Michael Otterson Mormon PR Boss

 

Michael Otterson, LDS Spokesman, presented a speech at UVU titled “Mormonism and the Art of Boundary Maintenance,” (full transcript) on Tuesday, April 12, 2016.  This is relevant to New Mormonism / Sacramental Paradigm Mormonism as it relates to how big the tent is for LDS, and whether views as expressed on this blog can be acceptable within the church.  I believe/hope it’s a big tent, and that the Church will be more and more accommodating for views like mine.

 

First, let’s address the question of whether it’s appropriate for the LDS Church to have a professional public relations manager speak for the church in these situations.  Many critics of the church like to make fun of the church, using terms like “President Newsroom”, suggesting that a church shouldn’t operate this way.  The claim that since the church has a prophet and apostles, they should speak for the church always.  The church is an organization with 15M+ members, with $50B+ in real estate and other assets, with 30,000 branches/wards, operating in 160 countries in 180 different languages.  Some criticize that, but I think that kind of organizational strength is a huge asset in enabling the church and its members to get involved in critical issues in the world (like the new initiative with refugees) and be a force for good in the world.  To criticize the church for communicating in the way it does now, utilizing a professional PR Spokesman, is either coming from a petty, unfair perspective or a perspective that is naive about how large organizations work.

 

So, here are block quotes from Otterson’s presentation that I think are particularly relevant to this blog site, separated with a little bit of my commentary.

 

On the church’s new efforts to become more transparent:

So too will the relationships that are developing with academics. The Joseph Smith Papers Project has been much acclaimed, and rightly so. Many boundary-expanding steps have been taken in the process leading to publication—directly and indirectly. Coming as I did to Salt Lake City to live in 1991, it was noteworthy to me how much more often Brigham Young was cited and referenced in mass media in comparison with Joseph Smith, the founding prophet of the Restoration. Perhaps that was natural in this city and state where Brigham’s presence was so manifest, but I had noted the same phenomenon elsewhere in the world. We can no longer say today, however, that Brigham eclipses Joseph. In 2005, for example, the Library of Congress hosted “The Worlds of Joseph Smith,” a conference featuring both LDS and non-LDS scholars. Since then, both the Public Affairs Department and especially the Church History Department have reached out to academics, hosting them at the Church History Library, touring Church venues in Salt Lake City, meeting with Church leaders, and presenting papers and leading discussions about their work. Outreach to scholars has ranged from historians like John Turner at George Mason University to leading sociologists like Nancy Ammerman at Boston University and to Marla F. Frederick, professor of African and African-American studies and the study of religion at Harvard.

 

Otterson talks about the outreach the church has made with academics recently and then goes into some details about this new level of transparency.

 

These relationships with academics are part of what has been described by the Washington Post and the Associated Press as “a new era of transparency.” For at least a dozen years that word has been used with increasing frequency and favorability in conversations between different Church departments and among Church leaders. Like many institutions, from business to government to religion to law enforcement to media and a host of other areas, the Church has not found the transition to greater transparency a particularly easy one. Nevertheless, we have seen:

  • The creation of The Church Historian’s Press in 2008.
  • The previously mentioned Joseph Smith Papers Project and ongoing publications, now at 12 volumes, the first published in 2008.
  • The opening of the state-of-the-art Church History Library and archives in 2009.
  • The Gospel Topics pages published on LDS.org, whose significance is reflected in titles such as “Race and the Priesthood,” “Plural Marriage in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,” “Book of Mormon and DNA Studies,” “Becoming Like God,” “Plural Marriage” (in the Nauvoo period), and most recently, “Joseph Smith’s Teachings about Priesthood, Temple, and Women.”
  • The redesigned Church History Museum that includes in the gallery space Joseph Smith’s different accounts of the First Vision.
  • And just published, The First Fifty Years of Relief Society: Key Documents in Latter-day Saint Women’s History.

 

The bolded portion was the main quote that prompted me to want to blog on this speech.  I hear humility.  I hear an apology.  I honestly was moved to being a little emotional over this the first time I read this.  My faith crisis/journey has been very difficult and painful.  I do blame the church for a lot of it.  I hear this as an “I’m sorry, we’re trying to do better”.  I’ll take it.  Thank you.

He then talks about how many are using the word “betrayal” as it relates to this issue of transparency and church and offers a parable to illustrate the problem.

And now I want to introduce another word that is sometimes used alongside transparency. I think it’s an extreme word, but it’s one that has gained some currency among the disaffected. That word is “betrayal.”

