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?