Religion News Service: In-depth. Impartial. Engaged.

Blogs » Jana Riess - Flunking Sainthood

Flunking Sainthood has moved: Click here to read the latest posts

Who Speaks for Mormonism?

I received an email a couple of weeks ago asking me about the trustworthiness of one Tricia Erickson, author of Can Mitt Romney Serve Two Masters? The reader wanted to know:

Can you tell me if Tricia Erickson accurately understands Mormonism?  She used to be a Mormon, and she has written a book about it.  I found an interview she did with a radio show, and I have no way of being able to tell if what she says about Mormonism is true. 

Can you help, please?  So many Americans have questions about Mormons this year, and I wish that a Mormon blogger would adequately respond to people who are saying all these things about the Mormon Church.

So I've done some research, and read part one of her book, self-published last year through WestBow. Right now it can be downloaded to the Kindle for under $4. Part one of the book deals with Mormonism, and part two addresses Mitt Romney's political history.

Based on the first part I think I can safely say that no, Tricia Erickson is not a reliable, unbiased witness about either Mormonism or the LDS Church. She gets a lot of facts wrong and has a weird obsession with the notion that Mormons are scheming to take over America (I'm always the last to know when we Mormons are doing this). She sensationalizes events and takes statements out of context. Her book is your basic anti-Mormon stump speech. It's not even very well-done. You can find better-executed anti-Mormon literature from Utah Lighthouse Ministry. At least they take the time to do primary source research instead of just rehashing The Godmakers over and over again.

So, nothing new under the sun here. If you're interested, you can read refutations of Erickson's book and media statements at FAIR-LDS and the pro-LDS site Mormonism Unveiled.

Whatever. The more interesting question is the one suggested by my reader: Who is entitled to speak for Mormonism?

{image_1}

It's a topic very much on my mind as I prepare my remarks for a conference this week on Mormonism in cyberspace. I'm going to talk about my personal experiences as a Mormon blogger over the last two years, a heady and confusing time in Mormon history.

Right now it seems anyone with a megaphone can proclaim himself or herself an expert, which must drive the official LDS HQ a bit barmy. Erickson's bona fides include the fact that she was born into a Mormon family and her father was a bishop. My own background is that I've been an active Mormon for nearly 19 years and I have a PhD in religious history, with particular attention to 19th-century sectarian movements.

Better creds? Sure. But Erickson and I share one thing in common: neither of us can claim to speak in any official capacity for the LDS Church.

In February on this blog I discussed journalist Peggy Fletcher Stack's top six mistakes reporters make about Mormonism. The last one was "treating all former Mormons as whistleblowers who promise to reveal untold truths":

Former Mormons do have important personal stories to tell, but these are rarely balanced by the equally important personal stories that believing Latter-day Saints have to tell. And merely having a personal story, whether pro or con, does not instantly make any source an expert on a religion. Peggy expressed concern that “the New York Times and CNN seem to have given a platform to every former Mormon with a book.”

As an ex-Mormon and a Tea Party-esque conservative, Erickson has axes to grind. But all of us do, to some extent. My own agenda is that there be a place for thoughtful dialogue in my religion, for different points of view, for honest vulnerability about how often we fall short of our own ideals. I am passionate about justice and Jesus' love for all people, including some groups that my religion has historically or presently marginalized.

I think that anyone who speaks to the press about Mormonism should be aware of having an agenda and knowing what that agenda is. A few weeks ago, I was contacted by a national network news producer who was pulling together a story about Mormonism. She  wanted to get me on camera to share my experiences as a Mormon feminist. I said I would be happy to help, but that the list of people she had talked to did not yet include enough conservative or traditional Latter-day Saints. For balance it would be important to include those voices too.

