Mormon Site Muzzles Members

May 21, 2010 | 34 comments
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ST. GEORGE–AP–August 10, 2010– Verna Watkins sits on her threadbare couch clutching a wrinkled tissue. Between sobs, she says, “I consider it the most sacred spiritual experience of my life . . . when the Three Nephites–divine beings–helped me change the tire on my Suburban. I spent two hours writing the story up to post to my Church’s website, and later I found out that they wouldn’t approve it. My own Church rejected the event most important to my faith.”

Ms. Watkins is one of many members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints–commonly known as Mormons–who feels betrayed by their church after it launched a website earlier this summer, but then took it down after only two months. While LDS Church Public Relations officials claimed that the site was removed in anticipation of a redesign, many Church members felt that the real problem was that the website solicited personal religious feelings–what Mormons call a “testimony”–as well as statements on doctrinal matters. When these poured in, Church leaders were overwhelmed by unorthodox material and left with a dilemma: either permit the unapproved material, which violates what they consider their obligation to “keep the doctrine pure,” or disallow their own members’ beliefs. Many Mormons felt betrayed when told by their Church that their beliefs were not approved.

As one BYU sociology professor explained, “Mormons are allowed a lot of leeway in their personal beliefs, as long as they do not teach or publish unorthodox material. But what this unfortunate web experiment did was allow members to say anything and then require the Church to give their statement a ‘thumbs up’ or ‘thumbs down.’ Sweet little old grandmothers were shocked to find out that their beliefs were not acceptable to the Church. I don’t think the Church anticipated the kinds of problems that we ended up having.”

One of those “problems” was Jared Warner, a young Mormon living in Chicago. One of the questions that the Mormon website asked its members to answer was, “What is the Church’s attitude on homosexuality?” Mr. Warner wrote movingly and at length about his own struggles with homosexuality in a Church that does not permit it. He says, “The Church wouldn’t approve my statement. And all I said was that I one-hundred-percent follow Church doctrine–I’m completely celibate despite these desires. And I believe in the Church. But they wouldn’t allow it. I feel, well, rejected.”

One Mormon teen made a comment about her mother drinking a Pepsi. That mother was a local Relief Society President–the Mormon womens’ organization head. The next week, several members of her congregation went to the bishop and told him that they could no longer support a leader who did not follow the Church’s dietary code, the Word of Wisdom, which many–but not all–members believe prohibits caffeinated beverages. Several other LDS have reported on their blogs that the Church refused to approve their profiles due to references to caffeinated beverages, suggesting that the vetting process is inconsistent.

The website has also become a veritable playground for anti-Mormons. A frequent tactic is to create an account using the information of a disaffected member and then use that account to submit a statement, without attribution, from a prominent Church leader. A common one is to answer the question on the website, “Why did your Church practice polygamy?” with the statement from Mormon Prophet Brigham Young: “The only men who become Gods, even the sons of God, are those who enter into polygamy” without citing the source. The statement is never approved, and the poster puts a screen shot on his or her own blog and claims that the modern LDS Church is so embarrassed by its roots that it will not permit the words of a prophet on its own website. Some Mormons have been upset that what they consider “folk doctrine” about such topics as blacks and women and the priesthood (blacks were not ordained Mormon priests until 1978; women still are not) is perpetuated by members who answer these questions in their profiles with speculative statements. Melissa Dougs, a “Mormon Mommy blogger,” reports that “rebuttal testimonies have become a Fast Sunday staple as members of my ward respond to statements in each others’ profiles about womens’ roles. I’ve never seen anything like it. Someone always leaves in tears. Some don’t come back.”

Another problem is that of prominent members. One Church employee who did not wish to be named stated that one full-time employee did nothing but answer phone calls and email complaints related solely to the mormon.org profile of Glenn Beck, particularly his answer to the question “Does the Mormon Church endorse political parties?” In several elections in areas with high LDS populations, candidates’ profile page–or lack thereof–has become an hot political issue. There are several pending court cases using the profiles as evidence for revoking the Church’s tax-exempt status as a nonpartisan religious organization. There has also been criticism of Mormons who have used their profile as a means to promote their business enterprise, usually by telling “faith-promoting stories” that involve their product or service, especially such LDS-specific items such as food storage or Bible study aids.