Perhaps the best way to contextualize it is in a kind of parable. Brother and Sister Brown are third-generation Mormons, active in the faith, possibly living in the Intermountain West, raised in the best tradition of Latter-day Saint families. One day, not in church, they come across something they never heard in Sunday School. For the sake of this discussion, let’s say they learn that Joseph Smith shared several different accounts of the First Vision, some of them differing in significant details. Surprised and somewhat puzzled, they go to the Internet to learn more, whereupon they discover anti-Church materials that raise all kinds of questions. Perhaps Brother and Sister Brown ask other members about the issue, but they meet mostly blank looks or shrugs, because other members either don’t know about these issues or may not even seem to care very much. Now the Browns start to feel they have discovered something important. They conclude they and earlier generations have been lied to, and we start to hear the word “betrayal,” because those same websites are going to tell them that Church leaders deliberately kept these facts from them. Shaken, Brother and Sister Brown leave the Church. In the wake of that decision, family members still faithful to the Church may have their own sense of betrayal—that a family member has rejected part of their core identity as a family.

I don’t know how common this situation is. It may be less common or more common than any of us think. Either way, it’s tragic. Hence, the subject belongs in our conversation today about boundaries.

Very interesting. The church knows this is happening.  I say this is not a parable.  This is an actual event that’s taking place over and over through the church occurring more and more frequently.

 

Some critics accuse Church leaders of deliberately painting a false picture of Church history and doctrine, all the time knowing that they were deceiving Church members. The imposed boundary, they say, was complete orthodoxy with no exploration allowed. Every historical story was painted with faith-promoting care regardless of any nuances or contradictory facts. It was as if the writers of Church curriculum were the literary equivalent of Arnold Friberg’s paintings—just a little too perfect, with a dash of exaggeration. And it was all done deliberately to deceive.

You would expect me as a Church spokesman to reject those claims, and I do. But I want to go further and reject it wholly, utterly, and irrevocably because I simply do not believe it and it does not square with my personal experience about how Church leaders think and act and what motivates them.

I am a convert to the Church. Before becoming a member, I read extensively—everything I could find, including books from highly biased authors like Dr. Walter Martin’s absurdly named Kingdom of the Cults to much more even-handed treatments that raised questions worthy of study.

Perhaps because of that period of careful evaluation before joining the Church, such topics as the multiple accounts of the First Vision were not new to me. They were certainly not new to Church scholars, either, and such publications as BYU Studies and even the Improvement Era,later renamed the Ensign, and the Ensign itself in January 1985 addressed these and many other topics in some frank detail over many years.

I admit to being initially somewhat dismissive of criticisms that such issues were not the common fare of standard Sunday School curriculum. After all, Church leaders have long emphasized personal study—Harold B. Lee is reported to have said to Church members: “We would remind you that the acquiring of knowledge by faith is no easy road to learning. It demands strenuous effort and a continual striving by faith. … In short, learning by faith is no task for a lazy man [or woman]. … Such a process requires the bending of the whole soul, the calling up of the depths of the human mind and linking it with God.”

After I felt warm and fuzzy about Otterson acknowledging the church’s desire and difficult in becoming more transparent, this kind of tweaked me.  When I started in on a faith crisis in the mid 2000’s, I was met by Mormon Apologists giving me this same line of logic.  It wasn’t fair then and it still isn’t today.  The church is definitely guilty in the past of portraying a very idealized history and discouraging members from seeking out alternative views, labeling them anti-Mormon even when they were sometimes more accurate than the church’s version.  The church has a past of suppressing information and disciplining scholars.  I believe the church has moved out of this phase.  As Otterson explained, this is the “new era of transparency”.  But it hasn’t always been like that.  And this blaming the victims thing has got to go as well.

 

I later repented of my dismissive attitude, however.  In reality the vast majority of members learn gospel doctrine at home when they are growing up, or in seminary and in the three-hour block. While many also read beyond curriculum-based lessons, most are more likely to seek inspirational or motivational works by favored writers than delve into the complexities of Church history and doctrine. Church leaders, and those charged with developing and writing curriculum for lessons in church, were writing in order to motivate and inspire. Teachers wanted their youth and adult classes to leave at the end of the lesson fortified and motivated to tackle another week outside of church. The three-hour block was never intended to be a course deep in Church history and doctrine. Students interested in those subjects could always find scholarly works if they wanted.

