Mormonism in the Public Mind: Perceptions of an Emerging World Faith, April 2, 2009 (Day 1)

By April 5, 2009

I attended both days of the Mormonism in the Public Mind Conference at Utah Valley University in Orem, UT.  I took some lazy notes on the first day, so I will provide my notes and links to reports made in other venues.  I took much more copious notes on the second day, which I am cleaning up now for posting, probably today.  Here is the conference program.

Here are some notes from a live blog of the day’s proceedings.

The first panel, “Mormonisms” featured Dan Wotherspoon and Daniel Stout of the University of Nevada Las Vegas. Here are my notes for their presentations:


Dan Wotherspoon, Foundation for Iterreligious Diplomacy

Mormonism is composed of a wide range of people, the Iron Roders, the Liahona Mormons, the angel and the beehive (explains Mauss’ concept of the angel and the beehive).

The mainstream media has a tendency to be easy on sources, going to what’s easier to get.  They go to the Church and Anti-Mormons and miss the nuance.  I know the mainstream media is just getting its head around the fact that there are multiple types of Evangelicals.

Lack of religious training by media.

In 2007 when Romney was in the race, a friend wrote an article for what would be the equivalent of the Sunstone of his religious tradition.  He wanted me to make…comments on the article.  He wrote in Slate that there was no way he’d vote for Romney since he believed in such a transparent and recent fraud.

The edited version of the article had many problematic references inserted by the editor who thought he (the editor) knew better.

My friend was able to correct many errors, but what came out in print did not represent his mind.  There were letters to the editor, some saying that he went too easy on the Mormons.  He has been invited many times to speak on Mormonism.  Because it’s so rare to have a sympathetic view, he’s been a popular go-to person for talk on Mormonism. And this just because of one article.

Instead of simple reporters, we’ve seen lately a rise of pundits and blogs.  The ratio is increasing to punditry and commentary and less on reporting.  In those cases there are fewer controls on the correctness of what is discussed.  Mormonism is still safe to skewer.  You’re not gonna get flack.  When Reid criticized Clarence Thomas for something, it was racist because Harry Reid is Mormon and Thomas is black, so you have all these Brigham Young comments coming out, etc.  2007 After Romney’s religious speech, someone when off the handle.

Mormonism remains fair game.

The Church hurts itself because it allows the focus to be on leaders to declare what Mormonism is and isn’t instead of acknowledging it’s variety and diversity.  It deliberately presents a front that is not as diverse as it really is, marginalizing groups like fundamentalists.

I think BYU professors aren’t called upon often to comment.  They’re institutionalized.  They call Notre Dame professors much more for comment on Catholicism.  This is why, I believe, I was in a lot of rolodexes.  And that one article my friend wrote has made him very conspicuous.

I understand that the Church has a role to play-to rally the base, the sinner, that’s what conference is for.  I understand the need for that, but in many ways the church is operating completely out of defense instead of in the interest of its own diversity.  The Church should embrace Jan Shipps’ label that the Church is an escape from Christianity.

The Church wants to be seen as a player.  The church realizes they can’t control the message any more.  Now announced and encouraged blogging.


Daniel Stout, University of Nevada Las Vegas

Regarding Mormonism in the public eye, it’s important to say something about gate keeping and Dan has said some interesting things about being a gate keeper. They make decisions on how the LDS are depicted in the media.  Everything in a sense can be traced back to these gatekeepers.  I want to talk about how they interpret information.  Within the Mormon culture Mormons often ask the question when Mormonism is portrayed in popular media, “When will they get it right?”  When will Newsweek, when will the 60 Minutes piece “get it right”.  Pres. GB Hinckley once talked about an upcoming interview saying “I hope it goes well.”  This is probably a fair question, individuals in a religious group have the right to expect nuance.  From the perspective of a Media Scholar, this is something I’ve been looking at, the question “it” getting “it” right, is a problematic concept. The media is an elusive concept because the media isn’t homogenous.  There are many gatekeepers and lenses through which religious groups are filtered.  Media studies for many years have been studying gate keeping theory.  This is the descriptive idea that there are pattern processes filtered for publication, there psychological reasons why they write how they do, sociological, all kinds of reasons for gate keeping.  I want to briefly touch on 3 gate keepers.

