Our Week in the Media: Small Stuff and Big Stuff

Talk about overexposure: Newsweek and BusinessWeek in the same week! Prevailing wisdom in media circles is that once the newsweeklies have picked up a trend, it has reached it apex—so I guess the church’s slide back into obscurity starts now. (Don’t worry, Russell!)

What’s striking to me has been the reaction to the different stories. From what I’ve seen in my own social circles on Facebook and elsewhere, we’re supposed to be mad at Newsweek and thrilled about the BusinessWeek article.

But that’s exactly backwards.

The reasons for the ire against Newsweek seem to revolve around the cover and a few snippets of text within the article. Let me briefly debunk two of the phrases I’ve noticed Mormons getting hung up on:

  • “Special underpants”: 100% accurate
  • “Secretive temple rituals”: 100% accurate

You might disagree with the wording, but I’m not sure why we’d expect a journalist to refer to garments and temple rituals as anything else.

Get past that small stuff. Because the rest of the story is overwhelming positive, calling out the distinctiveness of Mormonism, explicitly downplaying the “quirkier aspects of the sect’s history and practices,” and highlighting many prominent, respectable Mormons from various walks of life.

The other huge positive is the cover. Whether you find it funny or offensive, there’s not a lot of downside for the church. I personally think it’s hilarious, but it’s sparking outrage, and not just from Mormons. For instance, The National Review called it “appalling.” Real Clear Politics’ Tom Bevan tweeted “this leaves me dumbfounded.”

What’s interesting and valuable for us as a church is that the negative reactions to the Newsweek story have largely been against Newsweek, not against Mormons. The religious and political right are speaking out–our persecutions complexes have found common cause.

It’s doubtful the BusinessWeek article will elicit such a response. The potential for negativity in that story will be directed against the church.

Like the Newsweek article, the story is positive overall, with a few negatives thrown in for balance. But in BusinessWeek, the negative aspects aren’t about our theological quirks, but about real cultural issues that many of us in the bloggernacle struggle with.

The most obvious of these is gender norms, with the most egregious quote being “A Mormon woman who has post-graduate education is less likely to attend church.” Ouch. How is that going to play with the BusinessWeek readership? And is it true?

But even worse, in my opinion, is that the article ties us very closely to the “prosperity gospel” that is so popular and so abhorrent. And it uses a quote from Alma to do so.

That’s (happily) not until page 5. But on page 6, we get quotes from ex-Mormons who have left the church because “you had to look a certain way and act a certain way,” or because of “classism.” One source claimed he “attended a ward for half a decade where the chapel would literally, and physically, split itself down the aisle” by socio-economic status.

Let the world say what it wants about our special underpants, secret temple covenants, ambitious politicians, and the raunchy Broadway musical that bears our name. But when they start talking about our un-Christlike actions, our discrimination against the poor, and our quest for worldly wealth and success, we’ve got problems.


  1. pd mallamo says:

    You know, c’est la vie – and such blatant symbiosis: sloppy, half-assed American media always on the lookout for the next “new” thing, and Mormons jumping up and down, waving and shouting, “Over here, over here – Hey, were over here!” We have become disciples of PT Barnum (“I don’t care what you say about me, just spell my name right.”) Isn’t the world tired of us yet?

  2. But Kyle, women are supposed to get married, not an education. Obligatory quote of 2 Nephi 9:28. Also, the Book of Mormon says taxes are bad and shows that you’re blessed with wealth if you’re righteous; my seminary teacher was clear on that point.

    (note the sarcasm of the entire comment)

  3. Craig M. says:

    I’m pretty shocked at the level of excitement I’ve seen from Mormons about the Newsweek article. The article wasn’t great – not so much for the content as the poor journalism. Apparently Newsweek has become a People magazine that emphasizes news.

    But the tone of the article was nothing to get excited about either. Apparently as long as you say Mormons “rock” and are “winners” you can basically put it into any context and have many Mormons walk away happy for the positive press.