Julie M. Smith, a blogger with the Mormon website Times & Seasons, said, “I think there has been an assumption of a high degree of unity among the Saints, who have usually been hesitant to discuss their unorthodox beliefs in public. Blogs changed that, and members were emboldened when they found out that they weren’t the only one who thought, for example, that the Scouting program was too resource-intensive. As more members were invited to share divergent beliefs on the new mormon.org site, dissension came out in the open and grew exponentially. It got really nasty in some areas, with a lot of anger directed toward the Church. I’m not sure why the Church ever thought it was a workable idea to offer a nihil obstat to member statements on the most sensitive, speculative issues that Mormons face. If the Church doesn’t allow them, people are hurt. If they do allow them, they get slammed for permitting false doctrine. It is really a no-win situation.” She pointed to lengthy blog discussions parsing what exactly was and was not allowed in a profile: apparently, vague references to rejection of fundamental Mormon tenets are often approved, but specific references are not. General references to angels were permitted, but the angel could not be referred to by a name. No visions could be shared, and only miracles that did not involve raising the dead could be included. Vetters were inconsistent as to whether references to what Mormons call the Mother in Heaven were allowable, which led to anger among Mormon feminists. Traditionally-minded Saints were horrified to see references to people having dinner parties on the Sabbath and to working women. “I think we became Pharisees over these vetting policies, very angry Pharisees.”

The Church had initially claimed in its roll-out that the website would “revolutionize” missionary work. Instead, the brief Mormon experiment with approving–and disapproving–the thoughts and doctrinal interpretations of hundreds of thousands of its members appears to have ended. The Mormon Church pulled the site last Wednesday.

34 Responses to Mormon Site Muzzles Members

  1. Coffinberry on May 22, 2010 at 12:31 am

    (giggle)… a very funny send up of exactly what I worried about when I first saw all the suggested “FAQ” questions to answer!

  2. CS Eric on May 22, 2010 at 12:31 am

    Gee, Julie. I was just getting started on my profile, and now I learn that the site is getting shut down in a couple of months anyway. I’m not sure I’ll even bother now.

  3. Joseph Smidt on May 22, 2010 at 12:34 am

    Very interesting article. I can see the tricky predicament the Church is in. The Church wants members to bear heartfelt personal testimony but many of our testimonies are a little to controversial for the church to endorse.

    But this goes to show that, even when it comes to missionary work, the church has to do as much experimenting to find what works as any organization.

  4. DavidC on May 22, 2010 at 12:35 am

    AP August 10, 2010? Three months from now? … so the Three Nephites didn’t help someone change their tire?

  5. MoHoHawaii on May 22, 2010 at 1:59 am

    The Church should raise the bar by making the Web site an essay contest with hundreds (but not tens of thousands) of winners. Church reviewers could then select the essays that best meet the Church’s PR goals. People whose essays didn’t win would not feel rejected.

    Online social networking (incl. blogging) is inherently chaotic. It can’t be harnessed for corporate PR. I find it fascinating that the Church has fundamentally misunderstood the medium.

  6. Carl Youngblood on May 22, 2010 at 2:45 am

    OK, so this is just your prediction of the problems that the church is going to have?

  7. brent on May 22, 2010 at 8:14 am

    Wow, this is pretty good satire. I was thinking, “The AP is gonna sue for posting the entire article.”

    Then I saw the comments on the article’s date, and I realized…pretty good satire. BYU Sociology professor not cited by name, website not mentioned by name…the nail in the coffin was the Pepsi-drinking RS prez. Heh heh. Lengthy quote from blog post author…it all makes sense now.

    Good one, Julie!

  8. buraianto on May 22, 2010 at 9:20 am

    It’s a tough position some of us are in, apparently. We may see a train wreck coming. But do we want to be discouraging to the Church (organization)? Is this not a good thing, to allow individual members to share their experiences in a wider way, and to officially sponsor a more individualized face to a Church?

    What would be a better course for the Church to take?

  9. H. Ross on May 22, 2010 at 10:08 am

    Good thing, I double-checked before posting. This is really good satire, I completely believe it! Regardless, I still want to post that lots of members have weird ideas.

  10. Julie M. Smith on May 22, 2010 at 10:14 am

    buraianto, those are good questions. I think MoHoHawaii’s suggestion would be workable and would avoid the enormous problems that come from what amounts to crowdsourcing our doctrine and policies.

    All: yes, this is satire. But, just to be clear, it is satire of a real plan. See this:

    http://bycommonconsent.com/2010/05/21/you-oughta-be-in-pictures/

  11. Logan on May 22, 2010 at 10:27 am

    I don’t think this is entirely fair.
    For one, you only put part of your name, and no specific location. There’s not going to be a way to lookup my relief society president on there.
    The other thing is, this isnt a social networking site. It’s not even a site for members of the Church. It’s an official church site, so of course they’re going to want only official church doctrine. People have forum’s like these to discuss those types of things. I think its entirely appropriate to filter what goes in. “Heavenly Mother” isn’t the missionaries 1st discussion.

  12. Lupita on May 22, 2010 at 10:37 am

    LOL. Well done, Julie

  13. Julie M. Smith on May 22, 2010 at 10:40 am

    “There’s not going to be a way to lookup my relief society president on there.”

