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.
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.