    And the cover was in poor taste for a news magazine, who in my mind should be held to a higher standard than The Daily Show or Cracked magazine.

  4. The other night I had a conversation with two members of my stake at a social. They were expressing offense over the Newsweek article and the play- but when I pressed them for why, they couldn’t say- beyond citing the two phrases you mentioned. One of them called the statement about the temple “profane”. This baffles me. How can we take part in a dynamic dialogue if we are incapable of interactions when our explicit, precise cultural language isn’t used? We need to take our persecution complex out to the back 40 and dig a big hole.

  5. I have to say: that comment about “classism” and the anecdote about the divided congregation struck me as particularly ironic because my mission to Mexico introduced me to a ward that was just the opposite: people in my first ward came from all across a very wide economic spectrum and all sat together in church and socialized together afterwards. That’s not to say there were no tensions–there were–but overall the divide was wonderfully small and unity most often trumped division.

  6. We would “expect a journalist to refer to garments and temple rituals” as they should be, especially when one of the authors is as he describes himself… “a practicing Mormon.

    These articles are not a “downside for the church”, however the Church does get in the way when the intent of a magazine such as Newsweek attempts to undermine prominent members of the faith.

    The misrepresentation of LDS women in the BusinessWeek article was very unfortunate.

    The “prosperity doctrine” is a bit of a concern, as we are a global church, and this was applied to the Church here in the U.S. Put it in context and perhaps that would change the conversation?


  7. I think the Business Week article correctly highlighted that “The Church” for many members is the local ward or branch they attend. If that ward or branch is classist, racist or anything-ist, “The Church” is that way to them.

    To me, that only highlights the need for us – the membership – to live the Gospel to the best of our ability and the fact that we aren’t a monolithic group of same-minded robots in every aspect of our faith.

    Also, I agree totally about the hyper-sensitivity regarding garments and the temple.

    I might hate the term “special underwear” (and, even more so, “magic underwear” – since that one really is inaccurate), but our garments are “special” and are “underwear” – and they are “weird” in the culture in which we live. We need to get over it and quit being so defensive.

    We brought the temple concerns on ourselves by making what happens there secret and not just sacred. Some of it is secret by command – but the vast majority is not. When we don’t realize that and treat everything as secret, we invite paranoia and misunderstanding.

  8. “We need to take our persecution complex out to the back 40 and dig a big hole.”

    Agreed. Until we do this, we’ll just be stuck in the late 19th century, perpetually playing catchup. Let’s stand on our own two feet and engage these conversations civilly and with as much self-respect as they seem to be giving us. Getting a cover story from Newsweek means that we’re drawing interest from a lot of powerful people.

    Personally, I don’t really care what the other members of the church think of this article. That’s not who the article was written for. I care what those outside the church think – and that response has been absolutely engaging, for me. Great conversations all around about the Church, the gospel, and what it means to be Mormon.

  9. I think the comment about some people (and journalists) being unable to distinguish between the Church and a particular congregation is a good one. This is probably accentuated by the strong social norms and often Stake policy about not going to other wards. If you are in a dysfunctional ward you’re screwed.

    That said I think the parallels to the prosperity gospel were pretty silly. Especially when such things are so often condemned.

  10. Kyle, I like your theme here – small stuff vs. big stuff. A year from now, if anybody remembers these two big mag articles, they will probably remember the big stuff, the overall gist, and not the small stuff anyway.

    Cory, I agree – I bet the overall effect here will be more people thinking positively of the Church and its members.

  11. hkobeal says:

    I’m pretty sure there’s been plenty of research done that shows that Mormon women with post-graduate degrees are less likely to be active in the church . . .

  12. hkobeal says:

    Or maybe it’s not specific to Mormon women, but all conservative religions.

  13. What Craig said. If the Newsweek cover had been on the Daily Show I would have laughed- but Newsweek is supposed to be…news. I don’t think a mocking or satirical tone is appropriate in that venue and man, I wish the lines between satire and news were better defined and understood.

