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.

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Some compelling religion stories from Easter front pages

Fittingly, stories of rebirth and renewal made their way to many newspaper front pages on Easter Sunday.

One of my favorites ran in the Chicago Tribune. That story, by Angie Leventis Lourgos, highlighted Christians such as Edeette Chukro, a Syrian who celebrated her first Easter in America:

Easter is bittersweet for those seeking refuge like Chukro and her family, who were among the Christian minority in Syria. They fear for their loved ones overseas. They worry their mass exodus will diffuse their culture and identity.

And they note the paradox in fleeing Syria, a cradle of ancient Christendom, in order to worship freely.

St. Paul, once a tormentor of Christians, was converted on the road to Damascus in the New Testament’s Book of Acts. Aramaic, the ancient language of Jesus Christ, is still spoken in pockets of Syria today and is sprinkled in the Mass at St. Mary’s.

“Jesus went to Syria to preach. St. Paul went to Syria to preach. St. Peter went to Syria to preach,” said Bishop Paulus Benjamin, a leader of the Assyrian Church of the East, who is based in Chicago. “There’s a rich Christian history there. Unfortunately, Christians now must leave.”

Salt Lake Tribune Godbeat pro Peggy Fletcher Stack also told the story of a faithful foreigner finding freedom in the U.S.:

As Saman Lall joins other Utah Christians celebrating Jesus Christ’s resurrection on this spring-dappled Sunday, you could say the Pakistani educator has been reborn himself.

This is, after all, Lall’s first Easter in a country where freedom of religion is a bedrock principle, where all varieties of believers worship freely.

Lall could repeat the ancient prayers and ceremonies in a new land: Foot-washing, taking communion, carrying the cross, tracing the “stations of the cross,” experiencing darkness in the sanctuary, followed by lit candles, a flood of light, and then, hallelujah.

All without fear.

Other moving Easter stories included Oklahoman religion editor Carla Hinton’s piece on “New Life for Emma” and Tennessean writer Heidi Hall’s profile of a former drug addict and prostitute who found “A rebirth of her own.”

The Houston Chronicle reported on the reopening of a Galveston, Texas, cathedral closed for almost six years after Hurricane Ike. And the Arizona Republic produced a compelling narrative on a shrine scarred but still standing after a wildfire.

Some other Easter Page 1 angles:

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Salt Lake Tribune loses its Faith, but not its @religiongal

Via Twitter, this sad news — but not as sad as it could have been — came Thursday:

From the Tribune’s story:

The Salt Lake Tribune cut eight newsroom jobs Thursday, eliminated its Faith section and announced plans to drop other key print features as part of cost reductions ordered by the newspaper’s New York-based corporate owner.

Managers laid off one part-time and seven full-time employees after an all-staff meeting with Tribune Editor and Publisher Terry Orme, who noted the newspaper chain Digital First Media had sought a 10 percent budget cut to bring expenses closer in line with revenues.

“We have good people in every position and a great staff,” Orme said. “Making decisions like this is agonizing because there are no good decisions. Nobody in this room deserves this.”

The layoffs ­— one each from the news, sports, editorial, photo, copy editing, page design, IT support and administrative departments — come after the paper lost four other newsroom positions through attrition in the past six weeks and let 19 staffers go in September.

Later in the story, the good news:

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How to cover the Mormons, England and religious liberty

It goes without saying that Godbeat veteran Peggy Fletcher Stack of the Salt Lake City Tribune has, over the past quarter of a century or so, covered more than her share of stories about doctrinal issues (and disputes) in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

At the moment, Mormon authorities are caught up in one of the most bizarre religious liberty stories in a year dominated by big religious liberty stories. I wanted to call attention to a recent Stack report on this controversy simply to show GetReligion readers what it looks like when a pro starts nailing down one of these complicated stories.

To cut to the chase: There is a former Mormon in Great Britain who is suing the church for false and misleading doctrine. Honest. Here is a key slice of copy at the very top of the story:

Tom Phillips, a former Mormon bishop and stake president, asserts, among other claims, that LDS Church President Thomas S. Monson has “made representations … which were … untrue or misleading” — including that “there was no death on this planet prior to 6,000 years ago” and that “all humans alive today are descended from just two people who lived approximately 6,000 years ago” — to “make a gain for himself or another.”

… A district judge in Westminster Magistrates’ Court of London issued a summons to Monson, considered a “prophet, seer and revelator” in the 15 million-member Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, to appear March 14 to answer the charges. And Phillips expects to see the 86-year-old Mormon leader in court — unless Monson “pleads guilty.”

“This is a serious matter,” Phillips said Wednesday in a phone interview from his home in England. “If President Monson believes in the Book of Mormon, he will show up. If he has any concern for Mormons in Britain, he will show up. And if he doesn’t show up, then an arrest warrant will be issued.”

As you would expect, Mormon authorities are outraged.

That’s the easy part of the story. It’s easy to find church authorities who see this as an outrageous violation of what, in America, would be First Amendment principles. The laws are somewhat different in the United Kingdom, but you have a similar conviction that state authorities are not supposed to get involved in disputes over doctrines and the ties that bind for eternity.

Most reporters quote the angry person. Then they quote the outraged church authority. What makes or breaks the story is the quality of the OTHER INFORMATION in the report.

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Mormons softening opposition to homosexuality … or not

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If you enjoy quality journalism, feel free to skip an Associated Press story out today on Mormons challenging their church’s stance on homosexuality.

But if you’re in the mood for a puff piece, wow … AP has produced a doozy!

From start to finish, this quasi-news report engages in unfettered cheerleading. Ready? OK!:

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Wendy and Tom Montgomery went door-to-door in their California neighborhood in 2008 campaigning for the passage of an anti-gay marriage proposition. They were among thousands of faithful Mormons following the direction of a church that spent millions on the cause.

Then they learned last year that their 15-year-old son is gay — a revelation that rocked their belief system.

Now, Wendy Montgomery is leading a growing movement among Mormons to push The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to teach that homosexuality isn’t a sin.

Alas, AP never gets around to providing any concrete data to back up the claim of “a growing movement.”

The story does provide this big chunk of “background,” all without any named sources:

The Utah-based church’s stance on homosexuality has softened considerably since it was one of the leading forces behind California’s Proposition 8. A new website launched this year encourages more compassion toward gays, implores them to stay in the faith and clarifies that church leaders no longer “necessarily advise” gays to marry people of the opposite sex in what used to be a widely practiced Mormon workaround for homosexuality. In May, church leaders backed the Boy Scouts’ policy allowing gays in the ranks. Some gay Mormons who left or were forced out of the church say they are now being welcomed back — even though they remain in same-sex relationships.

Who says the church’s stance has “softened considerably?” The story doesn’t say.

Who are the gay Mormons welcomed back and allowed to remain in same-sex relationships? AP doesn’t bother to quote any of them.

That giant paragraph is followed by this transition:

It may seem like negligible progress to outsiders, but Mormon scholars say 2013 has been a landmark year for the religion on gay and lesbian issues.

How’s that for editorializing? (I’ll give it an A-plus.)

Throughout the story, AP presents the Montgomerys’ version of events as the gospel truth, such as:

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