This is better.  But it still is missing the element that the church created an environment where it was considered taboo to check church facts through unapproved (Anti-Mormon) sources.

With the advent of the Internet and the arrival of a generation that is wired 24/7, that no longer suffices and even seems superficial. Members now Google terms and topics on their smartphones while they are sitting in class. I do that myself. But the realization by Church leaders that they needed to substantially strengthen and deepen Church curriculum and introduce better resource materials was a natural evolution as audience needs, interests, and study habits changed. Responding gradually to these changing needs is a very long way from betrayal.

Just a few weeks ago, Elder M. Russell Ballard said this to religious educators gathered in the Salt Lake Tabernacle:

“Gone are the days when a student asked an honest question and a teacher responded, ‘Don’t worry about it!’ Gone are the days when a student raised a sincere concern and a teacher bore his or her testimony as a response intended to avoid the issue. … Mostly, our young people lived a sheltered life. … Our curriculum at that time, though well-meaning, did not prepare students for today—a day when students have instant access to virtually everything about the Church from every possible point of view.”

This is fabulous.  Let’s do more of this.

Elder Ballard went on to explain that the Board of Education recently approved an initiative in seminary called Doctrinal Mastery, focusing on building and strengthening students’ faith in Jesus Christ. And Elder Ballard encouraged teachers to utilize resources like the Gospel Topics essays and other substantial works so they become much more familiar and comfortable with these sometimes-controversial issues.

The boundaries for classroom and personal study, then, have clearly expanded. But study in Church classrooms or seminary classes is not simply for study’s sake, or for the acquisition of knowledge and insight divorced from obedience to God’s commandments. It is also “study by faith,” and the objective for faithful Latter-day Saints is to strengthen their commitment to covenants and a faithful life. Whatever personal interviews follow this mortal life, I am persuaded that the most important question will not be, “How much do you know?” but “How did you live?”

I like this shift to orthopraxy (right doing) from orthodoxy (right believing).  This is where I believe we need to go.  Let’s reduce the set of doctrinal statements we hold to with certainty, be OK with uncertainty on the rest, and focus on how Mormonism encourages us to act.  The can of worms that is the historical issues we’re dealing is forcing us into that, but it’s actually not a bad place to be.

Moreover, words like “betrayal” and “boundaries” can be highly subjective, especially when we use them to seek validation for our own biases. How much of our listening is to reinforce our own settled conclusions or bias? If that’s all we do, we have established our own mental boundaries that are just as rigid as those found in any institution.

Agree to some extent.  But let’s be real, the church has reinforced this in the past.  I’m going to take Otterson’s words at face value and trust that the church is moving away from doing this.

 

He then shifts the conversation to a debate about how US, especially intermountain West, is focused on certain issues in the topic of boundaries, while the rest of the international church is focused on different issues.  Thus, it’s challenging for the church to respond appropriately taking care of the needs of the entire church.

 

How does this principle-based, often delicate act of balancing competing interests come into play with our own members? During the 2012 election campaign, we repeatedly told journalists who tried to shoehorn the Church into the right wing of electoral politics that the Church was a big tent. That is certainly true. I have said elsewhere that we in Utah sometimes have a myopic view of Church members and their political ideology. If you truly understand the diversity of the global LDS membership, you will know that we have members living under a multitude of political regimes. We live under a dizzying array of political structures and rules—Vietnam and Venezuela, Canada and Cuba, Scandinavia and Swaziland, China and the Congo.

A few months ago I received a Facebook message from a nephew of mine living in Sydney, Australia, a fully active member of the Church, a returned missionary and parent. He happened to listen on the web to an address I gave at the FairMormon conference last year and wrote the following: “It seems that in the U.S. many members are concerned with ‘issues’ that members here don’t even give a thought or care about.”

This is probably true and gives good insight into the church’s challenges of balancing a global membership.

 

Over the past year or two, some inside and outside the Church have spent a lot of time and a lot of blogging space to draw attention to what they feel are gender inequalities in the Church. Some have gone so far as to claim credit for such recent changes as women now offering prayers in general conference or pictures of women leaders now displayed in the Conference Center. I won’t spend any time on that. Let me be clear: I’m personally encouraged to see those changes, and I assume in the normal course of events we will see other such initiatives as the male and female leadership of the Church continue to discuss this topic.

 

Cool. It’s interesting to get insight into the Church’s leadership that female equality issues have been an area of focus.  It’s great to see the progress.  And it’s great to hear Otterson expressing desire to be more progressive in the future on this.  I look forward to this.

