Some (more) questions for Public Affairs

BCC has been critical of Public Affairs recently. It is fair to say that emotions have sometimes run regrettably high at times but that is only because the Newsroom wields great public power in Mormonism and some of us feel frustrated when it (in our view) does so clumsily. The following is a genuine attempt to understand the place of the usually excellent Newsroom in LDS life. Answers to the following questions would be very useful.

1. What is the functional difference between a statement signed by the Brethren (e.g. a First Presidency letter) and a Newsroom release, which, we are told, seems to have the de facto approval of the same?

2. When Michael Otterson says that, “[o]ur task is to find language that most accurately reflects what’s in the Brethren’s minds,” are we to know which of the Brethren’s minds is being reflected? The BSA release suggested that not all church leaders were at headquarters at the time of the decision. What is the minimum level of input that Public Affairs needs to prepare a release? Is the member of the Twelve who is the permanent member of the Public Affairs Committee sufficient for approval?

3. When Mormon bloggers criticize the Newsroom it has often been because a professional cadre of PR professionals are seen as fair game for criticism (even though we should still find ourselves under the obligations we always have to other brothers and sisters in the gospel). Public Affairs would seem to wish to neuter that criticism by claiming that Public Affairs always speaks for the Brethren. If the Newsroom therefore has what in the study of religion might be deemed a kind of “magisterial authority,” why not have the Brethren sign the important releases? Would that not give them more heft, especially when they end up being criticized from both right and left?

4. Public Affairs will be aware that the most common interpretation of D&C 1:38 is that when the Brethren speak it is as if the Lord has spoken. Are we to understand that Public Affairs now stands in that chain? Does this make the Newsroom in some way revelatory? Public Affairs will be aware of the “President Newsroom” jibe: would it be helpful if one of the apostles were to clearly explain its role and authority?

5. The Newsroom has been active in promoting a more nuanced view of the priesthood ban, as Brother Otterson’s discussion of the Gospel Topics essays shows. The essay on “Race and the Priesthood” tells us that, “[o]ver time, Church leaders and members advanced many theories to explain the priesthood and temple restrictions. None of these explanations is accepted today as the official doctrine of the Church.” Had the Public Affairs department of the church given voice to these mistaken theories via a news release at the time, what responsibility would members have had in relation to it? Would it have been reasonable to criticize such a release?

6. One of the complaints levelled against the church that Public Affairs is often required to rebut is the idea that Mormons are mindless automatons who walk in lock-step with Salt Lake. Brother Otterson notes (with some relish, it would seem) that there are faithful members of the church who belong to the communist party, despite President Benson et al’s views on communism. In 2009, he was interviewed by Steve Evans here at BCC and said that new media “allows people to come to better know Latter-day Saints.” Is it not good PR for people to know that there are active Mormons out there who are prepared, if necessary, to occasionally raise their objections about things which directly affect their lives? I sense a dislike from Brother Otterson for some corners of the Mormon blogosphere; BCC has always believed that the last thing the church needs from Mormons in public is unbridled sycophancy. Are we wrong?

7. Michael Otterson is from Liverpool. Is he Blue or Red?


  1. Peter Harbon says:

    Hi Ronan
    Although I think your questions are important I am glad I watched Mike Otterson’s talk in full first because it helped give me a better picture of the effort the Brethren and the Public Affairs team go to present a united and accurate front.
    Fortunately we are now also able to verify press statements by reference to original newsroom announcements.
    To adopt the PR approach I think it worth promoting their work first and foremost, instead of defending or questioning even.
    More members would benefit from reading the newsroom page and the new gospel essays, irrespective of how good one thinks they are.
    I can’t speak for Mike, but for the record I am a 100% RED and enjoyed our revenge yesterday against Stoke City. I like Mike am a fellow Liverpudlian and like Mike I don’t talk like a scouser, but if he did then that would really make his PR talks even more entertaining!

  2. Frank Fish says:

    I found the video too defensive. Rather than see bloggers as nasty anti-Christian persecutors of the righteous Public Affairs department, they might do well to ask whether they themselves bear any responsibility for the negative reactions they sometimes receive. That Mr Otterson seems to want to claim a kind of infallibility for his department is problematic to say the least. One also wonders whether these PR people have any idea about PR: to defend the brethren on the basis of the lucrative salaries they have given up is amazingly deaf to the financial realities most members labor under.

    But credit where credit’s due: there does appear to be some impetus coming from Public Affairs for a change in the status of women in the church. Mr Otterson seems to understand that some things need to change.

  3. Peter,
    “It’s a grand old team to play for…”

  4. Important questions, also for the young gay members of the Church who are trying to figure out their place in the Church and are still reeling from the BSA press release that told them once again that they are not wanted here. So who’s right? The Newsroom or the official mormonsandgays website? The Newsroom or Matthew 11:28? The Newsroom or 2 Nephi 26:33?

  5. Is the purpose of these questions so you can assuage your own (or others) concerns over the negative image of disagreeing with the church’s public stances or is it so you want to provide public statements you can point to in debates over this matter to reject aisle to authority against your view?

    In either case, it doesn’t seem to be helpful to answer your questions, because just line President Uchtdorf’s recent talk mentioning imperfections has been used to justify all sorts of disobedience, and any slight difference of opinion has been used to accuse the brethren of disunity (further justifying disobedience), the responses to your questions would undoubtedly be used to the same end.

    Does that mean you shouldn’t be vocal about disagreeing with the church? Nope. People who suggest you should only disagree with church public policy in silence don’t appreciate the importance of free speech. But just make it clear that you disagree with the brethren so other members can rightfully see you are outside the fence on this issue, and in their minds eye, on the wrong side.

    You don’t need to pretend to have the moral high ground in doing so.

    What’s interesting is the constant appeal to being on the “wrong side of history” on the homosexual issues. I think some members latch on to any statement from the church to justify their opposition on issues that might put them on the wrong side of eternity.

  6. Art,
    The Newsroom (and the internet in general) represents a new means of communication in a church that believes that official pronouncements have divine authority. I just think we really, really need to understand the boundaries of this new magisterium. *Once* we understand that, then we can properly evaluate reasonable boundaries of discussion and dissent. Do we understand it? I don’t. That is all.

  7. I believe the answer to #7 is found in #6. Specifically, “there are faithful members of the church who belong to the communist party.” YNWA.

  8. I’d also be interested in how Public Affairs sees its role in crafting what ultimately comes out of the church. I mean, even if every word they produce is seen and approved by (some portion of) the church hierarchy, it strikes me that the job of a PR person isn’t to act as stenographer for the client. Rather, it’s to understand the client’s message, help the client understand how that message will be received, and then craft the message in a way that will communicate most clearly and inoffensively the underlying intent of the message.

    I’m sure that can be a daunting task when you’re faced with publicizing a message from men and women you sustain as having unique divine insight and access. And yet, none of the Twelve are PR people and, to the best of my knowledge, divine investiture of authority doesn’t also provide communications knowledge; in fact, if it did (or if the Newsroom only releases exactly what the church leadership provides to it), the Newsroom is unnecessary.

    So I get that it’s freighted and hard, but I’d be really interested in knowing how PA affects the messages it provides (which I sincerely hope it does).

  9. The answers to your first and third questions can be summed up in two simple phrases: (1) trial ballon/stalking horse (pick your favorite metaphor), and (2) plausible deniability.

    In our nation’s capital, when the administration wishes to put forth a new proposal or take a stance on a controversial topic and is uncertain as to how it will be received, it leaks it to the media through an “anonymous high level official.” If the reaction to the proposal/stance on controversial issue is adverse, then the President can plausibly deny responsibility for the idea, thereby distancing himself from it. Only when he is confident in the correctness of his position and has carefully gauged public sentiment, will he put his John Hancock at the bottom of the page.

  10. FarSide, except that here, PA is denying that plausible deniablity; it claims that, in fact, its statements have been approved by the church. Which blows the church’s ability to disavow Newsroom statements.

  11. Nate Oman says:

    Ronan: It seems to me that a number of your questions are based on the false premise that we have some set of clear rules about the doctrinal status of certain kinds of statements but that we lack a clear sense about the doctrinal status of Newsroom statements. Your testiness seems to come from the fact no one will come out and just tell us what the doctrinal status of Newsroom statements is supposed to be.

    It seems to me that this entire approach is misconceived. There are NO CLEAR RULES ABOUT THE DOCTRINAL STATUS OF ANY STATEMENT. There is no “rule of recognition” for Church doctrine ( That isn’t how doctrine gets constructed in Mormonism and it is has never been the way that doctrine gets constructed. Rather, doctrine emerges from the totality of church teachings and practices. Saying, “The Newsroom tries to convey the ideas of the Brethren with whom we are in close contact” is probably about as clear as you are going to get. The precise doctrinal status of such a statement is mushy, but the precise doctrinal status of essentially all statements made by Church leaders or Church organs is mushy. I assume that the Newsroom has more doctrinal authority than Steve Evans but less doctrinal authority than a formally canonized revelation. I am not sure that the quest for doctrinal precision beyond that is really useful, given that I don’t think there is ANY rule of recognition for doctrine. And let’s be honest.