Everyone who has ever been involved in Mormonism, including Tricia Erickson, has some kind of Mormon story. In that sense they -- we -- can and should speak for Mormonism. We do not speak for the LDS Church, however, and we can't claim expert status merely on the basis of limited involvement and cursory knowledge of Mormonism. Reporters should try to achieve balance (as CNN did by having Mormon scholar Richard Bushman on a panel with Erickson, and as NPR makes a point of doing every day), and Mormon pundits should adopt measures of accountability.

 

Topics: Faith, Leaders & Institutions
Beliefs: Mormon
Tags: can mitt romney serve two masters, fair-lds, flunking sainthood, jana riess, lds, mitt romney, mormon apologetics, peggy fletcher stack, richard bushman, tricia erickson, utah lighthouse ministry

Comments

  1. This kind of reminds me of the PRI RadioWest podcast called The Merchants of Doubt. It dealt with those scientists that try to muddy the waters when it comes to controversial science - controversial not because of the science, but because of possible cultural implications of that science. (The examples were the effects of smoking on peoples’ health, but also global warming.)

    Anyway, one of the points tossed around was that there is a place for such dissenters in public debate, but that it has to be in proportion to their facts - so 99 scientists with hard facts and 1 dissenter with little or no facts. Obviously you can’t do this with religion’s bigger questions (who’s going to decide whose God is true?) but I wish you could do this for the ‘facts’ people support their arguments with, so 99 Bushmans for every Erikson.

    I’m not even Mormon, I just think it’s time people stop using fear to make other people like them. (Sorry, that’s what elections do to me!)

  2. Jana—Thanks for making it clear that there are millions of individual “stories” about Mormonism, and that when a religion stimulates strong emotions and opinions, a respect for rational investigation requires that the investigator recognize that there are going to be differing perspectives, and that those perspectives are available. 

    I don’t think the Church has any problem with the fact that there are people who hated their experience in the Church, and chose to leave (in my experience, everyone else is usually glad they left, too) but Church leaders have emphasized that Mormons who want to promote their own beliefs in the public media should eschew the kind of angry attacks on other beliefs that get directed against Mormonism and Mormons on a daily basis. 

    I have a sneaky suspicion that there is not much money in selling a book entitled “The Violent Amish Conspiracy”, or “Kidnapped by the Jehovah’s Witnesses”, but clearly there are a number of people who can make money selling bad gossip about Mormons to a lot of Americans.

    It is a major event when a Protestant or Catholic scholar actually READS the Book of Mormon. All the other pastors who attack the book have a Cliff’s Notes version somewhere.  I sincerely doubt they have read even your excellent summary.  When a theologian actually cracks open the Book of Mormon, they make the astonishing discovery that Mormons actually worship Jesus Christ as the Savior of mankind (as was the case in last month’s issue of First Things). 

    It truly is astounding that people who pride themselves on being intellectuals can make broad condemnatory pronouncements against Mormons and Mormonism without any apparent investment in research, comparable to what would be required of a high school student American history paper. Huge assumptions go into their pronouncements, such as the notion that the Mormon concept of heaven and hell is comparable to the Southern Baptist one, and that Mormons think all non-Mormons are bound straight for hades. 

    I think this is a manifestation of the same reflex by secularists that causes them to reject anything with the word “Christian” in its title.  For example, in NBC’s program “Who do you think you are?” which follows celebrities as they explore their family history (courtesy of the Mormon-inspired web site Ancestry.com), actress Helen Hunt is shown discovering that one of her ancestors was the head of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union in Portland, Maine.  Hunt says that the name was off-putting for her, until she learns that it functioned as a forum for advocating for other social needs of women and children, including the right to vote. 

    There seems to be a real craving for a lot of people to find out the minimum amount of information needed so they can classify Mormons and Mormonism as something they don’t have to think about.  They positively seize on anything that gives them an excuse to say that Mormons are stupid or evil, to relieve themselves of having to think about it seriously.  It takes extra effort to actually learn accurate information about Mormonism, and even more to present it to others. 

  3. Jana gave a very thoughtful answer and I agree with what she said but I don’t believe she really answered the question, “Who is entitled to speak for Mormonism?”