 

But such incremental changes are dwarfed by the significance of what we have seen in the past couple of weeks—something so much more grand in scope and more profound in its implications for women in the Church. This picture from the New Yorker illustrates my point.

According to the UN high commissioner for refugees, there are now 60 million displaced persons in the world—that is one in every 122 people. In 2014, 42,500 people became refugees, sought asylum, or were displaced from their homes every single day. This is a global catastrophe unparalleled since records began. And half of all refugees are children.

Quietly but determinedly behind the scenes, the presidency of the Relief Society and presidency members from the Primary and Young Women have been working in consultation with the General Authorities to determine how to help women of the Church harness their enormous potential to do good and to channel it in ways consistent with the teachings of the Savior.

I’m excited to see how this refugees things is going to play out.  Elder Kearon’s talk made me proud to be a Mormon, and I hope we do something big on this.  But it’s kind of odd he seems to use this issue to overshadow the female equality discussion.  hmm…

 

We all know that in the heat of an election campaign we see extremes and distortion. But we are well beyond that election now, and public opinion has moved in favor of gay marriage. So how do we then explain why the “hate” word continues to be leveled against the Church by some LGBT advocates, gay media, and allies? I know from my interactions with LDS educators that even some of our own young people have accepted that propaganda and ask why we “hate gays.” I want to challenge that particular interpretation of history and the ongoing distortions of the Church’s position.

Moreover, the Church made it clear that its opposition was based on unwanted changes to the nature and definition of marriage, not because of hostility to LGBT rights in general. It specifically said so: “The Church does not object to rights, including hospitalization and medical care, fair housing and employment rights, or probate rights, as long as these do not infringe on the integrity of the family or the constitutional rights of churches and their adherents to administer and practice their religion free from government interference.”

My point—if it is still unclear—is that the boundaries for the Church on LGBT issues are doctrinal, rooted in our understanding of God’s law of chastity, the purpose of marriage, the ultimate purpose of life itself, and human destiny. Hatred of any person or group should, on its face, be anathema to anyone claiming to be a Latter-day Saint.

We can all recognize that the way things were said in the 1950s differed from the 60s, and differ even more from today. I think we have to acknowledge that as society’s understanding of LGBT issues has expanded, so has the use of more inclusive language and greater sensitivity to the struggle which many LGBT people have, particularly in religious communities.  But we should also recognize that there is a difference between not excluding or ostracizing people and making fundamental changes in doctrine. As the much-discussed handbook should make clear, the doctrine of the Church in relation to sexual morality—that sex is proper only between a married man and a woman—has not changed and there is no sign whatsoever that it will change in the future.

What has changed, and needs to continue to change, is our attitude, language, and actions toward those of our own membership who are attracted to people of the same sex and who want with all their hearts to remain faithful to Church covenants and the law of chastity. Many will be criticized from outside the Church, and even from some inside as well, for doing so. But for those who make that choice, how can we help them navigate their lives with love, support, and encouragement.

A lot of talk here to convince us that the Church doesn’t hate gays.  I don’t believe the Church hates gays.  But I certainly understand why people think that.  And I don’t think it’s 100% due to LGBT advocates or the church’s enemies distorting our position.  People, both members and non-LDS, look at an issue and have an ability to form an opinion for themselves whether they believe there is an element of homophobia or hate or backwardsness in it.

 

Finally, there was a great comment in the Q & A made in a response to a question by Kate Kelly.

People aren’t punished for opinions, and I think there is a significant degree of misunderstanding. Having opinions, even about whether women should hold the priesthood, is certainly within the purview of any member of the church. However, when those opinions transfer into advocacy or lobbying, particularly when they’re clearly lobbying against what has been declared as clear doctrine by church leaders, that crosses a line, and in a few cases, and you (addressing Kate Kelly) mentioned your own case, in a few cases that has led to a disciplinary council.

 

This has been a hot topic with the upcoming disciplinary court for Jeremy Runnells and also with Elder Oaks addressing the topic of opposition in conference.  Otterson restates the position that people do not get excommunicated for asking questions or for disagreeing with the church.  The church does put a boundary on lobbying against the church.

 

All in all, I was pleased with this talk.  I think it was a win for New Mormonism.  I thought it gave good insights into the church’s thinking on a few important topics.  It helped me understand the difficulty of the job of the brethren, moving us forward while keeping everything together.  I sustain the brethren.  I don’t agree with everything, but I view them optimistically, and I believe they are doing the best they can.

 

 

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