    As for testiness at certain aspects of the Bloggernacle, it is entirely understandable. Certain corners of the Bloggernacle are a toxic breeding ground of corrosive intellectual and spiritual habits.

  12. Yes, Sam. There is a Mormon propensity to pass responsibility up the chain. Don’t like a Newsroom release? The Brethren approved it. Think the priesthood ban was racist? Somehow God must have wanted it. You are right to note that LDS PR does not seem to function like PR elsewhere. Perhaps that is the inevitability of Mormon exceptionalism but I still think we are right to want it frankly and not defensively explicated, given the Newsroom’s prominence.

  13. Nate, do you include BCC and yours truly in that condemnation?

  14. “And let’s be honest” was supposed to be completed “And let’s be honest, it isn’t as though most of the criticisms made of statements coming out of the Newsroom couldn’t also be made of statements made over the pulpit in General Conference. One suspects that this isn’t about a lack of doctrinal clarity so much as the substance of this or that statement. Not surprise there. Most complaints about procedure are actually complaints about substance.”

  15. kellywsmith says:

    I know there are subtle nuances but it seems like you asked the same question seven times. This over intellectualization of things is a warning sign to me that someone is on the road to apostasy. When someone starts getting too nitpicky regarding anything and setting themselves above the brethren and questioning their motives, well, this is a dangerous path.

    It’s obvious you have a problem with the announcement regarding the Boy Scouts and I remember reading that a few weeks ago. This video is specifically talking about you (although there were certainly others). I pray that you will not follow the same path as John Dehlin and others who, at first, started with a desire to help others and ended up falling away.

  16. Ah, but Sam, it is one thing for Public Affairs to claim that all of its statements have been categorically blessed and fully endorsed by the church, but I have yet to see a letter from the first presidency that says: “Whether it be by our mouths or the mouth of PA, it is the same.”

  17. Kelly, thank-you for your concern. My likelihood of falling away is proportionate to the space I feel there is for people to raise honest concerns (such as the effect the BSA statement might have on gay Mormon youth) without being put in the naughty corner in passive-aggressive ways. If people want to discuss these things with me person-to-person, they can happily contact me.

  18. Ronan: I don’t include yours truly in the condemnation, of course. You have only my deepest respect. I do, however, think that the Bloggernacle at times mistakes arrogance, cynicism, and posturing for intellectual insight, moral nuance, and righteous indignation. That happens at T&S, it happens at BCC, and elsewhere it happens with even greater frequency. I think that our covenant relationship with the Church is like a marriage. It rests in very large part on habits of affection and loyalty, habits that can be eroded by mental and conversational habits in which we dissect the beloved’s shortcomings with others. I assume that it would be dangerous for my marriage if I was to spend a lot of time kibitzing online with my friends about my wife’s failings. Now, I think that marriage is ONLY an analogy to the covenant relationship with the Church, and hence I think that there are lots of conversations about the Church and its failings that are quite appropriate and would be harmful in the context of a marriage. Still, I think that it is ridiculous to suppose that our public discussions of Mormonism have no impact on our emotional and spiritual habits, or that such habits are not very close to the heart of what it means to faithfully keep our covenants.

  19. Nate, I do wish we had the chance to break bread. The respect is mutual.

  20. RJH – These are very good questions. At the risk of sounding negative (overall, Brother Otterson’s remarks strike me as rather positive and I’m grateful for his candor), may I propose one additional question and a critique?

    Question: Does the newsroom or church essay department have authority to reverse signed statements of the First Presidency? I have in mind specifically the 1949 First Presidency statement which affirmed that various teachings unpinning the racial ban – including the lack of valiancy in the pre-existence – were “doctrines” revealed from God. “Doctrine” was the word used by the FP, not just “teaching” or “idea.” I am very grateful that the essay disavows these doctrines. But I remain baffled that a 180-degree change in doctrine could happen through an unsigned essay. That seems at odds with a house of order.

    Critique: Brother Otterson mentions the growing challenge of members who look positively on committed same-sex relationships. Unfortunately, at the same time that he (and the church generally) is calling for understanding and fairness towards our religiously-based views, he chooses to unfairly and inaccurately paint these members’ views as merely “the latest politically correct social convention.” This will not do. One cannot expect their views to be treated with respect if they persist in mischaracterizing other’s views. Certainly our professional media staff understands this. The reason that most members support same-sex relationships is because good fruit results from such unions and families. Until we address the reality of things as they really are, we will continue to lose the battle.

  21. Dave, precisely so. The reason I just cannot bring myself to condemn loving same-sex relationships has a lot to do with the values I learned in Primary and in my faithful LDS home.

    Also, COYB.

  22. Dave K,

    “But I remain baffled that a 180-degree change in doctrine could happen through an unsigned essay. That seems at odds with a house of order.”

    Though it may be at odds with a house of order, it is entirely consistent with the church’s longstanding narrative: doctrines don’t change (or, if they do, they were really only “policies” in the first place), and the church doesn’t make mistakes.

    When you claim to be “only true church,” one that is guided and directed in all things by the Lord, it is very difficult to retreat from or modify your truth claims. The church is trying to sidestep this problem by coming through the backdoor—unsigned essays quietly published on its web page—instead of openly conceding that it is repudiating one of its doctrines.

    The real problem isn’t that the church got something wrong—it’s an organization run by men, so of course it’s going to make mistakes. The problem is that has painted itself in a corner by claiming infallibility (“we will never lead you astray”), doctrinal immutability, and scriptural inerrancy. Dave, until the church modifies its stance on these points, I fear you will continue to be baffled.

  23. Nate, to your points:

    I do understand the ambiguity in Mormonism surrounding “doctrine”; I just think it would be good to better understand PA’s relationship to that ambiguity. It certainly seems to want its releases written on tablets of stone.

    I would settle for an answer to #6 only. What use is there for mild dissent in overcoming public prejudices about the church as cultish? I suppose it’s the Briton in me: I like the idea of the leader of my government being shouted at every week. It seems healthy. One might argue that a prophet is not akin to a prime minister, but that would only return us to the original problem of the Newsroom’s status as a prophet (or not).

  24. Dog Pface says:

    “And if you know your history, well for decades now we’ve fallen quite sho-ho-hort.”

    Everton, the Church, or both?

  25. “When Mormon bloggers criticize the Newsroom it has often been because a professional cadre of PR professionals are seen as fair game for criticism . . . ”

    Regarding criticism — There is an audience for whom criticizing the Brethren is off limits, and so a distinction is wanted. I suggest that audience is rather small and shrinking. Rather, I see a polarization in which there is a large group for whom criticism is off limits for anything from “the Church” rather broadly defined and certainly including Public Affairs. And a significant group for whom criticism is fair game for anything from (the same broadly defined) “Church” including the Brethren. (With subgroups that are more or less concerned with civility and constructivity.)

    I would make a different division, between issues of substance and issues of form. Some criticism is of the nature “I don’t like it” or (more carefully stated) “this does not accord with my own beliefs”. In some hands this can even sound like “you/they are wrong”. I am willing to entertain this kind of criticism (that’s my answer to #6); others are not. But I would like it clearly labeled. Other criticism is of form, what I might criticize about an essay or statement from anyone: “internally inconsistent”, “inconsistent with prior statements without explanation”, “proffered logic doesn’t follow”, “multiple meanings”, “changing meanings of key words make it hard to understand”, or even “grammar!” I suggest that this latter “form” criticism is always appropriate, for anything from the Church including the Brethren. We’ve all got to be about the business of understanding, and form has all to do with understanding.

    (Except that sometimes form criticism is really substance criticism in disguise, and shame on you.)

  26. My questions for Otterson would be much more specific:

    “Your office’s July 13 release gave most observers the impression that the Church was OK with the pending BSA resolution. Your office’s July 27 release suggests that the Church was *never* OK with the resolution.

    “a. Was this confusion intentional and some part of devious master plan? If so, could you please now explain to us precisely what that plan was?

    “b. If this confusion was unintentional and a result of poor drafting, then does the fault lie with you or with the GAs who supervise your office?

    “c. Which 70s and Apostles, specifically, approved the 7/13 and 7/27 news releases?

    “d. Why couldn’t the same GAs who were in Salt Lake and able to approve your July news releases, have also been delegated with the task of coordinating the Church’s response to the BSA resolution prior to the July 27 vote?

  27. Clark Goble says:

    Wow Nate. Fantastic comments. Agree completely with you.

  28. Ronan, I’m with you a 100%—tolerance of “mild dissent” is good for the church, both in terms of its administration and its perception by the outside world. Although I believe ad hominem attacks are always wrong, there is no idea, policy or proposition that should be off limits.

    If my memory serves me correctly, Harold B. Lee, in a conference talk, once modified the aphorism “A friend is someone who accepts me as I am,” by adding the phrase: “. . . but makes me a better person.” The humility evinced by this attitude is something that the church, its leaders and all its members would do well to emulate.

  29. Clark Goble says:

    FarSide while I agree in principle I think it practice it can be tricky figuring out when mild dissent is just mild dissent and when it is turning into a bigger movement. Now I do think bigger movements have to be dealt with and they do pop up every few years. But I also agree that often people overreact.

