Thoughts on Monson’s NYT Obituary

The NYT’s framing of the life of President Monson was, to say the least, interesting. The obituary begins:

Thomas S. Monson, who as president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints since 2008 enlarged the ranks of female missionaries, but rebuffed demands to ordain women as priests and refused to alter church opposition to same-sex marriage, died on Tuesday at his home in Salt Lake City. He was 90.

It’s just as illuminating to contrast the way the NYT approached President Monson’s death with that of other leaders. Here’s their tweet for President Monson.

By contrast, here’s what they tweeted when Fidel Castro died.

The comparison with Castro is particularly interesting because of Castro’s history with the Cuban LGBT community. As unwelcome and controversial as the Church’s continued position on sexual morality is, President Monson never presided over a repressive regime that literally rounded up homosexuals and sent them to forced-labor camps. (It is worth noting that although the Castro regime repressed the Cuban LGBT community for decades, Castro eventually had a change of heart and apologized before his death.)

Other controversial figures include folks like Hugh Hefner and Hugo Chavez.

Naturally, this treatment has gotten a lot of attention among the Mormon community, with most expressing anger or irritation at the NYT’s coverage, although I did find at least one dissenting view in a public Facebook post by Aaron Brown. Citing a friend, Brown quoted:

I’m quite perplexed at the number of Mormons who are offended and outraged by the Times’ obit for President Monson. While Monson was beloved of his people, he was also a public figure, and he’s going to be evaluated as such. We can hardly expect the paper of record to devote the balance of the piece to a discussion of widows who loved him in his 20s, or the adorable way he wiggled his ears. As Mormons, we don’t get to control how the rest of the world sees us. If we don’t like the coverage, it might be worth thinking about why others view us that way.

It’s a point worth considering.

Religious communities–Mormonism is far from alone in this regard–can sometimes become a little too enamored with imaginary martyrdom. The idea that other people are persecuting you is flattering both because it validates your own importance and because it allows you to cast yourself in a heroic role. But the idea that Christians in the United States–Mormon, Catholic, or other–are persecuted strains the definition of the word and disrespects the legacy of those persecuted in Christianity’s ancient past and especially those who face genuine persecution today. (It should go without saying that many non-Christian religions also face persecution today but, just in case, I have now gone ahead and said it.) A negative tweet–even from the New York Times–is not an example of persecution.

On the other hand, I haven’t actually heard a single person call the NYT tweet or obituary persecution. (I’m sure someone has, but it’s not a narrative that I’m seeing.) Instead, people are observing that the NYT’s treatment of President Monson is both unfair and an attempt at coercion. And those facts are true. Mormons, in a lot of ways, are a kind of religious punching bag. As a group, we’re about as conservative as they come and we don’t hit back.

Aaron’s friend’s comment doesn’t contest this. Far from it, the comment implicitly endorses this kind of punching bag approach. We’ll let the Hugh Hefners and Fidel Castros of the world exit the mortal stage with respect and dignity, but let’s go ahead and stick it to the President Monsons of the world because Mormons deserve it, because Mormons won’t punch back, and–best of all–because if we hit them rhetorically enough times maybe they’ll get in line.

I appreciate that introspection is a healthy habit. If someone seems to really dislike you, then it’s a good habit to take a moment now and then and ask yourself why. That’s fair.

But I take a really dim view of the prospect of any moral consensus–regardless of its content–that is created and enforced through ridicule and public shaming. There is nothing generous, enlightened, civil, or responsible about a prominent news outlet selectively using obituaries to settle scores and enforce cultural dogma. It may be a long way from persecution, but it’s also a long way from acceptable. Calls for introspection in response to rule-through-browbeating are complicit unless they distance themselves from that tactic.

UPDATE – Since I wrote this, but before the post went live, I came across an exemplary obituary for President Monson. Instead of taking note of The Economist’s great example, the NYT posted a response to the feedback on their own obituary that managed to be incredibly condescending and patronizing while studiously avoiding a direct response to their critics. Not only is it a non-apology, it’s not even a legitimate response. For shame, NYT. For shame.


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