  1. Religious news writers
  2. critics
  3. Media executives

Religion news writers.  These are the journalists and editors hired to have expertise, news specialists  Why do they keep writing about polygamy when the church public affairs dept emphasizes not practicing? Why do they keep talking about baptisms for the dead when it’s been clarified, etc.  Religious news writers have an organization, you can see their website. On that site is a reporting on religion primer. In this primer, which has many chapters, there is a chapter the Religion roundup.  It contains a condensed synopsis of various world religions.  In that section under various religions, there is a section on Mormonism.  Some of the topics included in this primer include, Are Mormons Christians?, restricted access to temples, and polygamy. So it’s right there in the primer.  It’s interesting that in categorizing religions, there is a section called The Big 3, Christianity, Judaism and Islam.  But you won’t find Mormonism talked about in the Christianity section.  It’s in the section called Beyond the Big 3, it’s characterized with Buddhism, etc.

First type of gatekeeper.  I was thinking certainly the public affairs director of the LDS church…this is the lens of surveillance, one of the basic lenses is the watchdog lens, journalists feel their responsibility to look out on what groups are doing.  Mormons claim to be a church based on revelation. My point, as gatekeepers, they will engage in surveillance.  Looking out for information that might impact a larger population, looking for potential threats.  What are these revelations, if there is secrecy, what’s it about?

The critics.  Entertainment critics.  Interesting group.  They are people who critique…as gatekeepers, for example, when we think about critics, we did a study some years ago of over 300 paper reviews, what critics said about Mormons and Angels in America, the Pulitzer prize-winning work on the AIDS crisis, three characters were Mormons in controversial roles.  The work is replete with iconography and symbolism.  Even though there was so much Mormonism in this play, only 1 percent of newspaper reviews mention Mormonism at all. What did they mention?  The political message of the play, it was about the inadequacy of conservative political institutions, about families and the conflicts faced, so the critics really tended as gatekeepers to sidestep Mormonism though it was a dominant background.

3rd type, the Media executives.  Looking at audiences and trends and what people are interested in is what they’re doing. Observing cultural trends and getting them on TV.  Take these three programs, Big Love, the Mormon Episode of South Park, Angels in America. But if you ever had an opportunity to learn more about a pitch meeting.  In a company like HBO, creative people invited in to pitch what shows are going to keep people watching?  What shows will keep people tuned.  How a show is going to raise HBO subscribers next week. This is a show about Mormons? It has to be content you can’t get anywhere else. That’s one of the reasons a show like Big Love is big on HBO.  It shows a different, more controversial side of Mormonism.

Finally, storming the gate keepers.

With the advent of the internet and a new media vehicle like blogs and talkbacks, we have additional gatekeepers.  We will always appreciate that traditional gate keepers make recommendations for us, but we want our say.  So we’re seeing a recontextualizing of portrayals of Mormons in the media.  With Big Love, there was a mass discussion on Facebook about it.

When are they gonna get it right?  Never, at least in the sense that people in Mormon culture think about that question. But there is a situation where there are a greater number of depictions, more people weighing in on it.  There will be so many depictions in the future.


Here is a write-up of Michael Paulson’s (Religion Reporter, Boston Globe) keynote address.  Paulson has put up a portion of his own notes on his blog Articles of Faith, which will be infinitely better than any notes I will post here. And my notes:


Michael Paulson, Religion Reporter, The Boston Globe

I’m not an expert on Mormonism. I’m not a Mormon studies scholar. I hadn’t had a conversation with a Mormon until I started covering religion for the Boston Globe 9 years ago.  You may have heard of Mormonism in connection with American Idol, Prop 8, Big Love or Mitt Romney. My job is to write and blog about news and trends in Religion.  The paper is regional in scope, Catholic Church claims 3 million members in Massachusetts or 50%, The Church of Jesus Christ of LDS claims 24,000 or about 0.4 %.  Joseph Smith And Brigham Young were born in VT, but the Smith family was from Topsfield. Gordon B. Hinckley was a descendant of Thomas Hinckley, the final governor of the colony.  Some Massachusetts Mormons have attained prominence.

Romney’s had three major political campaigns, for the senate, for governor, and for president.  His religion got most play in his senate run.  Most of it was not helpful to him, but he didn’t let his religion play a role. He said that religion didn’t play a significant role.  When he ran for governor these factors were less significant.  Heavy charitable donations to BYU which considers homosexuality against honor code raised some eyebrows.  His spokesman said religion wasn’t an issue.