  30. eponymous says:

    Precisely Christian. There is wisdom in your categorization.

    We encounter a rabidly defensive and conservative body within our membership who see any critique of anything delivered by “the Church” as sure signs of the critic slouching towards Gomorrah. BCC tends to play between the poles you’ve identified with occasional outbreaks in the direction of the goal posts on the more critical side of the pitch.

    I agree with Ronan, it would be extremely helpful to understand how the voice of the Newsroom is connected to the mouthpiece or Prophet when it comes to declaring, “thus saith the Lord.” Although I wish it wasn’t so, I expect Nate is right, we won’t get a less nuanced answer on how to define what is communicated out of the PA group. And that is problematic in a world where words have meaning and authority is important to evaluate the weight of those words.

    What Ronan is asking is whether it’s possible to pierce the Veil and understand whose thoughts we’re truly hearing and whether they really reflect the unanimous voice of the full Church Leadership – to use Otterson’s word – or just a subset. In other words, how often does what Public Affairs communicate reflect a schism in thought, if even nuanced, that anyone who has studied Gregory Prince’s work knows exists within the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve. Or better yet, the thinking of one of the likely even more vigilant Seventy or support staff who see their roles as defending the faith?

    Speaking of the Fifteen, these are all men of deep thought and varying degrees of conservatism and while they do speak in one voice it is not hard to accept that there are certainly differences of opinion between them on many issues on how to approach any number of the issues facing the Church. Member spend countless hours dissecting the words of their favorite Apostle and looking to see if he leans in their direction. This is in part what I see Ronan asking, how can I know how solidly Church Leadership stands on the precise wording chosen for this statement?

  31. There’s no loyal opposition without loyalty.

  32. Indeed, Steve.

    And thank-you, eponymous, for articulating that so well. In a church that believes its leaders speak for God (but not always: see the “Race and Priesthood” admission), there is a moral obligation to be clear about these things. Anything less is unfair on its members, perhaps worse.

  33. I wonder why I never hear people asking whether McDonalds PR firm “really represents” the will of McDonalds executives?

  34. it's a series of tubes says:

    Because a McDonalds burger is not the only true and living burger with which you should be well pleased. That status belongs to In N’ Out and/or Habit, obvs.

  35. Seth, as the #McDStories disaster shows, not always.

  36. eponymous says:

    Probably because your salvation doesn’t depend upon the quality of their discussion of McDonald’s latest quarterly results or the vaccine status of their chicken.

    We think of the President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints as the direct mouthpiece of the Lord and we revere him and those who serve with him as prophets, seers, and revelators. D&C 1:38 teaches us as much. If we were talking about the CEO of the Corporation of the Presiding Bishopric of Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints then perhaps there would be less concern. But we’re not.

    What concerns us is the veil that is created by imprecise and uncertain communication that is presented with an at times unwarranted air of certainty. Or when wording is inartfully chosen that can cause pain and problems for our members or those we love then it is fair to ask how well and by whom it was evaluated.

  37. Frank Fish says:

    In the video, Mr Otterson talks about the media “Getting it Right” when it comes to reporting about Mormonism. It seems that Public Affairs does not like it when the tables are turned. To be clear, I’m not sure anyone is arguing that the LDS church should not make its feelings about gay scout leaders clear; the argument seems to be that the tone of the release was unnecessarily hostile.

    Apparently, however, this tone came from the Brethren, which came from God. Thus Public Affairs will always “get it right.” What an amazing place to work that must be!

  38. Great questions, Ronan.

    To me, this speech by Otterson was generally a good step forward. It shows he/the PR Dept. is paying some attention to members who have concerns.

    However, the defensiveness in his talk (despite his intent to not be defensiveness) still bothers me. The quip about members supporting same-sex marriage as if we did it only to be fashionable at our fancy dinner parties, for instance…

    Most importantly, though, as someone else has quipped, the PR Dept. is more Catholic than the Pope, i.e. they promote infallibility (despite paying lip service to the contrary). I think this is something that could really benefit from clarity.

  39. Seth R, I think it’s more because McDonald’s doesn’t belong to its customers. To be fair, it’s kinda rare for a client to like its PR representation: “I would’ve said it this way,” “How come our announcement isn’t on The Today Show?,” “That journalist was really unfair to us…why’d you let them write a hit piece?,” etc.

    I’d be surprised if Church PA is exempt from that kind of feedback from the Q12. But that’s compounded by the fact that, in some sense, we all feel like we’re the client. The newsroom doesn’t just speak TO us, it speaks FOR us. I can’t imagine the pressure that must go along with that. But that’s also why I think Ronan’s questions are fair. As a mormon, I’m viewed through the lens of Mormonism that the newsroom helps shape.

  40. Question #4 is sometimes on my mind. So, does anyone have a reason that the leading quorums of the Church do not come out in defense of Church PA? Or does someone have an example of a GA explaining the purpose of the PA department and how it relates to more traditional ways of promulgating doctrine?

  41. Ryan Mullen says:

    FarSide, I was excited at the prospect of the Harold B Lee talk you referenced. I found this

    by Marvin Ashton, but it seems to have the less-humble perspective “A friend is someone who accepts YOU as YOU ARE but makes YOU a better person.” That is, it’s from the viewpoint of changing other people rather than letting myself be changed by them. Let me know if you have a different source.

  42. A few random thoughts after I read the full transcript.

    1) “The core function of the Public Affairs Department is to build relationships with opinion leaders whose influence can either help or hinder the Church’s mission.” Thus, while PA is directed by church leaders, its purpose is not to facilitate communication between leaders and members. In this vein, Brother Otterson’s remarks at FAIR are an outlier. He was speaking personally. And he was addressing members – or at least the bloggesphere.

    2) “The core function of the Public Affairs Department is to build relationships with opinion leaders whose influence can either help or hinder the Church’s mission.” So what exactly was the purpose of the statement on BSA’s vote? Who was PA trying to influence? The vote was done.

    3) “[W]ithout the Church’s public call last January in a news conference for an equitable treatment of both religion and LGBT rights, Utah would not have the laws it has today protecting the rights of both.” That’s a pretty frank admission and dim view of Utah politics. If true, I’m quite grateful the church took a stand. But it’s markedly different from the Prop 8 aftermath where the church took pains to downplay our responsibility for the outcome.

  43. eponymous says:

    AM, that’s a great question. I was perusing a few sites in a Google search about what the Church Leadership have to say about Public Affairs and this quote was of interest:

    Though you won’t find the words Public Affairs in the scriptures, the principles of building good will and creating lasting friendships have been critically important to the Church from the beginning. The Church has public affairs directors in every corner of the globe. These seasoned men and women help priesthood leaders build the relationships with community, government, and faith leaders that allow us to pursue the mission of the Church. From working with government leaders for approvals on a new building, to fostering respectful interfaith dialog and answering questions from the media, public affairs forms a vital bridge between our congregations and the communities they call home.

    That first phrase really encapsulates the whole problem because that’s how they see themselves and yet Otterson explains why we see them otherwise:

    Newsflash: We don’t freelance.

    So the words of the Public Affairs aren’t in the Scriptures and yet,

    >Our task is to find language that most accurately reflects what’s in the Brethren’s minds.

    Can you understand why we’re more than a little confused Brother Otterson? Like Kyle, I sympathize with the challenge our Public Affairs brothers and sisters face. And I’ll gladly state that we appreciate Brother Otterson being candid in his discussion last week. Let’s keep the dialogue moving forward.

  44. Couldn’t agree more with Nate. The Newsroom is nothing more than a communication tool that the Leaders of the Church use to communicate with the church and with the world. If you want to know what something means that comes out of the newsroom look no further than: This is what the bretheren want to communicate to the world.

    Also I agree with Nate that there is a fine line between healthy discussion and corrosive murmuring and it is frequently crossed in the Bloggernacle and here on BCC as well.

    Every once in a while I convince myself that I am going to take a break (like recently) then I read an awesome post such as Jason’s recent post on walking in love with the gospel topics, and it makes me want to stay around for a little while longer. Until I start to see some more corrosive murmuring.

  45. JTB, I’m curious what part of this discussion you consider corrosive murmuring. Who’s crossing the line?

  46. Actually, I wasn’t speaking of this discussion in particular just the Bloggernacle and BCC in general.

  47. Ryan Mullen, thanks for fact-checking my quote. I was going entirely from memory, which obviously was a mistake on my part, especially given the number of years since Harold B. Lee was prophet (or Marvin Ashton was a General Authority). It appears that I got both the source and text of the quote wrong. My apologies. Perhaps I was just engaging in wishful thinking.

  48. I found it quite entertaining that despite Otterson’s assertion that a prerequisite for public affairs is a thick skin, it was abundantly clear that you Ronan had gotten under it despite how thick it might actually be. Please let us know if this back and forth ever evolves into o a House of Commons style discussion as opposed to the continued passive aggressive approach taken by Otterson.

    Since I don’t think anybody reasonably expects any answers from Otterson, let me ask the following of you: Which case scenario would have been worse? The PR department going rogue and not representing consensus or what appears to be the actual case that they were in fact merely stating agreed opinion?

