Many have highlighted the LDS Newsroom’s very interesting coverage of the discussions surrounding Proposition 8, in particular the document entitled, “The Divine Institution of Marriage.” The analysis of this document and the arguments and doctrine it contains I leave to more talented and audacious bloggers than myself (suffice it to say that like any other political document, it contains things that I find convincing and things I do not), but what I find infinitely more interesting than the immediate squabble over Prop 8 is the nature of the Newsroom itself and this document in particular. “The Divine Institution of Marriage” gives us an opportunity to revisit and microwave one more time that most rewarmed of topics, that of defining and delineating our notions of what constitutes doctrine.
First, a few handy links to some of the better discussions/explorations of the topic: here, here, and here. I don’t think these are prerequisites to talking about what constitutes doctrine or what exactly the Newsroom is, but they are helpful and interesting reads and good to have read (or to say you have read).
The concept of an LDS Newsroom is not new. Church Public Relations have been around for many years, and have issued statements, clarification and guidance to the press for a long time. Before the formal organization of LDS Public Affairs, Church leaders would often address the press directly; Mormons have a long history of interacting with the media, going back to Joseph Smith. Even some of our canon comes from such correspondence (the Wentworth letter in particular). Accordingly, I don’t think that we should be surprised that the Church deigns to communicate directly with the press on issues of contemporary interest. Rather, I believe two forces — the advent of the Internet and the blurring of what constitutes traditional press — have caused public relations to enter new territory and as a result the average member is faced with new questions of authoritative standards.
Concerning the internet: the LDS.org site is a tremendous resource for news concerning the Church worldwide. Never have regional and global news affecting the Saints been so easily and quickly accessed. The LDS.org portal is in some ways more valuable than Google for learning what the Church is doing, and where, because (a) local information is passed upwards directly from local units and (b) presumably, nobody is better situated than Public Affairs to know what is happening in the COB. Thus the Internet has rendered LDS.org the single most important website and hub of information for Church members, has made the print version of the Church News completely irrelevant, and also forces publications with LDS-based content (such as the Trib or even the DNews) to go dowsing in new territory (witness the new Mormon Times site).
The blurring of what constitutes the “press” is another factor that puts the LDS Newsroom directly in front of us. It is clear, at least to us bloggers, that at least some portion of what the Church places in its online news content is directed not just to mainstream media such as newspapers or TV, but also to pundits, bloggers and independent media. The traditional concept used to be that members of the recognized press were the duly appointed ministers who alone could approach the altar of public affairs departments for their sound bites. But now anyone with a Blogger account and reasonable Google skills is sending email to Salt Lake — and increasingly, they are getting replies. The equivalent is that of opening press conferences up to the wider public, and accordingly Public Affairs is becoming the spokesperson of the Church not just to the media, but increasingly to the Saints themselves.
So, to paraphrase Reuben J. Clark, when are the writings and sound bites of Church Public Affairs entitled to the claim of doctrine? Of course the public affairs folks are not saying anything that Church members ought to find revolutionary or controversial. Their business is apologetics-lite, and so explanations and clarifications we find there are of a general nature, with many references to more conventionally authoritative sources such as General Conference addresses and the like. As a result, there is little original content in your average Newsroom document to even require the inquiry as to its authoritativeness. “The Divine Institution of Marriage,” as luck would have it, is an exception to this general trend; it contains a number of arguments and rationales which do not stem directly from scriptural or canonical sources, and so it invites inquiry.
I like Nate Oman’s integrity theory of Church doctrine, namely that the problems of authority and morality that Church members face when deciding what is doctrinal and what is not require us to make some sense from clear cases of Church doctrine and its context. As Nate paraphrases,
[The discovery of Church Doctrine] begins in the present and pursues the past only so far as and in the way its contemporary focus dictates. It does not aim to recapture, even for present [Church Doctrine], the ideals or practical purposes of the [authorities] who first created it. It aims rather to justify what they did (sometimes including what they said) in an overall story worth telling now, a story with a complex claim: that present practice can be organized by and justified in principles sufficiently attractive to provide an honorable future.
I believe that we can most accurately view what the LDS Newsroom is doing in this light. That is, the Newsroom is doing the same thing we are all doing with respect to Church doctrine: trying to figure out what the hell it is. By this I mean not just establishing a normative sense of what is doctrine and what is not, but also establishing an hermeneutic for viewing the totality of doctrine. The Public Affairs mandate is a little different than the average member’s, but fundamentally I believe we are all performing similar internal processing tasks. But oddly, because of the centralized authority structure of our Church, the Newsroom is adjusting the boundaries of canon and doctrine even as it seeks to define it for the press. In ages past when Church spokesmen were less accessible and less read, this effect would have been relatively negligible; today, a document in the LDS Newsroom or statement from a Public Affairs employee is tantamount to a declaration from a General Authority.
When “The Divine Institution of Marriage” first appeared, I wrote to Church Public Affairs with some questions: Can you tell me who authored it? Is it directly for Proposition 8, or is it a general declaration of doctrine? Is it written to explain the Church’s position to members, or to non-members? What sort of doctrinal or authoritative weight should members of the Church give to the LDS Newsroom document?
The answer I received is instructive not only as to this recent document but as to the general topic at hand:
“The Divine Institution of Marriage” was written to increase understanding of the Church’s position on same-gender marriage in general, but it has particular relevance to the Church’s support of Proposition 8. It is an official Church document approved by The First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve and it contains both doctrine and other information intended to help Church members and others understand the Church’s position on the issue.
It is easy to see that we lack rules for recognizing what is Church doctrine, and that this absence of rules does not in the least prevent us from talking about Church doctrine or from acting in ways we consider to be right and, well, doctrinal. I believe that the LDS Newsroom highlights (and will ever increasingly do so) for us the perils and promise of identifying our doctrine in a Church where centralized information and authority are now instantly accessible to all.
1. “When Are the Writings and Sermons of Church Leaders Entitled to the Claim of Scripture?” J. Reuben Clark, Jr., Address to Seminary and Institute Personnel, BYU, 7 July 1954.
2. “Jurisprudence and the Problem of Church Doctrine,” Nathan E. Oman, Element Vol. 2 Issue 2 (Fall 2006), p. 13.
3. Or, at least, that’s the practical effect. I am fairly certain that this is not entirely the desired effect, at least with respect to members of the Church.