Some people were a bit surprised with the Church’s reaction to the recent PBS documentary on the Mormons. The Church was quite positive. I have heard some accusations that good public relations required that they respond positively, but that the actual leadership of the Church likely thought it was horrible. Some people are disturbed at what they believe is the primacy of Public Relations in the modern Church and that in some ways the tail is wagging the dog. I don’t think that is accurate.
I think throughout Mormon history, public relations statements have had the effect of raising the proverbial bar. Just as when I was a missionary, there was a focus on setting goals and becoming publicly accountable, PR binds the Church. An interesting example of this is reflected in the diaries of Apostle Reed Smoot:
Wednesday, September 29, 1908
Meeting at the Temple at 9 oclock. One hour was spent by F. M. Lyman talking and giving his views on many of the questions spoken of yesterday. The Presidency came in at 10.15. I [led] prayer in the circle and Pres Smith in opening. We had the sacrament administered. It was agreed a week ago that Ben E. Rich should be appointed one of the 1st Presidents of Seventy and last evening was spoken of by Pres Lyman. I called the quorums attention to the danger there was in appointing him if as was reported he had taken another wife since the Woodruff Manifesto. I called attention to the testimony of President Smith, John Henry and myself in my own case at Washington and if Ben was guilty it would bring trouble on the church. John Henry and I called this to President Smith’s attention and he agreed it was unwise to make the appointment. It was agreed to appoint Levi Young the son of S B Young to fill the vacancy caused by the death of George Reynolds. (Harvard Heath, ed., In the World: The Diaries of Reed Smoot, pg. 34)
Had not the Church leaders made Public statements that held them to a high public standard, a very good man, but also one who had engaged in practices that were no longer considered laudable, would likely have joined a general presiding quorum. While this transition was painful for many Saints, I think the Church is currently much better for it.
Another recent example was a May 16, 2006 press release:
The belief that Christ was married has never been official Church doctrine. It is neither sanctioned nor taught by the Church. While it is true that a few Church leaders in the mid-1800s expressed their opinions on the matter, it was not then, and is not now, Church doctrine.
Now, while some will point to late authorities such as Bruce McConkie to show that the leaders of the Church actually believe otherwise, this PR notice actually reflects First Presidency letters dating back to the 19th century. So, no matter what some rogue seminary teacher says with a wink and a nod, the PR notice raises the public awareness and increases our accountability and hopefully increases the likelihood of everyone ignoring the aforementioned teacher.
We are part of a living and growing Church. Likely, the Church of my grandchildren will be much different than mine, just as my church is different from my grandparent’s. I have the faith that it will be better and public statements that outline an ideal that isn’t, perhaps, universally accepted, is in many cases a step in the right direction.