  49. “I just think it would be good to better understand PA’s relationship to that ambiguity. It certainly seems to want its releases written on tablets of stone.”

    I disagree. I don’t think that the PA is claiming that their decrees are on tables of stone. I think that they are claiming that they don’t act without the authorization of members of the Twelve and or the First Presidency. I assume that this is accurate, and I have always found the notion that PA is off making statements that are at odds with the intentions of Church leaders wildly implausible. I don’t actually know what it would mean for PA to clarify its relationship with the ambiguity of Church doctrine. I think that you are asking for something that does not exist in Mormonism and has never existed, namely a clear institutional structure for promulgating doctrine. What would the statement you are looking for even look like? “Statements by public affairs are as authoritative as general conference talks, but more authoritative than off-the-cuff remarks by general authorities at stake conference.” or perhaps “PA statements have greater authority than general conference talks provided that those talks are 15 years old” or so on. There is no statement that you could make about the doctrinal authority of ANY form of pronouncement by the Church that could be treated as a consistently applied rule that generates an answer to the question of “Is that doctrine?” There never has been such a thing. At best we have some rules of thumb, none of which can be operationalized as a rule, and the idea of what is doctrine is inherently contestable at some level. You want to know how authoritative statements by PA are?

    How about, “They are official statements by the Church made under the close supervision of members of the highest councils of the Church.” That strikes me as about as clear as ANY other statement that one could make about the authority of ANY other kind of Church pronouncement.

    How much authority should we grant to “official statements by the Church made under the close supervision of the highest councils of the Church”? I think that the answer is, quite a bit, but it’s always possible that they will get some stuff wrong or speak in ways that in retrospect are intemperate. Beyond such a rule of thumb, however, I think you are asking for something that has never existed and probably cannot exist within Mormonism.

  50. I think phrasing the problem as the “Newsroom going rogue” is a red herring. People don’t actually think that it “goes rogue”. The key question is whether Otterson believes that the Newsroom is infallible because, he believes, everything it says or does is specifically approved/mandated by the Apostle who has responsibilities for that area (or group of Apostles assigned to vet PA’s stuff). Does Otterson expect us as Church members, who have not sustained him or Church PA in any General or Stake Conference, to take Newsroom statements as doctrine, or as “the word of God” as in the D&C 1:38 sense? From this talk, it appears that he does, and he appears extremely grumpy that uppity Church members on BCC (or elsewhere) have the impertinence to question his own PR skills or his management of the division, which, he seems to believe, is infallible.

  51. “At best we have some rules of thumb, none of which can be operationalized as a rule, and the idea of what is doctrine is inherently contestable at some level.”

    Excuse me, Nathan Oman, but can you please tell this to Elder Oaks? Please pick up your red phone to Oaks and let him know this. We normal members don’t have any possible way to discuss any of this or anything else with General Authorities. Many thanks, Trond.

  52. JTR,

    Can you explain why the leaders of the Church need intermediaries to communicate? I can understand the need for PA to advise on how to present a particular message. I can understand why help is useful in contacting news outlets. However, I get nervous, though, when the message comes without being attached to the name of someone I sustain at general conference. Can you tell me where a general authority has vouched for PA? Unless I missed something, Brother Otterson did not even tell us which GA’s he works with, other than the Presiding Bishop (who he did not name). It is puzzling.

  53. I am struck by how different these matters appear on bcc as opposed to how things are on the ground. Nobody around here is suprised by the newsroom response because locally we agree. In fact our local Friend of Scouting LDS support has dried up and our stake is anticipating a BSA pullot. Last year our ward refused FOS.

  54. Thanks bbell for keeping it real, as ever.

    Nate, it’s my understanding that everything produced under correlation is reviewed by the highest councils of the Church. What’s the difference between a Newsroom PR and, say, a church manual?

  55. I think Nate is correct. (Which isn’t always the case, so worthy of note.)

  56. eponymous says:

    Nate, it’s the anonymity of the Newsroom that is troubling. You might respond that this is the nature of the beast. But in an era where a 10 year old can pick up a video camera and instantly project themselves to the world at large for everyone with an internet connection to see, it is fair to consider whether a Public Affairs and Newsroom approach is the best way to communicate to the world at large and especially our membership.

    I tend to agree with you on the doctrine question as the borders are very muddy. I like how Claudia Bushman stated it in response to a discussion of Correlation on this site a number of years ago:

    What does anyone mean by “maintaining purity of doctrine” in our do-it-yourself Church? Where is this pure doctrine available? We don’t get it in general conference or in the Church magazines. We don’t deal with doctrine so much as we do with programs.

    In response to both of you I think many probably consider doctrine in the “Doctrine & Covenants” sense where there is a proclamation that is declared to the world and accepted by common consent (natch) in a general conference of the Church. That is perhaps the most pristine example of doctrine and something we have hardly done in the last 100 years. Instead, occasionally we get Proclamations which have the signatures of all Fifteen of the Church Leadership and are doctrine and yet they’re not because they’re not quite revelation and yet they are. But the difference is, we at least know that all Fifteen men put their signature on the document as reflecting their beliefs. If a talk is given over the pulpit, at least we know who is saying it and perhaps later we learn that they got a little out over their skis because the wording is pulled back and edited in the official printed Ensign for that General Conference.

    Brother Otterson calls out the issue where three Apostles participated a new conference and whether or not they are going rogue because not all 15 were there. I don’t think any reasonable mind would say that fits what we’re talking about here. It is the anonymity of the Newsroom for promulgating important messages that is at times troubling. Especially since they are supposed to represent what we as members of the body of Christ believe.

    Really, more than anything, this is just and element of the challenge of a worldwide Church with few feedback mechanisms in the form of true two way dialogue. Gone is the day when the Apostle visited regularly and quite possibly was related to you in some fashion.

  57. Steve: I don’t think that things become Church doctrine because they are correlated. I think that they are correlated so that they comply with Church doctrine. Church doctrine is discovered by charitably interpreting the totality of Church teachings and practices over time. So the answer is that it would depend. Church manuals likely go through more vetting but are less current. I actually don’t think that very much at all turns on figuring out the precise “doctrinal status” of PA statements or any other statement because I don’t think that doctrine is promulgated by making statements in a particular context with a rigorously defined “doctrinal status.” I think that the whole question the “doctrinal status” of PA statements is a misconception. They are written by smart, committed, but imperfect Church employees operating under the close supervision of the Brethren, so I give them a fair bit of deference. I am not sure what the point of seeking more precision than “a fair bit of deference” might be. I don’t understand what is supposed to turn on the answer to that question.

  58. “I am not sure what the point of seeking more precision than “a fair bit of deference” might be.”

    I would suggest that the point is that Otterson seems to arrogate a certain level of infallibility to them because one or more Apostles have signed off on them or directed them in the first instance. And, of course, there is the matter of the random lay member taking them as hard, fast doctrinal statements that are binding on all members, a measurement by which to judge other members’ faithfulness. (See, e.g., kellywsmith at 6:42 a.m. on this thread above.)

  59. Nate, I agree, particularly with the deference point. In terms of why define the appropriate level of deference, I suppose people want to do that so they can determine to what extent public disagreement may be acceptable.

  60. John Mansfield says:

    You know what I wonder about? It’s when I open some material generated by the LDS church, and at the front is a note: “This hymn book/Faith in God booklet/food storage planning guide is good. Please use it.” The note will be signed by the First Presidency, but it isn’t dated and there are no names, so I am left to wonder: Who wrote that? When? Does the endorsement of a disbanded First Presidency have value? Does the current First Presidency still stand by it?

  61. J. Stapley says:

    There is only teachings and beliefs. “Church doctrine” is analytically and devotionally useless.

  62. I’m not expected to evangelize McDonald’s.

  63. J. Staplely: I disagree. There is a notion that there are certain ideas or teachings that have authority that other ideas or teachings lack. The notion of authority is actually devotionally and practically important. The fact that “doctrine” is not established through a clear set of institutional rules does not mean that it is illusory or useless any more than the fact that grammar is not established by a clear set of institutional rules means that grammar is an illusory or analytically useless concept.

  64. “Probably because your salvation doesn’t depend upon the quality of their discussion of McDonald’s latest quarterly results or the vaccine status of their chicken.”

    You know, I get a variation of this response almost every time I try to point out the realities of human organizations and how the Church’s performance really isn’t that odd or substandard under that measure.

    “Oh, well, it’s the CHURCH OF GOD, so the standards we apply to everything else don’t apply to the Church.”


    The Church was always conceived – from the beginning – as an imperfect body populated with human beings. The expectations placed on it should be the same as any other well-run ethical human institution. We should always expect the Church to be performing up to the ethical corporate standard, and not make unreasonable demands on it just because we expect the Holy Ghost to always be filling in the gaps with magic pixie dust. Having inspiration in a corporate structure isn’t going to magically make you something above and beyond that achieved by other moral earthlings.

    Honestly, I think most of this objection is just an excuse to keep the bar for criticizing the church low enough for the intellectually lazy to clear it.

  65. Exactly, J. “Doctrine” broadly means “teachings.” In Mormonism, we’ve tried to imbue it with more weight, transforming it into “essential practices that cannot and will not change.” That may work in the context of sola scriptura (though it may not!), but it is necessarily devoid of meaning in the context of continuing revelation.