  14. Cory and Clark you both touched the topics/feelings I got regarding the articles.

    To non-members “special underwear” is the most commonly understood term, along with “secret rituals”. If the article was generated FOR members it would instead dismiss any negativity, and solely focus on how as a church we have members in all aspects of life. It would also have been on lds.org instead of a major magazine.

    As for the mix up between ward and Church, I do believe it was an important thing that needed to be said. By not including it, they would be basing their understanding of the church on the way one ward/stake runs; would have been an inaccurate portrayal, and likely lead to a recant. I also do think that this policy is at fault for the confusion many members and investigators have when they attend as each ward is different. The lesson manuals may be the same but they way they’re interpreted, taught, and shared drastically differ based on where you are. Teacher’s mental stability also probably plays a part as the craziest comments I’ve ever heard were shared by a teacher/student who probably skipped their meds.

  15. If that ward or branch is classist, racist or anything-ist, “The Church” is that way to them…we aren’t a monolithic group of same-minded robots in every aspect of our faith. I think this is how it works but isn’t this the brethren’s purview to project the gospel in a way that provides overview consistency and guidance in members lives? They certainly do this for dress and ear rings have they lost sight something? Are we instead counting steps on the sabbath?

  16. Agreed, Easton. Actually, ideally, they’ll remember the conversation they had with an LDS friend as a result of the article.

  17. Can of worms, Howard.

  18. I think a good journalist should have noted that this was very much an individual congregation thing and frankly somewhat unusual. I’ve been around dysfunctional wards. They suck. Even my current ward which includes a low income highly transient apartment complex can be a pain the years where we get a crop of members who don’t want to hold callings. Makes me glad I’m not the Bishop. But I think how people come away from the article is misleading due to the conflation of congregation and Church. I think because of that Kyle’s original point is a good one and I thought it yesterday morning when I’d first read the BusinessWeek story.

    As for being upset at Newsweek – guys Newsweek nearly went bankrupt last year. It was gutted and sold to the blog outfit The Daily Beast who reinvented it. This is not Time Magazine back in the 70’s. Heck Time isn’t even what Time was back in the 90’s. All magazines have gone downhill due to pressure from the Internet. They’ve all become more and more sensationalist every year since around the beginning of the new century.

    Regarding women and post-doc degrees I suspect there’s a bit of a pos hoc phenomena at play. i.e. are those women most apt to go inactive getting such degrees or are the degrees causing it? I honestly think this is just one aspect of the Church’s problem of dealing with the changing demographic of marriage. Let’s be frank. Church is hard for older singles and lots of them go inactive.

  19. @Clark, good point re: women and post-doc degrees. Definitely a chicken/egg problem there. I’m speaking from personal experience. I’m still active, but definitely see some causality in terms of problems with church/testimony/faith in general as a result of getting my Ph.D.

  20. Clark so which causes the most problem low income, highly transient, apartment complex or members who don’t want to hold callings? And whats the solution? Should they become their own branch?

  21. My opinion is that while there’s a huge strength in having wards match geographic areas (i.e. a few blocks) in terms of community having a broad range of demographcis within a ward is better. (I say that having spent half my life in non-Utah wards) Any time everyone is the same you don’t get the range of people I think benefits everyone in a ward. I also think the current scheme makes it hard for people who don’t fit in with a particular ward (whether for legitimate or illegitimate reasons). The big, big downside is that if people aren’t going to a geographical area it’s very easy for members to fall between the cracks and not have the opportunity for reactivation or service.

    It’s one of those issues where I can really appreciate the problem and am very glad I’m not in charge of solving it. But I think it is one of the biggest problems the Church faces. (I think the single adult demographic changes is a bigger issue though)

    As for what the problem is, I think the “don’t want to hold callings” tends to correlate with the transient, low income members. There are various reasons for that. Some good, some bad. (If you’re financially having difficulty making it you may be working so hard you’re too exhausted for many callings) I don’t want to make broad judgments, just that such places are a real challenge for Bishops.

