The PR (In)convenience of Mormon Terminology

One of the more fascinating aspects of the recent “Mormon Moment” (and there are many) has been the way the LDS church’s Public Relations department (LDS Newsroom) has had their press-release blasters set to immediate and well-publicized damage control.  Well, in comparison, that is, to what its output seemed to be in the past.

For example, just within the past two months, a BYU religion professor was censured for perpetuating doctrinal explanations regarding blacks and the priesthood that have been widely regarded as terribly offensive racist myth.  Then, more recently, the LDS newsroom released the most strongly worded and well-publicized statements to date on the policy for vicarious ordinances, clearly stating, in no uncertain terms, that work should not be done for victims of the Holocaust.[i] Not just one, but three similarly worded press releases were published within a three week period.

This upped-ante on the part of LDS PR is, of course, not entirely surprising taking into account the fact that a certain Mormon man named Mitt Romney is now guaranteed to win the Republican presidential nomination.  Though the race has largely sought to avoid the question of religion, it has nonetheless brought a much more searching set of eyes (millions of pairs of them, in fact) peering curiously into the Mormon world.

For a religion that has spent the past 100+ years trying its gol’darned best to conform to a vision of American normalcy while simultaneously basking in its own sense of cherished oddness, this increased scrutiny triggers an almost paralyzing fear that may very well feel like a customized “Spooky Mormon Hell Dream” for the keepers of the PR gates.[ii]

Or, wait, maybe not…

No, instead it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to correct long-held, public misconceptions about Mormonism and show the world what a diverse, faithful, and close-knit community of service-minded believers we are!

You see, it really could go either way.  Or both ways at once.

Particularly interesting is the way Mormon public relations has negotiated the unique terminology of the LDS faith so far.  We have quite the extensive vernacular that often requires a long-winded explanation to translate into regular Americanese.  For some simpler examples take the fact that “sacrament” often becomes “communion,” or “seminary” can translate in media as “youth bible-study.”

What is more fraught are the Mormon terms that can cross definitions with already understood meanings.  Take, for example, the word “bishop.” If a man is identified as a Mormon bishop in the general media without any further explanation, many non-Mormon readers could assume that this person is the paid leader of many congregations over a large area with a great deal of political clout.  However, a more honest reading would be something along the lines of “lay pastor.”

This possibility for linguistic ambiguity opens a whole bucket of ethical questions.  One particularly important one being, “Will LDS PR (and the Romney campaign) use conveniently cross-listed LDS terminology to make Mormonism seem more ’21st century’ than it truly is?”

Most assuredly, yes.

This has already been a problem, for example, in the way LDS PR personnel and press releases have described the leadership opportunities and role of women in Mormonism.  Words are obviously carefully used to remain superficially honest while spinning a message (as would be expected of any public relations office), taking advantage of the general American public’s preconceived understanding of terminology without explaining the differing LDS nuances.

For example, last year Michael Otterson, the head of Public Affairs for the church, wrote a Washington Post “On Faith” article discussing the institutional equality of Mormon women.  His short list is completely silent on the fact that women are not authorized to perform ordinances or ritual, manage church finances, or lead congregations—undeniably important bits of information in an apparent answer to the article’s ur-question.  Instead, there are quite a few uses of the term “equal” and vague nods to ideas like the fact that all members can have access to God through prayer…  Unsurprisingly, the piece was quickly and soundly criticized throughout the Mormon “Bloggernacle” for its gaping holes of information and suspect logic.

Similarly, the LDS Newsroom’s “FAQ” answer to “Do Mormon Women lead in the Church?” claims that women are “leaders, counselors, missionaries, and teachers” without noting that none of these positions allows a woman to be a leader over men (only over other women and children), though men in these same positions are leaders over women and men.  In addition, the claim that LDS women “preach from the pulpit” (also repeated in Michael Otterson’s Washington Post article) is most assuredly true, but it is also a rather disingenuous phrase to use.  The reason?  That it does not continue on to explain the very important fact that all LDS congregants can preach from the pulpit, including very young children.  To use the phrase “preach from the pulpit” takes advantage of the general American understanding that such a responsibility (involving, you know, preaching and a pulpit) carries with it a high sense of institutional power.  This method of willfully and selectively refusing to specify vitally important LDS differences in definitions is a very obvious (and, I will add, disappointing) example of spin doctoring.[iii]

Such are a few examples of ways “convenient” Mormon terminology has been used by PR for the benefit of the church (and perhaps will also be used by the women’s-vote-seeking Romney campaign in the future?).  However, just as notable is the “inconvenient” minefield of LDS terms that can so easily be negatively misunderstood.

