rather than reporting.”

    But, doesn’t this make Ms. Brooks’ reporting more of an issue? Not only did she assume her target audience but she also assumed her type of writing was not reporting but persuasion alone.

    Yet, even on blogs and Facebook entries, no matter how pithy or elaborate, attribution gives the writer/reporter that much more credibiltiy. Wih attribution, even someone not included in a target audience is able t be drawn into the subject matter and not be led only to take the author at his/her word.

    As far as her attempt to dissuade Mormons from the “traditional” understanding of homosexuality, I wonder if Ms. Brooks was trying by inferrence to play upon their understanding of progressive revelation. In fact, her constantuse of words like “confusion” to characterize the conservative position leads one to believe that liberal Mormons have the ground to stand on in this discussion.

  • http://connellodonovan.com/lgbtmormons.html Connell O’Donovan

    Has the LDS church’s stance changed or evolved over the years? Absolutely. Even radically. 35 years ago, Anita Bryant, the beauty queen and fruit-juice peddler turned anti-Gay activist, stormed across the US with her “Save Our Children Crusade”, revoking Gay people’s equal rights to employment and housing virtually wherever she went. On July 9, 1977, Apostle Mark E. Petersen wrote an editorial in the Church News, praising her actions in revoking such Gay rights and claimed, “every right-thinking person will sustain Miss Bryant, a prayerful, upright citizen, for her stand” against Gay rights to housing and employment. Pres. Barbara B. Smith of the Relief Society presented Bryant with a commendation for her anti-Gay rights crusade on July 11. Then in November 1977, LDS president Spencer W. Kimball also commended Anita Bryant and told newspaper reporters that Bryant “was doing a great service” to the nation.

    Now we have LDS leaders advocating for equal rights in housing and employment right there in Utah, as reported in the Deseret News of November 13, 2009! And the Gay rights laws and ordinances have passed because of LDS support for them. This 180 degree turn clearly shows that the LDS church has changed its position and has moved from an extremely condemnatory and punitive stance to one of compassion and mercy – a stance its leaders should have had all along.

    Connell O’Donovan
    Santa Cruz CA

  • Linda

    There are what we term “anti-Mormons” who work very hard to find things with which to damn the LDS church (Mormon). One thing they do is to diligently comb thru the Journals of Discourses, a multi-volumed collection of church talks given by past church leaders, mostly at the end of the 19th and very start of the 20th century.

    If people will go thru these same volumes looking for references to the Constitution of the US, they will find that we believe that the Constitution is a DIVINELY inspired document. That means that we believe that those who wrote it were doing so under the inspiration and influence of our Heavenly Father.

    I have a feeling that this is also something that Romney believes.

  • Will

    How is a private citizen publicist and “activist” able to “revoke” rights, presumably overruling legislators and voters?

  • https://profiles.google.com/DuwayneAnderson/about Duwayne Anderson

    An earlier writer wrote: “If you want the truth about a Ford, you don’t go to a Chevy dealer.”

    This is a nice bit of trite folk wisdom that clearly is wanting.

    If you want to know what is wrong, deficient, or bad about a Chevy, would you go to the Chevy dealer? If you want to know what is wrong, deficient, or bad about a Ford, would you go to the Ford dealer?

    If you want to know about the Nazi atrocities where would you go? To a Nazi sympathizer or a historian of WWII?

    If you want to know about Mormonism, then you should certainly talk with Mormons. But its self delusion to think that Mormons are going to be frank and up front about the weaknesses and deficiencies in their religion, just like its self delusion to think that the Ford dealer will be perfectly frank about the problems with Fords. Sure, talk to Mormons, but *also* talk with a few ex-Mormons.

    In the case of Mormonism there is particular reason to be skeptical about what the church says about itself because “lying for the Lord” is a practiced and accepted form of behavior in the church:

    http://mormonthink.com/lying.htm

    There are innumerable examples of the church lying about what it teaches in order to avoid public humiliation and ridicule. For example, Mormons are quick to tell investigators that Joseph Smith (founder of the Church) was murdered while in jail. They’re not so quick (if they tell you at all) that Smith was in jail for destroying a printing press that was exposing his illegal practice of polygamy — a practice that Smith engaged in, but was publicly lying about.

    Duwayne Anderson
    Author of …. can’t say the name of the book or Mormon apologists will try (and have tried) to censor my posts.

  • http://connellodonovan.com/lgbtmormons.html Connell O’Donovan

    Will asks a good question. In attempting to paraphrase, I mis-wrote when I implied Bryant herself revoked Gay rights ordinances. I should have said, using the scare tactic of saving “our children” from Gays (who are all child molesters in her rhetoric), starting with her home of Dade County (Miami), Florida, she sponsored rallies, concerts, news junkets, and political conventions across the country, pushing for special referendums, from which her cadre of “crusaders” revoked Gay rights ordinances in Dade County, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Eugene OR, Witchita KS, Seattle, and several towns in California. She also inspired CA senator John Briggs to introduce his initiative which would have prohibited any Gay person from teaching school, but was so badly worded that it actually would have dismissed any public school employee for advocating for Gay rights in any way (including voting against his initiative). Fortunately Harvey Milk took Briggs on and the initiative lost.

    Connell


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