  22. Clark I appreciate your candid response I thought you might be reacting to a class bias. I generally agree but how would it change the challenge, how would the callings be filled if that class of people were simply gone say to a branch of their own?

  23. I think the idea is to split up the people with bigger struggles so no one ward has them all.

  24. Yeah, we should start busing people to distant wards so we can increase the diversity in our congregations and lighten the load on our bishops.

    Wait, what??

  25. Matt W. says:
  26. Matt W. says:
  27. I just want to point out that Walter Kirn (the author of the article) is an author (he wrote Up in the Air and Thumbsucker (two novels what got turned into movies)) and he is an exmo, but one that is generally sympathetic to the church. So there is that.

  28. On the issue of education, I’d be interested in seeing a statistical breakdown on church activity by study emphasis or degree program. I’m inclined to believe, for instance, that activity rates would be different between MBAs, JDs, and (say) philosophy or religious Ph.Ds, and so forth. Different disciplines require unique forms of self-evaluation that probably impact members’ church activity in different ways.

  29. Matt W. says:

    WJ, Armand Mauss does just that in “The Angel and the Beehive.”

    I think he found declines in humanities and the social sciences, and gains in other fields.

  30. hkobeal says:

    I’m no sociologist, so I hesitate to wade into this too much. I’ve tried to look into it a bit and it is incredibly complicated. Depends on what you’re trying to measure. Some have tried to measure “religiosity,” but then there are arguments/discussions re: definitions of religiosity.

    Perhaps someone who is more versed in sociology of religion will enlighten us!

  31. Matt W. says:

    Well, Melissa Proctor is on Dialogue’s board. Maybe Kristine can ask her why she’d go with the 1986 Tim Heaton study over the more recent 1998 Stan Albrecht & Tim Heaton study? Or maybe she knows of another more recent study.

  32. Mark D. says:

    Newsweek is struggling to exist, so it is not entirely surprising that they would pull a few stunts.

  33. Kyle (24) I don’t think “bussing” is an accurate term. Rather within a city you’d have ward boundaries not created out of local geographic boundaries. That way you don’t have one ward filled with people only making $250,000 a year while an other ward struggles with most being in or near poverty. You’ll also note that I only think this would work in high density Mormon areas where the Mormon rate is so high that you get wards made up of very small areas which then distorts the diversity. I don’t think this is an issue for most wards. Primarily just wards in Utah.

    I’m hoping you don’t think driving a few miles to church is a hardship since many of us do more than that to attend meetings outside of high density Mormon areas.

  34. My last ward was a city ward that was very spread out in order to include enough people for leadership purposes. Driving 30 minutes to get to church isn’t a big issue. But it’s a bit of a pain to travel that far to do hometeaching, etc., especially when there are tons of people in other wards who live just a couple of minutes away. And it’s a pain to convince a less-active member to travel 30 minutes to church when there’s another church house 10 minutes from their home.

    I know of one branch in a Mormon Corridor area that is composed solely of trailer homes (with the exception of some of the leadership). Apparently attendance and membership have skyrocketed since the branch was created. I’m guessing the members no longer feel marginalized like they did when they were part of a larger ward. I’ve certainly been in Mormon Corridor wards where the apartment-dwellers were marginalized by house-dwellers due both to their income levels and their rate of turnover.

  35. Maybe I’m just immature, but I thought the Newsweek cover was funny. I don’t take Newsweek very seriously, though.

    Anyone who doesn’t like the “special underpants” and “secret rituals” stuff better pray that Mitt Romney gives up his presidential campaign. This is nothing compared to what’s in store if Bro. Romney gets the Republican nomination in 2012.

  36. Tim it definitely can go both ways. But I think it healthier for people to be around a mix of people. But I’m all too aware there are downsides.

