Many of you have probably already come across this Reuters special report about Mormonism’s membership troubles in this internet age, as reported by outgoing church historian Marlin Jensen.
Apparently, President Monson’s signature campaign is called “the Rescue”: referring to rescuing the church’s membership from “rapidly declining,” as some reports have spun it.
I’m assuming the expensive Mormon.org campaign is part of the Rescue. Another part is curriculum being developed for youth and adults to address tough historical issues (like polygamy or the ban on black ordination or the [lack of] evidence supporting the Book of Mormon, etc) so that the Church doesn’t seem like it’s hiding stuff (and consequently losing its members’ trust). The way I see it, the Rescue is basically about how to get control of discourse about Mormonism for the purposes of maintenance and growth.
One thing that’s unclear to me is whether the effects of Mormon.org are included when Jensen speaks of continued search engine optimization problems for the Church. I would like to analyze this “problem” for a moment.
On Google, Mormon.org often appears as an “ad” when searching for various LDS phrases and themes. For example, if you search for “Joseph Smith,” Mormon.org appears at the very top of the list as an advertisement. Currently, Mormon.org also pops up 6th on the list, meaning people are going to the site to learn about Joseph Smith (probably as a result of the ad campaign). The 1st listing is josephsmith.net, a site owned by Intellectual Reserve that gives an LDS-biased view of the guy, never mentioning polygamy once.
2nd on the list is Wikipedia’s entry, which of course mentions polygamy and talks about the man from a more multivocal, detailed point-of-view than anything church sites offer. (For example, Mormon.org is “multivocal,” but all the Mormons are saying the same things, which seems, *ahem*, “cultish.”)
4th on the list is a no-nonsense wivesofjosephsmith.org whose “mission and purpose” is to “acknowledge and remember these largely forgotten women.”
It seems to me that when it comes to search engine optimization, the Church is forgetting that it’s not about what single site the searcher ultimately clicks. It’s about “rhizomatics” and how the searcher apprehends bits and pieces from multiple sources. It is impossible for the Church to control the discourse that is outside itself.
Jensen mentions how his own daughter asked him why he never told her about Joseph Smith being a polygamist, and Jensen responded that he “hadn’t thought” to tell her about it. I can only imagine how she came upon the knowledge herself: perhaps as a taunt from a non-Mormon peer at school: “Your church was started by a polygamist!” as per a quick search on Google.
Armed with this new Rescue curriculum coming out soon, his daughter might respond: “He didn’t want to do it, but it was the Lord’s commandment.”
And the peer might go home that night, do a bit of quick reading, and respond the next day: “Well, Emma Smith didn’t want it, but there’s supposed to be a rule that it could only happen if the first wife accepted it. So I think Joseph did want it, enough to give a ‘commandment’ to Emma to accept it.”
And the daughter will be like, “WHAT??!!!”
I think it would be hard to tell the actual facts about Mormon history without causing defection. My understanding is that the whole reason facts are left out is to prevent defection. Sure, some things get lost to time, but the Church relates to certain personages within its own history in a way that puts itself in a corner. You never hear of modern-day Presbyterians leaving their church because of things clergy said or did in the 1800s. But Mormons uphold Joseph Smith and every president after him to be “prophets,” so there’s an expectation of a kind of ahistorical ethical behavior. This is complex when overlaying onto the flow of information in the internet age. Basically, what I think it boils down to is that the Church is going to have to get used to non-Mormons potentially knowing more on Mormon topics than Mormons themselves due to historiographical barriers built into the Church to maintain itself. The more the Church tries to control public discourse about Mormonism, the more it will have to adapt to that discourse and face its albatrosses.
Suffice it to say, I don’t see this as a “problem” but as a favor the world is granting the Church.