Framing the story: The Church in an internet age

As we may all know at this point, the 2010 Church Handbook was leaked last week, and the first thing people went for were the changes regarding homosexuality from the previous handbooks. The Human Rights Campaign claimed that

The new guidelines clearly show that advocacy efforts pay off with real change […] We spoke out against the harms of so-called reparative therapies on LGBT young people. Church leaders heard us and responded by dropping their recommendation that such discredited interventions be forced on LGBT and questioning youth.

A Church spokesman responded by saying that the HRC’s framing of the changes and the reasons for the changes was “simply absurd.”

Indeed, while there is a removal of same-sex attraction in the Handbook as something that requires a kind of Bush-era doctrine of pre-emption whereby a church leader should jump in and recommend counseling (which could very well lead to a reparative therapy type of situation, but not necessarily — depends on the local therapist), the Handbook does still make “behavior” worthy of intervention. I don’t really see how the Evergreen style of reparative therapy is dead, as some have reported, since that therapy hasn’t been about “changing orientation” since the 1990s, anyway. It’s about “ceasing homosexual behavior and diminishing same-gender attraction.” In other words, it’s like: “You can’t kill temptation, but you can control it.” It’s what they might call “realistic” reparative therapy that might not make one heterosexual, but can make one heterosexually functioning within a mixed-orientation marriage, which is what God prefers for you over same-sex marriage. (I say this tongue-in-cheek.)

Thus, I can see why the Church would consider HRC’s framing to be “absurd.” The context of the changes in the Handbook is not just the last few months, but is more of a streamlining of the attraction/behavior distinction (from the mid-1980s) over a period of many years. More power is put in the hands of the individual to “choose the right,” and there seems to be less of a focus on social service “solutions.”

The Church Newsroom posted a short piece that is basically a venting about how “200 pages of content” (the Handbook) have been reduced to “four short paragraphs.” They’re annoyed that there is an implication that the “changes in the handbook were somehow linked” to recent protests on Temple Square, etc.

Joanna Brooks’ post on Religion Dispatches puts things into perspective. She writes:

I suspect that the Church newsroom is reacting less to sensationalistic journalism (a time-honored problem for LDS people) than to the difficulty of controlling informational narratives in the digital era. […]

Top-down correlation may have met its match in the world of the Internet, where information flows horizontally.

Perhaps in response to this internet age, the Church decided to publicly release half of the Handbook. This is significant because, as Brooks states, the

…inaccessibility of the [Handbook before] to regular members only heightened its power and significance, so much so that anyone who could quote authoritatively from [it] during a Sunday School lesson…held a special sort of status in the community.

A commenter under her post disagreed thoroughly, stating: “If you want to have a secret in the church put it in a handbook, because nobody reads them […] this is much ado about nothin’.”

Oh, really? If Mormon culture were perfectly correlated/standardized, then yes, the Handbook would be irrelevant. If everyone had their Bible memorized, then no one has to open one. But we’re talking about a public viewing of Mormon correlation/standardization. As Brooks writes, Mormons are

…a people for whom insider-outsider message control (and double-speak) has served as a form of cultural survival since the 19th century US crusade against polygamy, as the anthropologist Daymon Smith hasobserved.

What happens when this insider-outsiderness is on public display to be logically and experientially deconstructed? I’m not talking about the Martin Luthers who leak Handbooks or Human Rights Campaigns that incorrectly frame changes. But the average Mormon who wonders why this or that. The intellectuals of the Church who are faithful, but curious.

Let us not forget the first (to my knowledge) LDS internet-based “Kremlinology” case that occurred in 1993. Boyd Packer stated to a fairly closed-circuited group that “gays, feminists and intellectuals” were the greatest dangers to the Church. The speech was leaked online, and oh boy did people get angry and upset. People weren’t sure if they were insiders or outsiders — particularly when it came to “intellectuals.” It didn’t help that a number of scholars (the September Six) were excommunicated later that year, many of whom were feminists. The Salt Lake Tribune pried as to who was behind the excommunications (was it Packer? Did Oaks lie for Packer? etc); the Church could not control the story and simply had to endure an uncomfortable period.