The potentially gruesome misunderstanding of the phrase “baptism for the dead” immediately springs to mind.  Or, perhaps, even the confusion that could pop up around the idea of a self-described Christian religion’s use of the word “temple.”

Quite an obvious bit of energy and money has been applied in the LDS Newsroom to make sure that any “inconveniently” misunderstood terms like these can be quickly and correctly redefined for any curious seeker within sleekly-designed websites like mormon.com and a host of explanatory, meme-like graphics.

All I ask of both the LDS Newsroom and the Romney campaign is that the same dedication to honesty and transparency for generally misunderstood Mormon terminology be applied to both “convenient” as well as pesky “inconvenient” vocabulary.  Let’s call bishops, pastors.  And let’s call institutional inequality, institutional inequality. Let’s call it like it is, using the vocabulary that will let the audience understand its true meaning.

 

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i.  These policies were originally instated in 1995 (as stated in the “Letter from the First Presidency”), but the LDS church re-released them this year with substantial vigor including a PR press release, letters that were to be read in every congregation (dated February 29, 2012), mass e-mails sent to the users of the church’s genealogical website (one received by the author on April 13, 2012), and even an accompanying threat to block those who disregarded policy from accessing the temple ordinance software required for processing records.

ii. The book Mormonism in Transition: A History of the Latter-Day-Saints, 1890-1930 by Thomas Alexander is a great starting place for researching the origins of this paradox.

iii.  A more forgiving interpretation of the LDS Newsroom’s statements on women’s equality in the church can be read here, at Zelophehad’s Daughters.

  • Coffinberry

    I think the problem comes in the interface: because we do use and apply different meanings to words, we have no choice but to try to translate somehow.

    I am an attorney. I recently became a Relief Society President in a large suburban ward (in a small city where about 2% of the population is LDS). I often have occasion to explain to other professionals what I do in my spiritual role. I usually use words like “head of our congregation’s women’s ministry” and describe what I do as including activities as preaching, counseling, ministering, directing, planning, organizing, indigent- and welfare-services outreach, and participating in the governing board of the the congregation. All of this is accurate, and when my Methodist cousin (who is a lay minister in her congregation) and I compare notes, our roles are quite similar. So I don’t think that the description of women’s participation at local levels offered by the Church PR department is all that out of line.

    I do acknowledge that what is harder to explain, however, is the apparent lack of equal-shouldering of the leadership and doctrinal burden by men and women at the upper echelons of the Church.

  • Raymond Takashi Swenson

    Hmmm . . . When the Relief Society President and the Young Women president and Primary president in a ward sit in a council with the bishopric and the High Priests and Elders and Aaronic Priesthood presidents, and they discuss the needs of a particular family, and organize the resources of the ward in order to serve their needs, exactly what is “unequal” about that? The women are as free as the men to offer information and make recommendations, and will often be tasked with crucial responsibilities for execution of a plan. While the leaders of the priesthood quorums have been ordained in the priesthood, they function within their groups exactly the same way that the Relief Society presidents function among women.

    Many of the doctrinal teaching functions are carried out by women, including not only Primary and Young Women but also in Sunday School for teenagers and adults, and in Seminary, especially Early Morning Seminary. The giving of sermons in Sacrament Meeting is usually done by both men and women, members of the congregation who have twenty minutes to teach all the men, women and children in the ward, an opportunity that is offered at some point to just about every woman in the ward. There is also equality in the opportunity to walk to the podium and bear testimony on Fast Sunday.

    Serving as a missionary, the first contact that many people have with the Church, is a crucial responsibility, and it is shared by many young women, and by wives and husbands in senior missionary couples. These are ministerial functions, teaching from the scriptures, leading people in prayer, answering their questions, searching for inspiration in finding those who are ready for the message.

    The ultimate religious ordinance is sealing for eternity. No man can participate in that ordinance alone. And the promises made at the altar, and in D&C 132, are not different for the man and the woman, but the same. Surely one message of that ordinance is that in the long run, each of our lives is not a contest in which we try to supplant all women, or all men, and seize power for our individual selves, but rather a project in which the blessings and joy come to those who are inseparably not themselves alone, but part of a companionship in which each loves and serves the other, without reservation.

