Media sources including the LDS Newsroom have recently engaged in or supported an unfortunate attack on LDS writer Joanna Brooks. Brooks, a professor at San Diego State University, wrote at Religion Dispatches last month about Mitch Mayne:
In LDS communities, where lay congregational leaders have positions analogous to those of priests, pastors, and rabbis, news of Mayne’s calling is having an impact, revealing continuing divisions among Mormons and questions about evolving Mormon views on homosexuality.
There is, in fact, no consensus Mormon view on homosexuality. While most Mormons view homosexual sexual activity as a sin, Church leaders have expressed divergent perspectives on LGBT issues, ranging from condemnatory and derisive to ameliorative and compassionate.
In response, non-LDS blogger Terry Mattingly at Get Religion wrote a snarky and condescending post accusing Brooks of bad journalism:
You know that whole asking-questions thing that journalists are supposed to do as part of their work?
You know, that thing where the journalist tries to ask the obvious, logical questions and then prints what people — especially people whose training and experience yield on-the-record, authoritative information — have to say that is relevant to the story?
This process is especially important when dealing with issues that push people’s buttons and cause conflict in large, symbolic, even controversial groups. When these conflicts exist, it’s especially crucial to talk to people on both sides — on the record.
Religion Dispatches ran a story last weekend that demonstrates what happens when this process breaks down or, worse, is ignored.
Mattingly went on to attack Brooks’ statement about evolving views on homosexuality, and compared her unfavorably with Peggy Fletcher Stack. Of course, veteran reporter Peggy Fletcher Stack makes lots of us look bad in comparison. And Mattingly’s piece made some good points (citation and clarity are always helpful); however, it did so with over-the-top and condescending language.
Then Mattingly’s post was cited favorably, first by Lyman Kirkland at the LDS Newsroom and then by Joseph Walker at the Deseret News. (The LDS links were somewhat surprising, given the provocative photograph Mattingly used to illustrate his post.) In the DesNews article, Brooks was described as “a writer,” with no mention of her name or the fact that she is a lifelong church member. The LDS Newsroom article didn’t mention Brooks at all, referring simply to “a blog post in a publication called Religion Dispatches.” (The Newsroom also linked to Mattingly’s post only, not to Brooks’).
Should the LDS Newsroom be endorsing a snarky attack on Joanna Brooks for her claim that LDS views on homosexuality are evolving? I don’t believe it should. As I document extensively in a companion post, it is absolutely true that the past several decades have seen major changes in LDS statements on homosexuality. In fact, these changes have led other reporters to similar conclusions. As the companion post notes, religion reporter Rebecca Rosen Lum wrote an Oakland Tribune article in 2007, titled “Mormon Church Changes Stance on Homosexuality,” focusing on recent changes:
The Mormon church has quietly moved further from defining homosexuality as evil and the result of faulty parenting. An unheralded new church publication, “God Loveth His Children,” says gay feelings are neither learned nor chosen, and it counsels against rejecting a gay child. Seemingly aimed at young people, the statement gently counsels individuals who feel attraction to and love for same-gender people to trust in God’s plan and not act upon the transitory desires of mortal life — a period of “probation during which we face a variety of temptations and challenges.” It repeatedly warns against feelings of guilt: “Attractions alone do not make you unworthy. If you avoid immoral thoughts and actions, you have not transgressed even if you feel such an attraction.” It also says: “The Lord’s command to ‘forgive all men’ includes the requirement to forgive yourself.”
Spokesmen for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints would not say what led the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and the First Presidency — the two highest governing bodies of the Church — to publish the pamphlet at the end of July. “I dont know either,” said Jan Shipps, a scholar and historian specializing in Mormons. But its placement on the church’s Web site makes clear “that it would have to have been approved by the general authorities of the LDS Church.”
Those close to the Mormon Church say the publication is neither the result of a religious revelation nor a policy change. “This represents a continuation of a direction they began going in several years ago,” said Terry [sic] Givens, the author of four books on Mormonism and a religion professor at the University of Richmond in Virginia. A 1974 church pamphlet excoriated homosexuality as evil and castigated parents of gays for having raised their children poorly. By 1992, a new teaching suggested that biological factors could be at work.
Now, I do have some disagreements with Brooks’ particular use of language in her post. In particular, I believe that she uses imprecise language in a way that conflates rhetorical shift with doctrinal shift. I don’t think that she was sufficiently clear that church leaders have not changed on the basic doctrinal stance that homosexual acts are considered a sin. However, religion is not doctrine alone; it is the lived experience of church members. And it’s clear that the lived experience of LGBT people in the church has changed significantly as official church language has mellowed.
Get Religion’s overall project is to correct errors made by ignorant journalists. This is certainly a worthy goal. There are many ill-informed journalists who mischaracterize religious views out of ignorance or bias.
However, Joanna Brooks is not one of them. She is a lifelong Mormon, a BYU graduate, a scholar academic whose academic work examines religion in public life. She writes two different weekly columns on Mormon issues and also contributes to a popular podcast on Mormonism. She has broken important news stories (such as recent Handbook changes on LGBT issues). She speaks at multiple conferences each year on Mormon topics, and sits on the Board of a major Mormon studies publication. Her work on Mormonism and politics has appeared in the Washington Post; Politico just named her one of “50 politicos to watch” based on her columns about Mormonism and politics. And ironically (given Mattingly’s unflattering comparison), Brooks is regularly cited by Peggy Fletcher Stack as an expert on Mormon issues.
Joanna Brooks is not an ignorant or misguided reporter. She is a scholar with real expertise in Mormon topics. The imprecision in her post was unfortunate. However, that imprecision merited a nudge or a gentle correction. Instead, Mattingly greeted her with unwarranted mockery and sarcasm. And then, oddly, the church appeared to endorse the mocking tone of Mattingly’s post. I hope that this was simply an oversight.