    That’s not to discount current teachings and practices, by any means. But if something must be eternal and unchanging to qualify as “doctrine,” we cannot know what doctrine is; we can only know that one particular teaching was not doctrine after that teaching changes. There may be some value in categorizing things as not-doctrine, but we cannot put anything into the “doctrine” basket if we demand eternalness as a condition of doctrinalness.

    Again, that’s not to say that current teachings have no value; even if, eventually, they will change, they may well have value in the present. But there’s nothing that we can say, for certain, will not be changed.

  66. Sam: I think that you are confusing the idea of “eternal and unchanging” with the idea of “authoritative.” These are different concepts and there is no reason that something must be “eternal and unchanging” to be “authoritative.” When people are asking if something is “doctrine” I think that fundamentally they are asking if it is authoritative, if they have obligations of some kind toward that teaching or practice that they don’t have toward other teachings and practices. They might think that such obligations arise because the teaching or practice is “eternal or unchanging” but there is no reason that this need be the basis of the obligations. (See

  67. Nate, what J. means is that, in Mormonism, there really can be no “doctrine” because any statement of a current General Authority can potentially overturn any previous scriptural “doctrine” or past teaching of a past General Authority. When that happens, we say that the thing overturned or superseded was a policy not a doctrine. Looking past such semantics, we see that what Mormonism has is teachings, not doctrines, Elder Oaks’ argument that “doctrine” cannot be changed notwithstanding.

  68. Church doctrine a brooding omnipresence in the sky, isn’t it?

  69. Nate, multiple twentieth century General Authorities, including President Benson, inveighed against Church members trying to “bind” current Church leaders with the teachings of past prophets, whether in the scriptures or of Church leaders in past leadership. So the “authority” distinction you are trying to draw to preserve the notion of “doctrine” in Mormonism doesn’t work, at least if you assign authority to such teachings of President Benson and others. Can get tricky, right?

  70. “I suppose people want to do that so they can determine to what extent public disagreement may be acceptable.”

    I suppose that the answer is, “Some, but it’s a good idea to be temperate and charitable.” Looking for a clear “doctrinal status” so as to authorize a scorched earth condemnation strikes me as weird project.

  71. Trond: The fact that what is authoritative can change over time hardly seems like a devastating criticism of the idea of authority. For what it is worth, I DO NOT assign “doctrinal authority” to any particular statement or statements made in any particular context. Indeed, that is the whole point of my criticism of RJH’s questions.

  72. I like your style! You are saying that Elder Oaks is wrong (“doctrine cannot be changed”) without putting your faithful Mormon cred on the line with the M* crowd!

  73. Nate, just so. Definitely good to be temperate and charitable as a rule.

  74. Wahoo Fleer says:

    Are there two different Nate/Nathan Omans here? The one styled “Nathan Oman” links to a website which, while quite Omanian in its name, does not actually exist when clicked on.

  75. Nate,

    Sam: I think that you are confusing the idea of “eternal and unchanging” with the idea of “authoritative.” These are different concepts and there is no reason that something must be “eternal and unchanging” to be “authoritative.”

    I totally agree with you, and I was trying to get at that in my comment (e.g., that just because it wasn’t unchanging doesn’t mean it’s not valuable). The problem is, colloquially, Mormons tend to equate “doctrine” with “unchangeable” (at least in my experience).

    And that’s why terming something “doctrine” is, imho, not terribly valuable. When you use the word, you’re using it accurately. But the person who listens to you may be hearing a colloquial version of the word, and may well be misinterpreting what you’re saying.

    I hate to give up the word, or the concept, and I sincerely don’t mean to denigrate the authoritative just because it could, in the future, change. But until we get to an agreed-upon meaning for the word “doctrine” (and, again, I like your definition, because it hews closest to what the OED tells me it means), its use in Mormon discourse strikes me as severely limited and mostly void of communicative meaning.

  76. Can you support Everton without outright hating Liverpool?

  77. J. Stapley says:

    Nate, of course authority is important. Not all teachings are authoritative within the church. Mine comments in Sunday School have no real imprimatur. But whether or not something is nebulously doctrine, is simple an absurd question. If the FP authorizes the Newsroom to make statements on behalf of the church, then those teachings are authoritative. Whether or not a current member has to believe (or at least not publically disclaim) the current teachings of church authorities is a pressing question for many. Under what authority the Newsroom speaks ties into that question quite directly.

  78. The Newsroom speaks under the authority of the Brethren directing it. It strikes me as rather fanciful to suppose that it is off purporting to speak for the Church without the authorization of the Brethren. The real question is what authority do you think that statements authorized by the Brethren have. This isn’t some problem of transparency at PA. It’s a theological question. For what it’s worth, I think that the answer is that it is alright to disagree with statements by the Brethren, but at some point when those statements are sufficiently pervasive, deliberate, and coherent that they are “doctrinal,” which means that they properly limit what one may teach in Church settings and the extent to which one can disagree while also accepting the authority of the Church. My answer is necessarily mushy, but I don’t think that this makes the concept of authoritative doctrine any more incoherent than any number of other messy and mushy ideas like “charity” or “forgiveness” or “fairness.”

    A final point: There is no contradiction between the claim that certain teachings are “eternal and unchangeable” and the idea of continuing revelation. The fact that members A, B., and C of a set have changed or can change does not imply that all members of the set can be changed. One might be mistaken about which doctrines are eternal and unchangeable but such a mistake would be just that, a mistake. It would not be a logical error or a fundamental misunderstanding of the idea of continuing revelation. Indeed, to the extent that we believe that theology is more than rhetoric or poetry and that there are theological facts-of-the-matter, then the idea that there might be doctrines that represent correct statements of the theological fact-of-the-matter that will not change strikes me quite plausible. (It is logically possible, of course, that theological facts-of-the-matter change, i.e. Christ might cease to be our Lord and Savior, but I think that it is rather unlikely that all theological facts-of-the-matter fall into this category.)

  79. “The following is a genuine attempt to understand the place of the usually excellent Newsroom in LDS life. Answers to the following questions would be very useful”. If you are genuinely asking a question/s, why don’t you contact the Newsroom/PA department directly and privately, instead of posting it on the blog. That approach might reinforce that you are sincere in seeking understanding, rather than looking for publicity/exposure/crowd support

  80. Nate, again, I don’t disagree with you that there may be theological facts that won’t change. In fact, I suspect there are. But (and this is the crux of what I’m saying), we don’t have access to what those facts-of-the-matter are. So using “unchangeable” as a trump card is a meaningless exercise. Arguing, instead, that X teaching is a valuable teaching and theological position, on the other hand, is perfectly valuable and sustainable.

    Again, I’m going to emphasize that that doesn’t mean that our doctrines/teachings/policies have no moral or pursuasive weight, or that we shouldn’t grant an extra thumb or three on the scale to the statements church authorities make. It’s just saying that claiming that X must be right because, as doctrine, it is unchangeable, ends up being an empty statement (unlike claiming X is right because it is a current teaching by the Lord’s prophet). To me, there’s a substantive—and important—space between those two assertions.

  81. Well, Seth R @1:22 pm, as long as our Prophet and other leaders continue to testify to us that the Church is true and is the only true Church on the face of the earth, I suspect members will want to hold it to a higher standard than your average ethical corporate standard. It’s repeated often enough that members believe it and as a result expect more.

  82. I’ve had a couple of thoughts come to me and figured I’d share. Take them for what their worth (nothing):

    1) Jesus Himself (and also through Nephi) spelled out His doctrine in a couple of places I’m aware of: 2 Nephi 31 and 3 Nephi 11. In both instances He was quite specific, clearly warned against adding onto it, and was remarkably consistent.

    2) Perhaps our confusion on this and many other topics is the reaping of many years of cultural reliance upon leaders to tell us what we need to know rather than following Nephi’s advice in 2 Nephi 32:5-6. It is a human failing that we desire strong leaders to tell us what we need to know, but I doubt such a model gets us to where we will each “know the Lord”, and D&C 84:19-25 seems to be evidence of that fact. I think relying less upon every word that comes from their mouth benefits not only us, but also our leaders because we don’t feel a need to slice and inspect every phrase and word they produce, making them offenders for a word.

    RJH, great questions that I think are appropriate to ask and are a part of sustaining our fellowmen.

  83. Gay men use the procreative power in a manner inconsistent to which it was intended.

  84. Let’s suppose that the Newsroom says something in a press release that is indisputably false and stupid. Unlikely, I know, but just accept it as hypothetical.

    As a faithful Latter-day Saint, what is the safest, most faithful position for me to take as to something indisputably stupid and false that comes from the Newsroom? Is the only faithful option to refrain from commenting in any way on the indisputably stupid and false official church statement? Do I have an obligation to act on the stupid and false statement as if it were true, even though I and everyone else in the world knows it is not?

    Now the same questions, but if the indisputably stupid and false thing is said by general authority. Does it matter what level of GA it is – e.g. various 70 quorums, Q12, 1st P?

