Mormon reformin’: Putting the antics in semantics

Welcome to the Latter-day Saints Trivia Game! Here is today’s question:

When did the Mormon Church ordain women?

Tick … Tick … Tick … Tick … Ding!

Sorry, time’s up. But it’s a trick question anyway. The Mormon Church has never ordained women.

Dumb question, you say? Then you may know Mormon history better than some reporters and editors. More than one injected a “reform” angle into the story of a Mormon woman who was just excommunicated.

It’s Kate Kelly, founder of Ordain Women, a group whose motives are evident from its name. The church said no ordination, she pushed the issue, and the church pushed her out this week.

Pretty standard internal dispute, right? Not from where many journalists sit. They’ve been making it into a matter of “equality,” “rights,” and yes, “reform.”

UPI — yep, they’re still around — may have said it best, or worst. Its article uses “reform” and “reformer” three times in its spare, 344 words.

The story also uses “prominent women’s rights activist” and specifies that she was drummed out of the church by “an all-male panel.” And it mentions the church’s ire with John Dehlin — “a prominent reformer who faces similar charges for his advocacy for gay rights.”

Longtime GetReligion readers will recognize this tactic as an attempt to win by semantics. As our guru tmatt said years ago, to “reform” something means to improve it by correcting errors, defects or abuses. But see, you can correct something only if it has strayed from its original condition. When have Mormons ordained women? You already know that one.

It’s a matter of viewpoint, you know. The journalists could have said the church is trying to reform Kate Kelly, to get her back to the historical position. Why didn’t they? One guess: They’re reporting not just on what happened, but on what they want to happen.

Some media use other terms than “reform,” though no less tainted. For the Los Angeles Times, the catchword is “gender equality,” for which the newspaper says Kelly’s organization pushes.


The L.A. Times reveals its bias right in some of the search terms it tacked onto the story: Minorities, Feminism, Crime, Human Rights. The newspaper also quotes Kelly and her organization, but asks no one on the pro-church side. True, LDS officers weren’t talking to the media — and as I’ve said before, that’s always counterproductive — but the newspaper could have asked lay Mormons or members of pro-church groups.

A longer piece in the Washington Post picks up the image of a woman being judged by an “all-male panel.” It adds a sympathetic, slogan-laden quote:

Kelly said she hopes the decision will help shed light on gender inequality within the church. “I hope there is a point where people band together and fight against silencing women,” she said.

“I’m not going to give up on the cause because … in God’s eyes, I am equal,” she added.

The Post story is still better than UPI’s because it gives a little some space to the other side, at least in quoting a letter from Kelly’s bishop, Mark Harrison:

“The difficulty, Sister Kelly, is not that you say you have questions or even that you believe that women should receive the priesthood. The problem is that you have persisted in an aggressive effort to persuade other church members to your point of view and that your course of action has threatened to erode the faith of others.”

The Post then quotes Kathleen Flake, a religion historian at the University of Virginia who focuses on women in Mormonism. She offers an interesting viewpoint:

“I think this is yet another one of those moments — and there have been many in Mormonism — where people will have to decide whether the church is changing fast enough,” Flake said. “Mormonism is trying to understand itself in terms of gender and power. For [Mormons] the question is: What’s the baby and what’s the bath water?”

The newspaper also asks the views of a couple of other Mormons. However, one is a persistent critic of the church; the other is identified as a retired historian “who advocates for progressive views.” No equivalent voices in favor of the church’s position are quoted.

And some stories, like this one in the New York Times, make the ouster sound like a Stalin-style purge: “Ms. Kelly, 33, is among the largest wave of Mormons to face excommunication since 1993, when the church disciplined half a dozen dissident intellectuals known as the ‘September Six.’ ”

Then the Times mentions Dehlin, the gay Mormon advocate. Who else is under the gun? Well, nobody else. I don’t know about you; but for me, two people don’t constitute much of a wave — especially compared to the last round over two decades ago.

The Times also brims with sympathy for Kelly, casting her ejection into a classic mold of secular feminism:

Ms. Kelly was attending a board meeting of Ordain Women, planned months ago, when she received the verdict on Monday, and said she sobbed so hard she could not finish reading it.

She plans to appeal, and bristled at the notion that church discipline is done out of love.

“That’s classic language of an abusive relationship, where a person abusing and hurting you says that they’re doing it out of love,” she said.

What terrible men those Mormon leaders are. Making a grown woman cry.

Not that Kelly herself helped, mind you. In the video above, she tells the Salt Lake Tribune that it’s hard to be in “an institution that’s fundamentally unequal, and you’re the group that’s being oppressed.” She adds that the Mormon church is “behaving like classic symptoms of a very aggressive serial abuser.” Still, the news media don’t have to function as mouthpiece for liberal activists. They serve us better with balance than slant.

Among the few media that tried some balance was the Wall Street Journal, which ran an indepth by author John G. Turner. He does use the “R” word once, but he tempers it with background — saying, for one thing, that excommunication is rare because it “means unwanted negative attention for a church that carefully manages its image.”

Turner continues:

Thus, although other church critics also report heightened ecclesiastical pressure, the recent measures probably do not augur a wave of excommunications. Instead, by disciplining Ms. Kelly church leaders hope to quash Ordain Women while permitting and even engaging more moderate voices for change.

Unfortunately, most of the reports I read deliver only half that formula. They lend their voices for change, but they don’t stop at moderation. Not when they’re busy being all equalish and reformish.

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