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Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Bad Press and the Conversations We're Not Having

by Scott Hales (bio)

We Mormons have had some bad press lately. A few weeks ago, BYU religion professor Randy Bott shared his racist views on the priesthood ban with the Washington Post to the embarrassment of most Mormons under the age of ninety-five. Then, a few days later, news broke that Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, who was killed by terrorists in Pakistan in 2002, had been baptized for the dead without his family’s consent. And this coming only weeks after the Church apologized to the family of Holocaust survivor and Jewish rights advocate Simon Wiesenthal, whose parents had been baptized by proxy—again without family consent—sometime in January.

In each of the instances, the Church responded quickly and appropriately, denouncing racism and overzealous abusers of the proxy baptism policies. With the amount of PR fires they’ve been putting out lately, I’m sure the folks in Salt Lake feel like they’ve traded their suits and ties in for red helmets and heavy yellow coats.

Truth be told, I wouldn’t be surprised if most Mormons are feeling the same way. While I haven’t had to field any questions about Mormons and racism lately, I have had to explain baptism for the dead to a Jewish colleague and assure friends that Mitt Romney does not see himself as the fulfillment of the White Horse Prophecy. Each conversation, I felt, ended positively. But that doesn’t mean they weren’t awkward conversations to have.

Why are these conversations awkward? Part of it has to do with the questions themselves, which touch on issues that are difficult to talk about in our day even without throwing Mormonism into the mix. I mean, racism, the holocaust, and separation of church and state, not to mention patriarchy, gender equality, and homosexuality are not exactly issues one discusses calmly over a friendly game of shuffleboard.

They’re issues that literally divide communities.

Which brings me to my next point: I think we Mormons, because we try to be an agreeable people, generally hesitate to talk about these issues precisely because they are difficult and tend to divide communities—including our own. So, to avoid possible contention and division, we avoid them whenever possible and do what we can to make the conversation as short as possible whenever they do come up. Like when so-and-so says something racist, zealously baptizes dead celebrities, or bears his testimony about Mitt Romney being “The One Mighty and Strong.”

Also, in order to move on, we sometimes throw offenders under the bus.

Now, I’ll admit that throwing a racist under a bus and moving on has its advantages. But the problem with moving on is that it’s only effective after we’ve sufficiently tied up loose ends. Otherwise, we’re stuck in the same tiresome place, worrying and wondering when the next Randy Bott will clear his throat.

As a people, we need to be having more conversations amongst ourselves about the big issues. We need to be more willing, that is, to discuss with each other the ethics of our beliefs—past and present—so we can better present ourselves and our faith to a curious world. True, these conversations may lead to some uncomfortable disagreements and even contention—especially considering the diversity of backgrounds and opinions of Church members—but I think we’d benefit from them in the end. Besides, if we as Mormons practice what we preach about charity and humility, there’s no reason why we shouldn’t be able to discuss civilly even the touchiest of subjects. Contention only happens if you let it happen. It is a choice.

So how do we get started? I'll be the first to admit, after all, that I'm not having regular big issue conversations with my fellow Mormons.

Here's one idea: As the resident Mormon literature aficionado, I think Mormon novels and short stories that address the big issues are one way to get conversations going. Consider the kinds of conversations that could come out of reading Arianne Cope’s The Coming of Elijah, a novel that addresses Mormonism’s past racial policies, or Todd Robert Petersen’s short story "Redeeming the Dead"? Consider also what could happen if the Relief Society book club read and discussed Jonathan Langford’s No Going Back, a novel about a Mormon teenager reconciling his beliefs with his homosexuality. Some readers, I'm sure, might take issue with the book's content or object to its message. Others might question the main character's decision at the end of the story.

Whatever the case may be, it's bound to start a discussion.

What do you think? What are other ways to get conversations about big issues started? Do we even need to be having them?

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