  37. renverseur says:

    Both Newsweek and BusinessWeek are going to pale in comparison to Trey Parker’s shout-out to Joseph Smith this
    evening when “Book of Mormon” won the Tony for Best Musical, and his statement that everyone just wants to be in
    a big happy Mormon family (which he knew personally growing up in Colorado BTW). I have been told that the
    Church has now decided to roll with the musical’s success by buying media saying “Now that you’ve seen the
    Book of Mormon, why not read it?”

  38. #25 MW just to point out that most of the figures in those charts don’t directly say anything about the assertion of what happens when women get post-graduate degrees. Interestingly, the one that does (chart 4) actually nominally supports the notion that women with more than a bachelors (16+ years) appear to have lower activity rates than those with bachelors (16 years). I don’t have time to look up the underlying study and the article doesn’t provide any details on the samples/data used to calculate these statistics (US mormons only? From the Church databases? From what years? The study was done in 1998 so at very least it doesn’t talk about trends that have happened in the last say 15 years.) I would also note that in the second article in comparing US education attainment to LDS people that these aggregate numbers are a bit deceiving in that really we should be comparing Mormons against at least similar demographics in terms of race and ethnicity etc. In the US Mormons have to be less than 5% black. My guess is if you controlled for this by taking the black population out of the “world” statistics for example those bar graphs wouldn’t look nearly so dramatic given that drop out rates in highschool among black males are around 50% and 1/3 of all black men are currently incarcerated etc. etc. I don’t think giving us a leg up in the comparisons due to our woeful record in attracting black members is very fair. This is what drives me a bit nuts about the FAIR people sometimes. I understand what they are trying to do and I even think there is a place for it, but I always get a bit queasy when I dig in because it often seems they are playing the very game they accuse their “opponents” of playing.

    That said do I believe that Mormons’ emphasis on education leads to higher rates of education? Sure, just not to such dramatic degrees implied here. Do I think there is something to the notion that highly educated women in the Church may be leaving (or inactive) at higher rates than is *plausible*? I do, though I would really, really like to see good data on this since I am open to the possibility that it is anecdotal or the effect is rather small. Do I think it is likely that such a trend has been exacerbated in the last 15 years? Definitely, I would be shocked if to see data that said the retention rate of graduate degree women is actually getting better. All indications seem to be that activity rates among YSA women on up are catching up to the inactivity rates of men. I have heard whispers from people who know people in the auditing and statistical departments of the Church that such rumors are actually supported by data. For good reasons or no the Church understandably doesn’t like to share hard numbers that reflect poorly on it.

  39. 1/3 of all black men are currently incarcerated … I always get a bit queasy when I dig in because it often seems they are playing the very game they accuse their “opponents” of playing.

    Even the worst statistic — the 20-34-year-old male demographic — is one in nine, not one in three; for black adults as a whole, it’s one in fifteen. And this isn’t the only bit of your comment that makes me queasy.

  40. But when they start talking about our un-Christlike actions, our discrimination against the poor, and our quest for worldly wealth and success, we’ve got problems.

    Perhaps they’ve got a point.

  41. Ardis,

    I am duly chastened for using really bad statistics I didn’t verify. Too bad you can’t delete comments. This is what I get for blog commenting way to fast and in reactionary mode. The most appropriate thing to do is shut up and go away with my tails between my legs for awhile until I correct my commenting behavior. Lesson learned. :) As partial penitence the 2007 Pew Study estimates that 3% of American LDS are black. 6 out 10 black men you dropped out of school had spent time in prison. In 2004, 21% of black men not in college were currently incarcerated. http://www.nytimes.com/2006/03/20/national/20blackmen.html The Bureau of Justice estimated that 1/3 in black males would be incarcerated in their lifetime. http://bjs.ojp.usdoj.gov/content/pub/pdf/piusp01.pdf. This is where I pulled the 1/3 figure – lifetime chances not current incarceration. There is a HUGE difference difference between the two obviously so no excuses on my part. The more general point being that we should be circumspect about what we pat ourselves on the back for and how we think about presenting our own statistics.