    In my experience, the president and prophet of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the only one who speaks individually for the Church.  Other general authorities such as the apostles can also make authoritative statements but none of these are considered official doctrine unless they are approved by the First Presidency (the prophet and his two counselors) and the Quorum of the 12 Apostles and then presented to the body of the Church for a sustaining vote.
    The best place to find these kinds of statements is at:
    lds.org or mormon.org
    These official sites are the best source of accurate information on LDS beliefs and doctrine.

  4. Thank you, Michael. You are quite right that only designated officials speak for the LDS Church. But my question was about who speaks for Mormonism, which is not an institution and therefore much more difficult to pin down.

  5. Very well done, Jana.  I couldn’t agree more with your message that all voices are valid—even if we don’t agree with them.

  6. Mormonism is a very large tent accomodating many views.  This manifests Joseph Smith’s founding belief in freedom of belief.  I suppose it’s also based in our belief in the free agency of each person to discover for themselves—it’s hoped with the Holy Ghost’s guidance and confirmation—the complete truth but we all are on the path instead of at the destination.

    However, Mormonism revolves, usually, around the Church’s official doctrine.  Here’s how the Mormon Church describes that,

    “Not every statement made by a Church leader, past or present, necessarily constitutes doctrine. A single statement made by a single leader on a single occasion often represents a personal, though well-considered, opinion, but is not meant to be officially binding for the whole Church. With divine inspiration, the First Presidency (the prophet and his two counselors) and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles (the second-highest governing body of the Church) counsel together to establish doctrine that is consistently proclaimed in official Church publications. This doctrine resides in the four “standard works” of scripture (the Holy Bible, the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants and the Pearl of Great Price), official declarations and proclamations, and the Articles of Faith. Isolated statements are often taken out of context, leaving their original meaning distorted.”

    Complete statement here:
    http://www.mormonnewsroom.org/article/approaching-mormon-doctrine

  7. For the sake of the individual submitting the original question, and others of us confused by these issues:  Could you clarify, in re: author Erickson “gets a lot of facts wrong”.

    What facts does she get wrong, and which ones right?  And to what degree—Is the expose entirely fictitious, substantially reliable but with minor errors, or where in between?  A strong emphasis in press reporting is on the apparently controlled marital practices and oaths that take place within the temple. On these in particular, what is unreliable?

    I think more is owed to this querying individual, and the rest of us, that cannot help believe that such things as described are so unusual that they cannot be entirely fictitious.

  8. Erikson is a nut. So she’s got an ax to grind against the Mormon church. She ought really to look at the ax and see whether it’s the right one. She’s got no regard for what the Lord thinks. If she wants to disparage the Mormon church for its worldliness and for ignoring what the Lord has to say at least half the time (if not more), she can go right ahead. But that doesn’t have any publicity value — firstly, because it’s accurate, and secondly, because most Christian religions are guilty of it as well. No, she’s got to parade around, opening her mouth in ways guaranteed to get attention. Well, I’ve got news for her. She has the Lord’s attention, and it’s not the kind she was hoping for.

  9. As much as I hate to say this, I was curious about her book, “Can Mitt Romney Serve Two Masters?”, and I was disturbed to find that it is well written and factual. Every time I saw something in it that I didn’t like, I went to her reference and found out that she was telling the truth. It is so well referenced that I could not argue with anything she had to say in it because when I looked it up, she reveals information in our own church’s words. In other words, she didn’t “opine” very often…she just stated the facts from our church leaders, prophets and history. I guess she was a member a long time ago and things have changed since then, but her experiences in the book are valid. It makes me re-think Mormonism because Mormons just attack her, but when we attack her, we are attacking our own religion because, again, it’s written pretty much in our own words and history. We better be careful here before we react in an ungodly way towards the facts. ...sorry to say.

Sign In



Forgot Password?

You also can sign in with Facebook or Twitter if you've connected your account to them.

Sign In Using Facebook

Sign In Using Twitter