    Google search by first name and then pick her photo out of the lineup. Or just follow the link from her Facebook page. :)

    “It’s an official church site, so of course they’re going to want only official church doctrine.”

    Which is why I cannot for the life of me figure out why they are asking random members to answer questions about polygamy, grace, blacks and the priesthood, political neutrality, abortion, and why women don’t have the priesthood.

  14. Martin on May 22, 2010 at 11:01 am

    Julie, excellent post. I think those who came up with the idea anticipated the problems you suggested and decided to go for it anyway. I think they figure people such as an angry feminist Mormon who still claims a strong testimony will still come out as a plus. Where I think it’s going to be tricky is when the senior apostles decide things are spinning out of control.

    Personally, if the vetters are trained not to be too rigid, I think this has great potential for missionary work. Probably better than anything else we’ve got going.

  15. Logan on May 22, 2010 at 11:31 am

    I think its going to come down to whether people choose to be offended or not. Obviously not everything everyone wants to say is going to get put up there. People have to recognize that their viewpoints are not always the official stance of the Church. And people visiting mormon.org are there to learn about the official doctrines of the Church. In my opinion, I think we’ll find that they are a little more open than you might think, I don’t think they’re expecting everyone to copy and paste from the Gospel Principles manual.

  16. MoHoHawaii on May 22, 2010 at 12:45 pm

    I like the corporate IT angle of this initiative. Your page on Mormon-dot-org uses your LDS membership number as its user id. Therefore, it links you to official Church records.

    The Church will be able to automatically track site usage by ward, stake and area. Leaders could easily be given numeric goals for the statistics of the members in their units. Bishops and stake presidents could be given their own Web portals that let them review the pages created by members in their units. Etc. Etc.

    Internal reports could correlate usage statistics from the site with temple attendance, financial donations and a host of other things that the Church tracks on a per-member basis. No one has mentioned this, but the data mining opportunity is real.

    It will be interesting to see where the Church goes with this. Unfortunately, my guess is that it will be kept very, very quiet.

    And, of course, the site is self-cleaning. The computer record of any Church discipline can automatically purge your public testimony. :- )

  17. Mike S on May 22, 2010 at 1:00 pm

    #16:

    This sounds like Big Brother watching over my shoulder – if they actually do all of that. No way am I going to put anything on that site.

  18. DavidH on May 22, 2010 at 1:36 pm

    In some way the site simply institutionalizes and makes public the chaos of the open mike at testimony meeting at the 30,000 or so Mormon congregations each fast Sunday. Or for that matter the speculation of comments made (in those LDS classes where the teachers are not simply lecturers) Sunday School or YM/YW/RS/PH meetings. It is rare for a bishop to interrupt an inappropriate testimony, but it does happen in extreme cases. (I have seen it maybe once or twice in my 54 years on the planet, and it was quite indirect–a tap on the shoulder or passing a note that “it is time to wrap up”).

  19. z on May 22, 2010 at 1:49 pm

    Hilarious. Then of course there are the real doctrines the hierarchy does not want acknowledge– Chicken Patriarchy anyone?

  20. Bob on May 22, 2010 at 9:28 pm

    But wait! Call now and we will send you__not one__But TWO missionaries! It works everytime.

  21. Para N. Oiya on May 23, 2010 at 10:44 am

    13 Comment: “It’s an official church site, so of course they’re going to want only official church doctrine.”

    13 Response: “Which is why I cannot for the life of me figure out why they are asking random members to answer questions about polygamy, grace, blacks and the priesthood, political neutrality, abortion, and why women don’t have the priesthood.”

    Maybe the purpose is to see how well the new RS/EQ gospel doctrine curriculum is being absorbed by the members. Depending on the site submissions, correlation could be tasked with a variety of new chapters for Gospel Doctrine: Book 2.

    Maybe it’s more an assessment of the member’s understanding than it is a missionary tool. Now “THEY” know what we are saying out here. I’m getting the giggles just thinking about the possible chapter titles. (BIG jk) (Ginorm jk)

  22. queuno on May 23, 2010 at 11:05 am

    Elder Holland is looking for inspiration for the next 20 years of GC talks, by addressing what he thinks the members don’t understand very well.

  23. Derrick on May 23, 2010 at 12:48 pm

    I wonder what people will think of this post on August 11, 2010 when someone finds it here and is even more convinced it’s real.

  24. WillF on May 23, 2010 at 4:11 pm

    One of the answers I gave to a question on the profile was rejected because my answer was too short. To me it looked like an automated rejection – something that came up because my answer was under a certain number of characters for example, but maybe it was from a real editor.