  • http://zelophehadsdaughters.com/ Ziff

    Hmmm . . . When the Relief Society President and the Young Women president and Primary president in a ward sit in a council with the bishopric and the High Priests and Elders and Aaronic Priesthood presidents, and they discuss the needs of a particular family, and organize the resources of the ward in order to serve their needs, exactly what is “unequal” about that? The women are as free as the men to offer information and make recommendations, and will often be tasked with crucial responsibilities for execution of a plan. While the leaders of the priesthood quorums have been ordained in the priesthood, they function within their groups exactly the same way that the Relief Society presidents function among women.

    What is unequal about that? I don’t know if this will make sense given the oddness of your even having to ask this question, but women in such meetings are both outnumbered and more importantly explicitly presided over by the priesthood leaders. If they’re “often tasked with crucial responsibilities,” it’s because priesthood leaders are making those decisions. The men are running the meeting. The women are participating only as much as the men presiding allow them to. What exactly is equal about that?

    Also, consider the highest councils of the Church, where policies and doctrines are decided on. How many women are even permitted to attend such meetings? Claiming that all these other things you can add up where women do get to participate some nonzero amount somehow equalizes the men running the Church completely at the highest level and almost completely at the local level is disingenuous in the extreme.

  • ji

    I’m a man, but I am not permitted to attend the meetings or make the decisions Ziff talks about. Sex is not the issue — it’s calling. If sex were the issue, then I should be making all sorts of decisions and controlling the women around me. But it isn’t a matter of sex; it’s a matter of calling — and we don’t make demands about our callings. Around me where I live, far from the center place, all the men and women work together, according to their desire and ability, to build the Lord’s kingdom and to serve each other. It’s beautiful.

    • http://www.zelophehadsdaughters.com Kiskilili

      “Sex is not the issue — it’s calling. If sex were the issue, then I should be making all sorts of decisions and controlling the women around me.”

      I would argue that the situation is multidimensional, and both sex and calling are at issue. You’ve framed the discussion as if sex is an irrelevant factor in calling members to leadership positions. In fact, virtually all of the most visible and authoritative positions in the church are held by men—not because men happen to have been called in every case, but because there are policies in place making women ineligible for such positions. Not every man has to be in a position of power for all the positions of power to be filled—systematically—by men.

      The next prophet may happen to be Boyd Packer (this is the calling dimension). But he will most definitely be male (this is the sex dimension); no female in the world is eligible for such a role. What this means, among other things, is that men represent both men and women and both men and women confess to men.

      Now you can argue that sex is entirely irrelevant to the situation, that the sex of the people called simply shouldn’t matter. But this is an argument in favor of women’s eligibility for high office in the church, not an argument against it.

  • http://zelophehadsdaughters.com Lynnette

    It honestly surprises me that it’s even a controversial proposition to assert that there is institutional inequality in the church. We can certainly discuss whether or not it’s a negative thing; I realize that there are differing opinions about that. But the reality is that the institutional church is primarily run by men. The fact that there are ways in which women participate doesn’t change that.

  • http://zelophehadsdaughters.com/ Ziff

    It’s not sex, it’s calling? But didn’t you notice that sex and calling are correlated? Here, allow me to make a small chart:

    …………………………Calling type: Level of presiding
    ……….None…..Less than ward…..Ward/stake…..Area…..Whole Church
    Sex
    Female…>>0………>0………………0………………….0……………..0
    Male……>0……….>0………………>0………………..>0…………….>0

    Do you see those zeros on the “female” line? No women preside over organizations at the ward level or higher. None! Ze-ro! The question isn’t whether there are some circumstances where women and men serve side by side. The question is whether women lead in the Church, and the answer is that pretty much they don’t. Sure, they technically do at the lowest levels, and I think Heidi’s point was that the Church PR statement is overly focused on this, but the reality is that at the levels of real decision-making, women have zero say. None at all! You can rhapsodize all you want about how beautiful it is that women are serving side by side with men where you are. It’s not going to change the reality that they’re serving side by side in a church run by men.

  • John D.

    Curious– how many of the commenters here, expressing dissent against Harris’ point about institutional inequality, are men?

    I think…all of them.

    How many are women?

    I think…none of them.

    Perhaps this is because all the women-readers see nothing incorrect about the fact that there is institutional inequality in the church and they agree that the PR department is trying to spin our terminology to appear more equal and “forward thinking” than we really are.

    In fact, I believe that the only female commenters here have unanimously supported Harris’ point.

    So, let’s think about that.


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