    If someone I know, having heard me say that I believe the indisputably false and stupid statement is false and stupid, tells me they are “saddened” that I am troubled by such things or that they think my opinion is a warning sign that I am on the road to apostasy, how seriously should I, as a faithful Latter-day Saint, take their comment?

    One benefit of having a Public Affairs office or a press secretary, for a church, a company, a politician, or whatever, is that official statements can be made that nevertheless have a certain distance from the person or entity for which that office or secretary speaks. They can act with full authority and, even when they don’t “go rogue,” what they say is really not the same thing as when their boss speaks. I don’t think Otterson would say that the Newsroom releases carry the same weight as a signed First Presidency letter or as something the President of the Church says from the pulpit. But I do think he was offended at the suggestion that a press release that came from his office was necessarily his idea and not that of his bosses. By blaming Otterson’s office for something dumb or offensive in a Newsroom release, I think we are, at times, trying to take advantage of the presumed distance between the statement and the church leaders we are hesitant to criticize directly.

    I also think the Newsroom statement about the BSA reads like an angry first draft that nobody edited or proofread. But that doesn’t mean Otterson acted without leadership approval by releasing it, or even that he’s the one who wrote it. Am I on the road to apostasy for thinking a Newsroom release reads like an angry first draft that nobody edited? Would I be on the road to apostasy for saying that about something written and signed by an apostle? I don’t think so, and I think those who make such statements about their fellow-saints should think twice before saying such things and maybe try to be nicer. Maybe I should be nicer, too. And maybe the Newsroom should, too.

  85. Gah! I made a classic blunder; “their” should be “they’re”.

  86. Nate Oman says:

    Sam: I disagree that it is a meaningless exercise. Rather it is a claim that like any other claims might be mistaken. To judge whether it’s mistaken or not, I’d then make arguments and seek to marshal reasons one way or another. It seems really odd to say that because I might be mistaken about the location of Chicago I can only evaluate statements about the location of Chicago in terms of whether it is “valuable.” This seems like the functional equivalent of treating religious teachings as mere rhetoric or poetry. If we don’t actually believe that prophets have superior albeit imperfect access to theological facts-of-the-matter, it seems to me that we have given up on a fairly major aspect of Mormon beliefs and teachings.

    “It’s just saying that claiming that X must be right because, as doctrine, it is unchangeable, ends up being an empty statement”

    The claim isn’t that X is right because it is unchangeable but that it is unchangeable because it is right. One might be mistaken about this claim, but it doesn’t strike me as meaningless or pointless. It seems to me that you are staking out positions that imply that we can’t form beliefs about actual theological facts-of-the-matter and have reasons for those beliefs that justifies holding them. We can only talk about the justification of beliefs in terms other than that the idea that they might be true.

  87. Nate, I’m doing something much more modest than what you’re proposing: I’m saying that we can’t use the word “doctrine” to short-circuit the discussion of whether or not something is the will of the Lord. In that respect, I honestly don’t think I’m disagreeing with you, except about the popular use in Mormonism of the word “doctrine.”

    My sole objection to it is how I’ve seen it used colloquially, which is essentially as a discussion-ender. It’s not that making assertions that risk being wrong is not valuable; it’s saying that there’s something intrinsic about a statement (it’s doctrinal-ness, in this case) that means it’s beyond discussion and evaluation.

    And perhaps my experience with the use of “doctrine” as a trump card is idiosyncratic. I’ve heard it and read it used that way in enough situations, though, that I don’t think it is. And again (again!), I’m not trying to argue that church leaders’ statements have to be inarguably true and eternal for them to be valuable. I am arguing, though, that the fact that something is “doctrine” (again, whatever that means—in Mormonism, it’s a pretty loose concept) doesn’t mean that it’s suddenly beyond discussion, beyond evaluation, and beyond criticism (and, again, a fiercely loyal criticism—I like your marriage metaphor, within the limitations that you acknowledged).

    I actually really like doctrinal fuzziness; I believe that a big part of our purpose is to learn to see through the glass darkly, and that sharp clarity would diminish our ability to grow and progress. And that, I think, is a significant part of why I push back against the idea that immutability = infallibility (or something to that effect): the idea that something is beyond our critical spiritual faculities diminishes the growth that this life can and should provide for us. I’m profoundly comfortable, though, with shades of grey—I don’t think most of what we encounter is Right or Wrong (or, rather, I don’t think mostly we struggle with right and wrong); I think most of what we deal with is Oaks’s Good, Better, and Best and, in that world, there’s significantly less value to having a trump card.

  88. Clark Goble says:

    Sam (3:58) I think it is a problem when people put forward something as a trump card. I don’t think the brethren do this. I think those who do push it as a trump card are creating a false dichotomy. I don’t begrudge those who think “trump” is how we ought think about this. I do hope they realize that we can account for pretty much all the issues by dealing with it not as a trump but as a burden of proof position. That is the burden of proof is on those saying the GA is wrong. GA statements may have different strengths (say a 1st Presidency official statement to the church versus an one off conference talk) which means more evidence is necessary in those cases.

    Sam (8:17) I think some might use “doctrine” to cut off discussion. (And in some cases may do so appropriately, frankly) However in general, if something can be established as accepted by the Church as doctrine that seems to carry a lot of weight. Again, if we view it in terms of burden of proof that weight may be such that it takes a lot to persuade people against it.

    I fully admit this is very similar to the position some critics coming from a naturalistic stance take. They say that to accept any new category not already established securely by science requires extreme evidence. I actually think that’s somewhat fair although I’d quibble on the private/public evidence position and how radical some positions are. But it seems to me the same sort of reasoning is going on when members adopt the more or less straightforward established doctrines of the church.

    Where the problem comes in, of course, is that most people are actually fairly ignorant about all the statements of the Church. That frequently means they have weak evidence to determine what is or isn’t Church doctrine. Still, the basic stance seems quite defensible.

    To me I think it’s more helpful to think about all this in terms of fallibilism rather than fuzziness. That’s not to say there isn’t a lot more doctrinal fuzziness than most assume when you start looking at a lot closely. A lot people hold as doctrine often ends up being folk traditions for instance or at least more indeterminate than it often seems at first glance. (Did Jesus mary Mary? Did the whole earth fall with Adam or was Adam cast out of Paradise to earth? etc.) However typically there’s a fair set of doctrines that I think the brethren see both as significant and also quite established. (Did Jesus get resurrected? Was Jesus fully mortal? Will we be resurrected?)

    We may be wrong about some things, but then we’re sometimes wrong in science too. Being wrong occasionally doesn’t seem a problem – especially if there are so many things we’re not wrong about.

  89. Nate is right about all of this, but sadly so. Ronan’s quest for the divine organising principles of revelation ends prematurely, because such principles simply don’t exist. The church instead moves from situation to situation like every other political organisation, drawing on a tradition of behavior but not pulled forward by any particular principle. The Unwritten Order of Things is the only order of things. Instead of a divine organising system that can be explained and adhered to, we are left with a body of common law to be applied on a facts and circumstances basis. This is good news for organisational continuity. It is bad news for many of my LDS friends who grew up in the middle of the 20th century and for whom the rationality of Mormonism is its best part. The Church has some culpability here because in many times and places it has held itself out as a rationalised system, and there are many people who depend on that.

  90. bbell – that’s interesting. I’m hearing the opposite reaction around our stake and in our BSA district, that nothing earth-shattering will happen.

  91. Doug, you don’t know anything about our relationship with Public Affairs behind the scenes. Ironically, it appeared to some that the BSA release was itself “looking for publicity/exposure/crowd support.”

    When you and Nate align, I take notice! I’m still not quite getting the point, though. Everyone here knows that doctrine is nebulous in Mormonism. The trouble is, the institutional church and most of its members act as if it isn’t. Some of us would simply like the magisterial role of PA to be more fully explicated.

    Nate will hate me for using words like “magisterial” as if Mormon theology can be put into a Thomist box. Still, faithful Christians have been thinking about stuff like this long before Mormonism appeared. Do the Brethren have extraordinary or ordinary authority? Is the Newsroom simply the channel for their proclamations or is it something different (magisterium cathedrae magistralis)?

    I have a hypothesis developing. The Newsroom’s prominence exists because of a need in Mormonism to give voice to “the Brethren” as a kind of generic class without specific attribution. This is important for two reasons: 1. to project unanimity; 2. to negate the problem that may arise when the person one might expect to be the public spokesman sina qua non (as Gordon B. Hinckley was) does not so easily inhabit that role (as Thomas S. Monson does not seem to). This may be an unconscious development.

  92. The underlying problem is that the One True Church shouldn’t have a PR department! Jesus’ Apostles didn’t need PR specialists to find “language that most accurately reflects what’s in the [their] minds.” They preached with the Spirit.

    The Church needs to stop acting like a corporation and start acting like God’s representatives on Earth. Say what you will about Brigham Young, that man knew what it meant to be a Prophet!

