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.