Nearly twenty years later in the midst of a sprawling internet, might it be that the Church is in a perpetual uncomfortable period with no end in sight? Did making the Handbook public help correlation (as the Church might hope it will) or did it only make the Church’s job harder?

11 thoughts on “Framing the story: The Church in an internet age

  1. While pamphets can’t compete with blogs and satellite broadcasts can’t compete with YouTube, the Church gets three hours of captive attention every week. That, plus policies that “encourage” Church activity, is enough to keep most of the rank and file quite satisfied. It won’t be enough for most of the gays or independent-minded women or intellectuals. But then, they/we never really mattered in the first place.

  2. Even if the rank and file are thoroughly captivated and don’t go asking serious correlative questions, I would think there is a danger to the Church to have the outside world frame its incremental change — particularly if the “storytellers” have a lot of clout. That’s why the September Six were excommunicated. They were seen as having more storytelling muscle than church leaders on certain themes. But the Church can’t exactly excommunicate HRC.

  3. It looks like Sullivan got his info from Joanna Brooks. It’s unfortunate that she got her info wrong, but generally she does a good job at summarizing the gay-Mormon scene and gay-establishment/Mormon-establishment scene.

  4. JB generally does a great job.

    But, hey, this latest dispatch from Peggy Fletcher Stack (“Now everyone can view LDS Church stances on social issues”) includes some interesting quotes, e.g.:

    Until now, the handbook was available only to these church leaders. That still holds true for the first volume, which is available online to bishops and stake presidents.

    That blue volume includes information about counseling with members. LDS authorities worried that if it were widely read, some members might decide they dont need to go see their bishop, says Michael Otterson, managing director of LDS Public Affairs. It made much more sense to reserve that volume for leaders.

    At what point does insider-outsider become cat-and-mouse ??

  5. Michael Otterson does not understand the attraction of secret documents that people put a lot of faith in, unknown. If he had been paying attention for the last two decades, he might have observed that the “church” of $cientology lost this battle a long time back and that its formerly-secret comic book/cosmic boogeyman, Xenu, is now fodder for late-night comedy.

    And, since the CHI is basically out there in the wild, the Church might as well just give it up and put it on the internet. Otherwise, Intellectual Reserve, Inc. is going to spend the next several years playing whack-a-mole with people who make it available–at least until the NEXT version comes out. Seriously, guys, you are going to lose this one, just give it up.

  6. That’s a very interesting point regarding the fact that the LDS church may still be encouraging behavioral therapy even if they no longer claim it will make people straight.

    Regarding the LDS Newsroom’s statement, that’s the part that’s really not news. So they claim that outside pressure had no influence on them and they’re complaining that the biggest focus was on the one part of the handbook (homosexuality) that the CoJCoL-dS itself chose to turn into a core issue…? Big surprise there — what did you think their professional spin doctors were going to say?

    Regarding secret manuals: It’s probably true that by making the CHI public, they ruin its mystique. It’s very possible that fewer people will read it now that it’s public than would have read it if it were still secret.

  7. Some more interesting quotes from the Stack piece:

    Making such stances available is particularly important for women, who generally had less access to the handbook … They can feel more involved and knowledgeable about church policies. […] [But] some members wish the book explained the theological basis for various stances.

    Such transparency … is reflected in a new appreciation for candor and openness in publishing Mormon history, [Armand] Mauss says, and in a public approval for academic Mormon studies not controlled by the church.

    I’d like to hear some more about that.

    As a whole, Mauss says, putting Handbook 2 online should have the effect of helping rank-and-file Mormons feel inclusion and ownership where programs and policies are concerned, rather than belonging to the leaders.

    I can see it going both ways in the long term.

  8. As always, Armand Mauss is rather eager to celebrate progress. Of course, he is right. Publishing half the stuff is better than keeping all of it secret.

    But seriously, if you are not allowed to know half the stuff for which you may be punished then you are still not a free person.

    I also think that Mauss is overreaching by invoking the concept of ownership. He is right that there is more inclusion, at least at the rate of 50%, so we are half-ways included.

    But ownership would require that I would get an opportunity to participate in formulating the instructions by which I am supposed to live. For now, faithful Mormons do not get to participate. They are supposed to obey rules of which they are only supposed to know half of them.

    That’s not how you treat free people who have “ownership.”

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