  93. Nate Oman says:

    RJH: I fear that you are hopeless ;->. I don’t know what it would mean for the magisterial role of the Newsroom to be more fully explained. In very concrete terms what are you asking for? I confess, that I just don’t understand what it is that you imagine as being better than an explanation that tells you roughly speaking that members of the Twelve and the First Presidency are involved in the day to day operations of the PA. More transparency than that in institutional terms would be hard, given that the level of involvement no doubt varies a bit from issue to issue and day to day. Theologically, I don’t know what kind of rule you are asking for. I am pretty sure that any rule you articulate will be inaccurate, namely that it will not actually track how doctrine gets understood or articulated. To put it another way, I think that you are assuming that it makes sense to think about doctrine as being established by some isolated performative act, like the way that a legislature creates a law through the act of promulgation. You want to know exactly when and how PA may perform such promulgative actions. I think that this is a fundamentally mistaken way of thinking about doctrine. It’s like asking for a rule that precisely explains when and how an artist may alter an artistic tradition. Refusing to answer such a question is not a matter of being coy or lacking transparency. Rather, it is a reaction to the fact that the question just fundamentally misunderstands how artistic traditions work.

    Sam: I want to push back against the idea that claims to immutability are the same thing as claims to infallibility. There is no logical or conceptual connection here. The reason I think this is important is that I have OFTEN heard people claim that the idea of continuing revelation makes the idea of immutable doctrines per se incoherent. In other words, as I understand the argument, it isn’t that this or that doctrine claimed to be immutable is not in fact immutable, but rather that continuing revelation implies that any claim to immutability is just conceptually confused and mistaken. This is the argument that I want to reject. As a logical matter I think that it is confused. As a discursive matter, it is often used as a conversation stopper, i.e. one needn’t marshall reasons why this doctrine can or cannot change because there is no such thing as immutability of correct teachings. At a deeper level, I worry that it rests not just on conceptual confusion and a cheap debating trick, but on an assumption that ultimately theological discourse is not a discourse about facts-of-the-matter but rather is always and only a kind of poetry or rhetoric. All of this, I want to resist, and my resistance has nothing to do with allegiance to some notion of prophetic or institutional infallability.

  94. Nate,

    It’s much more simple than you are making it. Given the importance of the Newsroom in these “promulgative actions”, I think the church needs to hear about its role from the pulpit, so-to-speak, not from an administrator at a relatively obscure conference.

    The Newsroom is doing important work and yet many members are unaware of it and some members (both on the left and right) ignore it when it suits them. That is the first point. Michael Otterson began to address it but it needs a bit more work, I feel.

    The second point is to let PA know that it won’t do to expect immunity from criticism in vague, unhelpful ways. You agree with me that the BSA letter was very intemperate; it does not take much in the way of theory to know full well that if the author of the negative tone was a named apostle rather than an overzealous PA scribe who got it wrong (the tone, not the content), one’s reaction as a faithful Mormon is bound to vary. The gay Mormon who is wounded by the church’s hostility to BSA based on their LGBT policy is going to be far more wounded if he thinks that in the mysterious alchemy that is the Q15/PA interaction, the *tone* of the letter was somewhat more Q15 than PA. I think you know that is the case and feel you are obfuscating reality because your personality preference is simply that one not make a fuss.

  95. N. W. Clerk says:

    “I just don’t understand what it is that you imagine as being better than an explanation that tells you roughly speaking that members of the Twelve and the First Presidency are involved in the day to day operations of the PA.”

    The explanation came from PA itself, didn’t it? Isn’t it more meaningful for X to say that X stands behind Y than for Y to say that X stands behind Y?

  96. RJH: I don’t think that whether PA is “immune” from criticism hinges on whether their statements are doctrinal or not. I do think that there is probably a difference in temperament here, but I suspect that it goes both ways. You aren’t actually upset about the ambiguity of the doctrinal status of the Newsroom. You are just upset that they said stuff that you think is damaging. For what it is worth, I don’t think that Otterson and others are saying that the Newsroom should be immune from criticism. I think that he is saying that they should be immune from the criticism that they are speaking on behalf of the Church without the direction of the FP or members of the twelve. It’s not as though, however, members of the FP or members of the twelve are immune from criticism.

  97. I appreciate the discussion here, and the attempt to define the issue. For me right now, the central issue becomes, as Ronan just mentioned, who it is that is telling the gay members of the Church that they’re not welcome, and why.

    I would kindly suggest that the author(s) of the press release sit down with faithful LDS families and young people who are trying so very hard to reconcile their faith in Jesus Christ and the Restoration with the anti-gay comments they hear over and over from Church members who think they are “defending the family,” and may or may not realize the unchristian implications of their speech.

    Seriously, how can a 14-year-old or 16-year-old cope with being told time after time that he is evil in his very essence and that the Church doesn’t want him? And it would be one thing to hear it from a seminary teacher or random ward member, but another to hear it from an Apostle.

  98. BTW, I never obfuscate. I only add insight and nuance. Obfuscation is what the other guy does.

  99. Clark Goble says:

    I only give insight and nuance to obfuscation. So we can see our confusion so much better.

  100. A#4,
    I’m not sure I think the issue is quite as acute as you suggest, but I’m glad you see the basic problem.

    It was PA that brought up the “going rogue” problem and I think it was a bit of a straw man. Nobody with any sense of how SLC runs is going to believe that the Newsroom doesn’t have close oversight, I suppose it’s about knowing which jot and which tittle belongs to whom. Perhaps you are right and that’s a red herring. Strictly speaking, it may be, but not everyone has a sense of that nuance. But I think we’ve exhausted this now, haven’t we?

  101. And yes, “[I am] just upset that they said stuff that [I] think is damaging.” That is true. The counter from PA seems to be, “too bad, it came from the Brethren.” Probably neither claim is that helpful and blogging or giving speeches about it doesn’t overcome that. Trouble is, most of us don’t have this fabled red phone Trond mentions above. What else is there to do? Nothing, I guess.

  102. No, Nate, it is not as though apostles are immune from criticism. But they are definitely entitled to more deference than the average church member speaking his opinion, and maybe entitled to more deference than a church employee dealing with the media, depending on the extent to which that church employee is only acting on his own (not even that he is “going rogue,” but is acting on his own, within the scope of his employment), or whether he is really only speaking the words of the apostles.

    Not that it’s an either/or situation. I see it as more of sliding scale and for that reason, for what it’s worth, I think I ultimately agree with you that laying down a rule defining how authoritative the newsroom really is, is not likely to happen, because it may depend on the circumstances of each case, and it may be a good thing to retain some flexibility to be able to recognize, at least in hindsight, and maybe in the moment, that certain newsroom statements may be less authoritative than others.

    But I still think Ronan has a point. It is frustrating to the average member to not know in the moment on which side of the sliding scale a given statement falls. I suppose the safest course is to treat everything as authoritative, but to the extent that we disagree with certain statements, to privately assume that those statements are less authoritative and will ultimately be recognized so. But in practice, that looks very much like treating the Newsroom simply as the First Presidency, which only makes people wonder what the point is anyway, of having the newsroom. (I suppose the answer is, to take some of the burden of public affairs off the apostles.) And also, to the extent that the Newsroom did something knuckleheaded and hurtful, somebody might want to know in advance whether that apparently knuckleheaded statement was “less authoritative” or “more authoritative” as part of the process of weighing the perceived need to respond and reach out to those hurt against the propriety, decorum, deference, etc., we expect to give to the brethren, in order to decide whether it is better to speak out or to keep one’s concerns private.

    In short, I don’t think Ronan’s question has a very good answer, but the frustration that the question appears to stem from is nonetheless legitimate.

  103. eponymous says:

    Nate, Ronan,

    I’m sure Brother Otterson and his team are reading this thread and if so I hope it has been enlightening for them about our concerns. If only we could be assured the message went farther up the line.

  104. Case in point:

    For someone very dear to me, the PA reaction to Ordain Women was (one of) the final straw(s) in his ceasing activity in the church. I do not intend to be simplistic as these things are always complicated, but it really was a factor. Note that it wasn’t so much that the church does not ordain women, it was, as he saw it, the dismissive and weak way it was handled. This is not to pile blame on Brother Otterson whose letter* was no doubt meant to be helpful. It’s just that if we are now according the work of a cadre of lay officials the quasi-infallible status enjoyed by the Brethren, it would be good to consider for a moment or two the consequences of doing this. The perceived inadequacies of the OW-response letter (and this person believed them to be many and severe) were too easily laid at the feet of the church as an institution because of this culture of ours that if it has the Salt Lake imprimatur, it must be true. This unhealthy attitude is actually causing people to leave** (and I speak here from experience: because the letter was believed to be demonstrably “not true” in certain cases, the whole church took the blame for it and his leaving was further assured).

    In other words, this stuff matters!


    **Better: hastening their exit.

  105. DCL (11:05 p.m.) — that is the most insightful and accurate comment in this thread. It is sad indeed, but it is Truth — especially this: “It is bad news for many of my LDS friends who grew up in the middle of the 20th century and for whom the rationality of Mormonism is its best part. The Church has some culpability here because in many times and places it has held itself out as a rationalised system, and there are many people who depend on that.”

    Thank you for stating it so succinctly, and thanks to Ronan for the original post that prompted the exchange between Sam and Nate with DCL’s pretty much definitive concluding observation.