    I was kind of relieved because I was having second thoughts about posting my profile.

  25. danithew on May 23, 2010 at 5:47 pm

    When I was first reading this I thought it was a real article.

    A few days ago I logged onto the site – but the nature of it didn’t quite work for me. Then again, this was the first time I thought about it and saw the kinds of questions/openings they left.

  26. DS on May 24, 2010 at 9:16 am

    So the old guard finally tries innovation and you’re already predicting failure?

    There are a million other things that deserve to be made fun of in the church; actually trying something new instead of repeating the same lines should be cheered.

  27. annegb on May 24, 2010 at 9:47 am

    Pretty funny. Sure reflects a lot of my experience here in southern Utah.

    Except the reference to caffeine. For many women here, getting their 100 oz diet pepsi refill twice a day is PART of being an active Mormon woman.

  28. Raymond Takashi Swenson on May 24, 2010 at 12:32 pm

    I guess this is an opportunity to find out whether Julie has the gift of prophecy. She should definitiely revisit this question in Mid-August and give us a report on how it is working out in reality.

    Actually, I think Julie should turn this idea into a full-fledged story, complete with examples of the kinds of postings that show up. Her outline shows it could become a novel like “Paradise Vue” and the other humorous stories that invite Mormons to laugh at ourselves.

    The site in question is certainly self-contradictory, in that it asks members posting not to provide identifying details about their last names and home towns, but then makes all that unnecessary by offering to link the posts to Facebook, where all of that information is out in the open.

  29. WJ on May 24, 2010 at 12:42 pm

    “Maybe it’s more an assessment of the member’s understanding than it is a missionary tool. Now “THEY” know what we are saying out here.”

    My thoughts exactly. Perhaps they wanted to confirm the ubiquitous absurdities so often found in the bloggernaccle.

    “Elder Holland is looking for inspiration for the next 20 years of GC talks, by addressing what he thinks the members don’t understand very well.”

    I certainly hope so. We might have to start holding general conferences monthly. Two doses of pure doctrine a year might not be enough to stem the tide.

  30. Brad Dennis on May 24, 2010 at 5:29 pm

    Interesting post. I like the idea that the website may have been a way for the First Presidency and the 12 to gauge what the members think and believe. Of course those who do post reflect only a small demographic. But it goes without saying that the church, because of the ease of accessing information, will face challenging times ahead, and it may have to face the fact that, like in many other religions, its faithfuls’ ideas and opinions are becoming increasingly diversified to a somewhat uncontainable extent. Folklore stories of the Three Nephites and near death experiences may not be seen too kindly by the church leaders, but these beliefs will certainly stay for some time to come. On the flip side there are an emerging liberal Mormon identity that is becoming popular in academic and professional circles, which may tend to challenge many conventional beliefs about scripture, doctrine, and its application, while maintaining activity in the church. This is also probably not too well received by the twelve.

  31. Paradox on May 25, 2010 at 6:38 am

    These efforts, paired with the fact that the current lesson manual is Gospel Principles, is interesting to me.

    It looks more to me that there is an important outreach effort here, but it’s not just to non-Mormon publics that will be reading the profiles.

    It’s to us as Saints, who need to be using the internet to spread the gospel instead of shooting the breeze with each other all the time.

    The basic message here is that they want us to start becoming better member missionaries. They’re giving us a tool that will help them help us. They want us to think about our answers to these specific questions because these are the things that non-members want to know.

    I’m a product of member missionary work, so of course I think this is the coolest thing ever. I can’t wait to see how it plays out.

  32. Flat Lander on May 25, 2010 at 9:33 pm

    I always enjoyed a good “Three Nephites” story. I think stories are a most powerful way of sharing persuasive information, and I think even off-beat or unorthodox stories (e.g. “An Angel Shared His Meatloaf Recipe With Me”) could be very useful. At least initially, I strongly suspect that the primary LDS users of the website will be those sometimes called Internet Mormons (who some suggest have a more sophisticated and nuanced view of Mormonism) rather than the so-called Chapel Mormons. That being said, I doubt it will have much negative impact on testimonies.

  33. Emily on June 2, 2010 at 6:14 am

    I always enjoyed a good “Three Nephites” story. I think stories are a most powerful way of sharing persuasive information, and I think even off-beat or unorthodox stories (e.g. “An Angel Shared His Meatloaf Recipe With Me”) could be very useful. At least initially, I strongly suspect that the primary LDS users of the website will be those sometimes called Internet Mormons (who some suggest have a more sophisticated and nuanced view of Mormonism) rather than the so-called Chapel Mormons. That being said, I doubt it will have much negative impact on testimonies.

  34. Bill of Wasilla on June 3, 2010 at 11:22 am

    The ultimate Mormon Catch 22.

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