    I do think there is something to trying to figure out what is or isn’t going on among more than bachelor educated women and I don’t think the particular FAIR articles address the specific concern in question very well. On the other hand the article didn’t provide any sources for the assertion made by academic. I do think it is sad that all we have is rumor and whisper to go on when we hold so much data that can help elucidate the problems (or non-problems) we would so like to fix.

  42. Matt W. says:

    rah, the fair article notes that women with post graduate education attend church 75% of the time, while women without a college degree attend 70% or less. While it is true that the study shows that post graduate education is 5 basis points lower than those with only an undergraduate degree, I think it is more interesting that post-graduate educated women still have higher attendance levels that all other categories besides bachelor levels of education. I don’t have Heaton’s 1986 study, so I can not comment on that, but I do have a copy of their 2005 study (here : http://www.amazon.com/Statistical-Profile-Mormons-Studies-Sociology/dp/0773462619) so I’ll take a look when I get home.

  43. jjohnsen says:

    ‘What Craig said. If the Newsweek cover had been on the Daily Show I would have laughed- but Newsweek is supposed to be…news. I don’t think a mocking or satirical tone is appropriate in that venue and man, I wish the lines between satire and news were better defined and understood.”

    i’m trying to think of a single politically oriented newsmagazine that hasn’t portrayed politicians in a comical way. The Atlantic, Time, New Republic, etc. have all done this multiple times a year. It’s strange to me to get upset about this single incident just because it involves a Mormon politician, doesn’t anyone read the section of the newspaper with political cartoon anymore? Portraying politicians as buffoons didn’t start when Newsweek was purchased, it started long before any of us were born.

    I thought the cover was great, though my thought’s on the robotic Mitt might have something to do with it. I tired of looking for ways to be offended about what people think about my religion long ago.

  44. #42 MW

    Ok so here is the original article where the graph on gender, schooling and activity was taken from: http://rsc.byu.edu/archived/latter-day-saint-social-life-social-research-lds-church-and-its-members/8-consequential-dim . It is a well cited article/talk in general, but the exact explanation where this particular data comes from is a bit blurry. From what I can infer it comes from 2 surveys done by the authors in 1980 and 1981 of 1,953 individuals in the state of Utah. Here is the cite for the original academic article Albrecht wrote on education and activity using the data. Albrecht, Stan L. and Tim B. Heaton. 1984. “Secularization, Higher Education, and Religiosity.” The Review of Religious Research 26:43–58. It is in an edited book so I couldn’t get a copy online to verify that it uses the same data in the graph, but this appears to be where that data come from.

    So in understanding the relationship between women’s post-doctoral degrees and activity the data in the FAIR article has a lot of scope issues. At best it relates to Mormon women living in Utah in the early 1980s with post graduate degrees. So it is 30 years old and the number of LDS women with post-grad degrees at that time is probably pretty small and even then is shows a small decrease compared to bachelors which I think is the most correct comparison as activity rates for HS or less educated members of all genders etc is dramatically lower than for college-educated members. Obviously, a lot has changed in the gender/education/church nexus since the early 1980s. Everything from Mothers in Zion, to the September 6, to the 3 great dangers to the Church, to new waves of the feminist movement, to dramatic shifts in the education and professional attainment of women, the internet, the new rise of Mormon feminists etc. All these things could dramatically effect the relationship in question.

    I look forward to any updated data from the 2005 book (which I need to buy) that might shed some light on the discussion. My conclusion thus far is that I haven’t seen any reliable data that I think applies to whether the claim made in the Business Week article about women with post-graduate degrees becoming less active at higher rates is true or false. I will try and look up the academic who made the claim and see if I can find some public report out of the data she may have used to draw the conclusion. We may yet get to the bottom of this yet. And hopefully this is much more productive and substantive than my original post :)

  45. WRT jjohnsen’s great comment, we should also keep in mind that the “ideal cover” of Mitt Romney with accompanying mention of Mormonism was already done by Newsweek: http://static.deseretnews.com/images/top/main/1514/top-image-1514.jpg

    They’re not going to do the same cover twice.

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