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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  • Darren Blair

    Jim –

    The church actually issued a press release back on the 22nd addressing the controversy – .

    Perhaps the most relevant portion of the release is the following:

    In the Church, we want everyone to feel welcome, safe and valued, and of course, there is room to ask questions. But how we ask is just as important as what we ask. We should not try to dictate to God what is right for His Church.

    In other words, the push for discipline against her is not because she wanted to see women ordained to the priesthood, but because she made a spectacle out of herself while doing so. Had she tried to work within the system instead of against it, this whole conversation wouldn’t even be taking place.

    I myself have gotten away with things that would have probably gotten me thrown out of any other local congregation, but I’m still regarded as a member in good standing; I know when to make a push and when to follow protocol.

    • Jim Davis

      Thanks, Darren.

  • Kullervo

    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.

    Rock Waterman (who actually has been advocating “reform”–he has used his Pure Mormonism blog to argue that the LDS church has departed signifcantly from its origins under Joseph Smith) has been threatened with exommunication this month as well. That makes three.
    Denver Snuffer was last August; I don’t know if he counts as part of the group or not. But discipline initiated against three public dissidents in the course of one month is certainly significant. Nobody I know (from faithful insiders to bitter ex-Mormons) thinks it’s a coincidence.

    • Darren Blair

      Nobody I know (from faithful insiders to bitter ex-Mormons) thinks it’s a coincidence.

      This brings up the old canard about the newspaper reporter who couldn’t believe that a Republican won an election because nobody the reporter knew voted for the man.

      For the woman in question, at the rate she was going it was only IMHO a matter of time before the church leadership lost patience with her.

      In that sense, it could well be coincidental that her local authorities lost patience with her about the same time as the local authorities over the other individuals lost patience with them.

      • Kullervo

        It could absolutely be coincidental! But not bloody likely.
        Three, all at once? When high-profile discipline cases are otherwise relatively infrequent and the church has a history of doing purges like this in sets?
        Unlike the newspaper reporter in your canard, I don’t only know Democrats.

        • John Pack Lambert

          The only people who consider this a conspiracy are those who believe that these people have made public all the issues that are against them. I for a minute do not believe that. After the Southworth issue where he claimed he was facing Church discipline for “writing on the Book of Mormon and DNA” but on further study it became clear the main issue was his committing adultery, I don’t trust those with religious agendas against the Church to be truthful.

          • Kullervo

            Who said anything about a conspiracy? I’m just claiming there was a direction from the general authorities.

          • John Pack Lambert

            Which amounts to claiming that the Church is being both untruthful and deceptive. You are making suppositions on no evidence, and ignoring the fact that we know enough of the Kelly case to see it has simmered for 6 months at the local level. A figure getting as much press as Kelly will not escape the notice of local bishops. This is not someone publishing scholarly reports in obscure religious studies journals, this is someone seeking and getting coverage in the mainstream press. There is no need for direction from Salt Lake in any way for a local bishop to take notice. Plus, I would not be surprised if Kelly has been overly vocal about her views at the local level as well in ways that are disruptive to the ward.

  • Carlh

    A quibble: the following sentence could be misconstrued in a number of ways.

    “Then the Times mentions Dehlin, the gay Mormon advocate.”

    While it is true that Mr. Dehlin advocates on behalf of gay Mormons (and same-sex marriage), the sentence could be read as saying that he himself is gay. I have seen nothing suggesting that this is the case.

    Moreover, Mr. Dehlin’s advocacy extends well beyond those particular issues, which is readily apparent from a visit to his own Mormon Stories website. But you wouldn’t know that from the New York Times article’s assertion that the LDS Church’s “concern” is over those promoting “women’s ordination and gay rights.”

    • Jim Davis

      A valid nitpick, Carl. I first called Dehlin an “advocate for gay Mormons,” then changed it to something I thought was less cumbersome. By your reaction, I probably should have kept the first version.

  • Matt

    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.

    That’s only true if you assume that the initial state was the best one. Even if a defect was always there, an attempt to correct it is properly described as “reform.”

    The real problem with the word, though, is that it takes sides. It implies that the current state is defective and that the proposed measures are an improvement.

    • PalaceGuard

      There is plenty of “reformed” indigenous wildlife on the local back roads, here.

  • John Pack Lambert

    The claim the Church refused to comment comes from a too narrow question. As can be seen from reading this article Church spokeswomen have made comments about the general issues. Due to Church doctrine on Church disciplinary councils, Church leaders will not comment on the specifics involved here. It is a religious issue that they will not make more public such private meetings.

    Having seen how this story is being treated, it seems most media is not giving the Church and its supporters any possible voice, and they are trying to spin this whole episode in as negative a light as possible.

    On the Dehlin issue, I have to agree with Carlh. The points on which Dehlin has attacked the Church are much broader than homosexuality.

  • John Pack Lambert

    To illustrate that Dehlin’s views on homosexuality probably do not have anything to do with his excommunication I provide this link.
    However, I was surprised and saddened by John Dehlin’s questions. They reflected a confident view that Joseph Smith was to some degree, a womanizer, hypocrite, and fraud. I don’t think any listener could have concluded otherwise because of the specific words and descriptions of Joseph’s alleged behavior that Dehlin employed in the questions he posed.

    That was Brian Hales, one of the leading scholars of Mormon polygamy, on his reaction to a podcast done by Dehlin in early June of this year. Rejecting that Joseph Smith was the prophet of the Lord is not really combatible with being a member in good standing in a Church that traces its authority through Joseph Smith being a prophet.

    • John Pack Lambert

      Here is where I got the above quote from. In general it seems the media have chosen to cast Dehlin’s story as if his views on homosexuality are front and center. However, this is only the way he wants to write the narrative, not at all neccesarily the truth. For all we know, even his views are not the main issue, and he may have committed actions that have brought him under scrutiny. We do not know that, but that has been the case of some celebrated Mormon apostates in the past.

  • John Pack Lambert

    Digging deeper I have found evidence that Dehlin has expressed disbelief in the Atonement of Jesus Christ. While belief in such is needed to get a temple reccomend, lack of this belief will not deprive a person of Church membership. It does however show that his differences with the teachings of the Church involve more than sexual issues.