During his campaign for the Presidency, his religion was a huge topic of discussion.  I won’t review the particulars, but I’ll tell you a piece of how it is for a reporter…In 2007 the Boston Globe decided to look at Romney’s religion, a 7 part series.  A large team of journalists was dispatched. My job was to write about Romney’s mission to France.  Neither the church nor Romeny was really cooperating.  It was important because it was a major period in the evolution of his life. He was involved in a fatal car accident we needed to fully understand. They didn’t impede but didn’t help our contacts.  What we had going for us was that the Mormon people tended to be open, have a long history of journal and record keeping. I remember the day I showed up at a Chevy dealership in Utah to visit a person who knew Romney back in the day.  He brought out a giant box of stuff regarding his mission to France.  I was absolutely amazed at the amount of documentation there was and at how willing he was to share it with me…

Mormonism is the subject of considerable controversy.  This is not unique, Catholicism, Islam, etc. have attracted vitriol.  Blogging helps see how people react to stories about Mormonism, most comments are critical.  I posted a blog entry about Rachel Esplin’s video which went viral.  The online discussion of the blog entry had little do to with Rachel but went for several hundred comments about whether Mormonism is good or bad. Ex-Mormons and non-Mormons who are critical on political grounds made up the bulk of these responses. Ex-Mormons contest Mormon cosmology or doctrine, non-Mormons focus on role of church in public square.  Why so much antipathy?  Gary Lawrence argues because of poor understanding, etc.  There are multiple factors. The otherness of Mormons, their relative Isolation, tribalism.  The fact that Mormons are competing for new members in the world plays a role…

No other faith group is so quick to respond to coverage.  I’ve noticed there are many self-appointed Mormon apologists that show up.  There is a persecution complex…I’d say Mormons and Muslims are most fixed by what they think are unfair portrayals.  If this were a conference of the Jewish community it would just be called “Why do they hate us?” [Laughter]  Communication strategy by the church is very controlled.

During Prop. 8, I started calling people around locally (in California) and I was surprised how quickly central PR was informed.  No other church has that.

In Prop 8, I got the feeling the church directly told people didn’t want them to talk to me.

I have some theories on why it is this way.

1)      As an outsider, Mormonism places a high premium on conformity as well as community.  There are social consequences for nonconformity.

2)      The lack of ordained clergy makes it harder to say who’s speaking for themselves and who for the church. If everyone has a calling, it’s hard to determine when someone speaks for the church and when they speak for themselves.  There seems to be less distance between the institution and individuals.

3)      There is no question that Mormons are nicer in dealing with reporters. No one in Public Affairs has ever sworn at me or hung up on me.  But it goes beyond politeness.  In recent years people tapped in Public Affairs have gotten sharper and bolder and have had slightly greater autonomy.


Here is a write up of the follow-up panel on “The Mormon Beat” with Paulson, Lynn Arave (Deseret News), Peggy Fletcher Stack (Salt Lake Tribune), and Jennifer Dobner (Associated Press). Paulson also wrote a little bit about this panel on his blog at the bottom of the entry previously posted that provides notes for his own keynote address. Paulson notes in his blog another blog that has a brief summary of the panel.

I then attended the session on “New Media and Pop Culture” and my notes here follow. You’ll find mention here of something I never thought would make it to the Juvenile Instructor–Twilight [Warning, Twilight spoilers follow in Jana Reiss’ presentation (and I only know because my wife is reading the series, thank you very much!).


Jana Reiss, Westminster John Knox Press

Meyers studied English Literature at BYU.

Time and Entertainment Weekly and other media characterize Stephanie Meyer as a “Mormon housewife” instead of referring to her as the more commonly used “stay at home mom”.  Persistence of “housewife” says more about what Americans want to believe about Mormonism.  If the media can’t get the basic facts straight, they’ve also missed many of the theological underpinnings of her work.  Mormonism and sexuality, only about abstinence.  Vampirism is a literary stand in for eroticism.  Media’s focus is on the steamy and restrained sexuality of Twilight.  Meyer publicly declared that the Book of Mormon has made the biggest impact on her life.  Her fiction is not just window dressing, embedded in the story itself the theology is discernable.  One of the most significant aspects is the emphasis on overcoming the natural man which comes up on sin and redemption in Mormon theology.  Adam and Eve referenced on the book’s cover holding fruit.  The BoM turns Adam and Eve’s failure to a desire for procreation, they gave up mere immortality for eternal life and relationships. Human nature, though, is something to transcend.  Edward’s sole purpose is to feed on humans, to be carnal.  Encouraged by Carlisle, he rejects it for something better, more difficult.  Temptation strong, Bella’s blood sings to him.  He needs self control and respect.  The natural human stands in opposition to Christ. Man is carnal, Christ is incarnational. Mosiah 3:19, The natural man is an enemy to god, and will be for ever unless he yields to the enticings of the Holy Ghost and putteth off the natural man…the absence of relationship is the separation from God.  In Twilight, Edward through sheer willpower can avoid eating humans, until Bella comes he is transformed by love.  What changes is the desire to live for another.  In Twilight self control goes a long way to throw off the natural man, but it’s Bella acting as an awkward Christ figure that goes a long way in convincing Edward that he is worthy of trust and can withstand temptation.