  106. MSSJ member. No surprise!

  107. Clark Goble says:

    John F, sincere question here. Not trying to do gotchas. But what is irrational about a catalyst theory for things like seer stones, U&T, Liahonahs, rods, etc. While maybe the seer stone is new for people, it seems all these other entities were part and parcel of the scriptures in the mid 20th century and oft discussed. Sincerely trying to understand any difference that isn’t just treating old cultures different from more recent ones. (Although early 19th century culture seems very alien to contemporary culture) Again, not trying to argue, but sincerely want to understand the rationality question. I sincerely don’t understand why two rocks (Urim & Thummim) are rational but one rock (the seer stone) is at odds with this.

  108. Nate, again, I like your style! Especially in this: “The reason I think this is important is that I have OFTEN heard people claim that the idea of continuing revelation makes the idea of immutable doctrines per se incoherent. In other words, as I understand the argument, it isn’t that this or that doctrine claimed to be immutable is not in fact immutable, but rather that continuing revelation implies that any claim to immutability is just conceptually confused and mistaken. This is the argument that I want to reject. As a logical matter I think that it is confused. As a discursive matter, it is often used as a conversation stopper, i.e. one needn’t marshall reasons why this doctrine can or cannot change because there is no such thing as immutability of correct teachings.”

    You are saying that President Benson is wrong (“members cannot and should not bind current Church leaders by the teachings of past prophets — even in scripture! — because the teachings of the current Church leaders are always absolutely authoritative vis-à-vis *anything else*”) without putting your faithful Mormon cred on the line with the M* crowd!

    [admin: a paragraph that admin felt was unnecessarily hostile and ad hominem to Nate was deleted]

  109. Ronan: “I’m not sure I think the issue is quite as acute as you suggest” followed a few comments later by a story about someone who left after a similar Newsroom letter?

    I am doing my best to help support a family with a teenager who is getting closer and closer to giving up on the Church. It is an acute situation right now. The timing of the press release was unfortunate for those who would very much like to help find a way for the whole large family to remain active tithe-paying, temple-attending members of the Church.

  110. Clark, I am not sure why the seer stone vs. Urim & Thummim is the touchstone of your focus on “rationality” in twentieth century Mormonism. (Probably because pictures of the seer stone — which any Mormon could have reasonably known was the primary method for translation based on David Whitmer’s and Emma Smith’s testimonies of the process, but which for whatever reason was somewhat obscured by the way the Church chose to teach history in its correlated materials throughout the latter half of the twentieth century in particular — are currently in the news?)

    I think that the focus of the issue of “rationality” that DCL referred to is, rather, the mid-twentieth century attempts to systematize doctrine (in JFSII’s Doctrines of Salvation and his son-in-law Bruce R. McConkie’s Mormon Doctrine), which seemed organized around the idea that everything in the Church and the Gospel (i.e. all eternal, immutable “doctrine”) was susceptible to categorization in an encyclopedia through a process of deductive systematization (though it wasn’t called this, but rather described itself as an Apostle just telling it like it is against a world determined to undermine these eternal, immutable “doctrines” — such as the priesthood and temple ban, to name one example).

    Like DCL, I know many Mormons for whom this mid-twentieth century concept of Mormon Doctrine as basically a rational extension or rather embodiment of the Enlightenment — Mormonism as a fundamentally enlightened, rational project versus the superstitions of lesser religions like Catholicism or other expressions of Christianity with their mystical but empty (according to this view) rites and rituals — was an essential characteristic of their overall faith. This was supported substantially by the Church’s own correlated narratives about prophecy, revelation, seership, and the de facto infallibility that ultimately became culturally accorded to Church leaders through this narrative. Many such Mormons ended up with a particularly brittle faith (in my opinion) that shattered or is on the verge of shattering as a result of the information age and the democratization of knowledge that is among the varied fruits of the internet.

  111. Clark Goble says:

    Trond, I don’t see how what Nate says logically entails Pres. Benson being wrong at all. I think Nate’s point is that we can argue for a particular doctrine being correct and eternal without binding ourselves to all doctrines being correct and eternal. One can accept knowing doctrines without logically denying fallibilism.

  112. A#4, fair enough. At this point, this is becoming stream of consciousness waffle.

  113. Clark Goble says:

    OK, fair enough. (I’m just picking seerstones as an example of recent things – I’m actually a bit surprised at the reaction to seer stones) I do agree that systematic theology can be a bit of a problem. I’m glad we’ve moved away from that. I think part of the “rational” element is also tied to our typically being materialists (especially in the 20th century).

    I do worry that too many people in place of testimonies took this normative system in its place. For those that did it is indeed brittle. I also worry that sometimes as a practical matter the church focused on maintaining these people in the fold at the cost of a focus on others.

    All that said, I sometimes wonder just how many people this really describes. Even a lot of McConkie Mormons (for lack of a better term) also had quite strong testimonies. While encountering things that shook their worldview undoubtedly shook them, I don’t think it shook them that much as a practical matter. Certainly not as many IMO as people who adopted the normative system of contemporary academic culture and then critiqued Mormonism in terms of that system. (Whose testimonies also seemed quite brittle)

  114. Like RJH’s friend, I’ve also had my faith threatened by the way the church has addressed the OW movement (and now the BSA). I’m not a supporter of OW or of the BSA, but quite frankly the church–an organization that I try to hold to a high standard–has been a bit of a bully on these issues. Some of their responses to these issues have not been at all Christ-like–in fact, the last seemed more like a temper tantrum. I haven’t left church activity, but I’ve seriously considered doing so, in large part because of how the church (and especially the PR department) has handled itself on these fronts.

  115. Excellent questions.

  116. “At this point, this is becoming stream of consciousness waffle.”

    This more or less describes me thinking more or less all of the time. Except when it doesn’t.

    Trond: No. All I am saying is that fallibilism does not imply either skepticism or a stronger metaphysical claim that no claim can be true eternally. I have absolutely no problem with the idea that the living prophets may supersede the teachings of dead prophets.

  117. RJH,

    I think the problem is this. As a thought experiment because I am too lazy to do it via Google, do you think I could search Conference talks and lesson manuals for the last twenty years and find a handful of discourses roughly on the subject of “The Lord’s Pattern of Revelation”? And would some of these detail how God’s thoughts are transmitted to each of us members through certain set channels, such as through prophets, scriptures and conference talks? (And then an ever-narrowing band for the “personal channel”?) I think a lot of people believe in this – that there is a pattern and a routine to detecting revelation – or discerning authoritative statements. This is what I think of as a rationalized system.

    But then there is this Newsroom issuing unsigned statements (See the North Korea Central News Agency re: the lost art of signed editorials) purporting to vaguely speak for the Brethren in a general way. Where does it fit in the pattern? Will the pattern be amended to accomodate these kinds of statements?

    So then Nate comes along with the truth – the pattern of revelation is just a post hoc abstraction of the existing body of practice – not an absolute, rational principle. So the newsroom is just another data point not guided by any overarching principle. I doubt anyone is even qualified to answer your questions, Ronan, because nobody even knows. Only time will tell, once things have settled, exactly how authoritative the newsroom is. Provisionally, for now, there seems to be some consensus on here to treat the statements with substantial deference, which seems a safe bet to me.

  118. Yes, exactly this, DCL! You have a knack for succinct explanation.

    The rationality focus relates to mechanics. By the mid to late twentieth century, we had become a people who thought everything was mechanical. Thus, behavioral studies types (organizational development and other such “sciences”) have found ascendancy among us. Everything in religion and the Gospel is something to be done through a pattern or process (often involving between three and ten bullet points). Receiving revelation? Here’s the mechanical process for that: [insert a business school powerpoint slide with three bullets that present the Gospel as something mechanical — you do this, and out pops that].

  119. Perhaps the common law really is the only really apt analogy to the way “doctrine” develops or even exists in Mormonism. If so, we have damaged our perceptions of spiritual truths through our attempts to use mechanical explanations for things like revelation. Maybe now is the time to start using biological explanations that depict these aspects of our religious life as something organic, not mechanical. Things that are not susceptible to precise, measured control. Rather, they are vague and cannot be controlled in any precise way, and will develop on their own in ways that we might predict but cannot know for certain, much like biological evolution.

  120. DCL,

    A day and a half of back-and-forth later I have come to this conclusion with which I will bid you all a good night. Let us say clearly and definitively that the Newsroom is fully and robustly authoritative, as good as the Brethren speaking for themselves. Let bloggers say it and let the church unequivocally say it via the Ensign or GC (in other words, not just Michael Otterson at a minor conference). I see two advantages to this:

    1. It means that members cannot pretend the Newsroom does not count. So when PA issues some statement on immigration, the Fox News crowd can’t brush it off. Or if there is some LGBT-friendly social policy supported in Utah, the homophobes can’t shake it off as “spin”, something the church has to pretend to support. Similarly, when they send out an angry release about scouting, the progressives can know the anger is fully coming from the top and will have to suck it.

    2. Because therefore PA knows that the members know that PA = the Brethren, they will work damn hard to make sure they get it right. This may mean we get fewer letters about feminist issues in the church which have high priest group-level New Testament exegeses in them. This would be good.

    Win/win (that’s very mid-to-late century Mormon for you). There. The End. Where’s GST?

  121. We’re done here.

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