Choice is a large motif in Twilight.  It’s not what you are, it’s what you do.  Jake doesn’t’ have to act on werewolf impulses.  Parallels the way of escape from that monster death and hell.

The basic distinction between immortality and eternal life, fundamental to Mormon theology comes out in Twilight.  Vampires are not mortal, not subject to death, bonus enhancements, have superhuman powers.  Vampires restless, isolated from their times, become vegetarians, precluding close relationships with humans…inability to procreate.  They can’t have children. One character’s greatest longing in life was to have a baby, which will not come to pass. She sees Bella’s almost flippant desire to become immortal, throw off flesh and become immortal, loose ability to have children…

Social context of eternal life…promise of an eternal body…Bella gives up her life to save another, greater love hath no man that this…and Bella enters a post resurrection world.

Mormonism teaches that the body will be a strength and pleasure in the resurrection.  This is what Bella discovers.  There is a commitment to the theological principle of agency.  [Discusses Meyer’s novel The Host]

I have mixed feelings on her fiction, her plots are imaginative, her theology interesting, but she is right when she says she’s a storyteller not a writer.  Novels tell the reader that Bella is smart and strong, but she’s shown as powerless, she exposes herself to harm, sacrifices everything for a borderline abusive man.


Stephen Carter, Sunstone Magazine

Old media and new media. I was newspaper reporter for 4 years, then went off to Nebraska, a bunch of us in the Association of Mormon Letters created the Sugar Beet.  It even got on UVU television.  Upwards of 15,000 unique visitors per month, very interesting time.  That was my first foray into the new media.  Also looking into blogs.  I was going through my own struggles going between stage 3 and 4 of Fowler’s stages, I was full of angst.  [Sorry, that’s all I had]


Kristine Haglund [See Kristine’s actual notes here]

I stumbled on the blogosphere when it was beginning.

Some have said things like the blog signal the end of the development of independent Mormon publications on dead trees.

The new media is cheap or free with low barriers for participation.

The Exponent II already met this fate, it has stopped on paper and is published online, in some ways a shadow of its former self.

The blogs create a sense of community.  This was also a major function of the old media, providing an extra-textual community, seeming to say that you are not alone.  Journal Mormon History, etc.

You can pick your level of disaffection in the blogosphere.  This and their participatory nature makes them popular. People like to hear themselves talk. How informed you are is less important.  Their democratic ethos presents a challenge to the institutional church, though many Mormons will yet defer to institutional authority, blogging provides all men and women a press for their theses.  Another technological development is the sheer volume of information.

We see emerge a new set of incentives in the Church.  It won’t do to insist that the Gospel Doctrine manual has it all, but may encourage that the use of the hour of Church devoted to that class be used for inoculation.


I was not able to attend the session on “Symbols and Boundary Maintenance” unfortunately.

Here is a summary of Terryl Givens’ Eugene England Lecture given that Thursday evening entitled, “The Prehistory of the Soul”.

All in all, it was a good day.

Your thoughts on the proceedings, whether by attendance or as reflected in these notes?  See my notes for Day 2 here.

Article filed under Announcements and Events


  1. Thanks, J.

    Comment by David G. — April 5, 2009 @ 5:40 pm

  2. Jared,

    Excellent report. Thank you very much for sharing.

    Comment by Joe Geisner — April 5, 2009 @ 9:23 pm

  3. […] Geisner: Mormonism in the PublicDavid G.: Mormonism in the PublicDesert Rat: Transcript of the MountainDesert Rat: Glenn Beck and […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » Mormonism in the Public Mind: Perceptions of an Emerging World Faith, April 3, 2009 (Day 2) — April 5, 2009 @ 9:53 pm

  4. Thanks for great reporting Jared!

    Comment by Debbie Marsh — April 6, 2009 @ 2:46 pm

  5. Thanks all.

    Comment by Jared T — April 6, 2009 @ 2:58 pm


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