Discussions of Book of Mormon issues and evidences, plus other topics related to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Remembering Thomas S. Monson: The Painful Obituary from the New York Times

Scott Gordon at FairMormon.org offers a firm but gentle rebuke to the New York Times for their embarrassing and painful obituary of one of the world's best men, Thomas S. Monson. The obituary was written by a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, Robert D. McFadden. Though frustrating to read, it is a helpful piece, for it reminds us how politicized and biased journalism has become, twisting the knife even as its ideological opponents are being buried.

The obituary's opening sentence sets the tone as it complains of Monson's insensitivity to women and the issue of same-sex marriage community: Monson "rebuffed demands to ordain women as priests and refused to alter church opposition to same-sex marriage." And then the opening words of the article continues with this:
Facing vociferous demands to recognize same-sex marriage, and weathering demonstrations at church headquarters by Mormon women pleading for the right to be ordained as priests, Mr. Monson did not bend. Teachings holding homosexuality to be immoral, bans on sexual intercourse outside male-female marriages, and an all-male priesthood would remain unaltered.

Mr. Monson displayed a new openness to scholars of Mormonism, however, allowing them remarkable access to church records. But as rising numbers of church members and critics joined the internet’s free-for-all culture of debate and exposé, his church was confronted with troubling inconsistencies in Mormon history and Scripture.
The negative tone persists with little recognition of who the man was or acknowledgement of his life of loving, Christian service. The article even gives the URL to and quotes from an anti-Mormon website from some Baptist group.  If you read NYT obituaries for others like Hugh Hefner and Fidel Castro (both saints, perhaps, in the NYT worldview), it is clear that President Monson has gotten short shrift. And much less flattering photography.

Moving past the overall negative tone and many omissions from what would have been a fair obituary, Gordon tackles the issue of serious inaccuracies. I'll quote from that part of his excellent rebuttal:

Here they are in the order they appear, not necessarily in order of importance.
  1. “Many Mormons faced sanctions for joining online forums questioning church positions on women’s roles.”
I am not aware of ANY Mormons who have faced sanctions for joining an online forum or for questioning the Church positions on women’s roles. They will need to give examples. We have thousands, and probably millions of members who belong to many forums. We have members who are advocates of women rights and roles who are faithful members. I know some who work in the Church Office Building. I know members who hold differing views on women’s roles, homosexuality, and many political and social issues. Kate Kelly is cited in the article—perhaps the author thinks she is an example of this, but Kate Kelly was not excommunicated for joining a forum or even questioning the Church’s positions. There is a difference between questioning and actively campaigning against the Church and its teachings. Kate Kelly did the latter.
  1. “As the 16th president of the Latter-day Saints, succeeding Gordon B. Hinckley, Mr. Monson faced another test when church members, increasingly scouring online sources, found apparent contradictions between historical records and church teachings, which the church regards as God-given and literally true.”
Perhaps I am nit-picking on this one, but I take some umbrage with the idea that since Gordon B. Hinckley apparent contradictions have been found. The Church has an exceptional history department and there are numerous conferences on Church history – including the FairMormon conference. We have been discussing these topics for years. Additionally, we aren’t fundamentalist evangelicals in that every doctrine and practice is directly from God. This would be especially true with items related to history and science which are full of discovery. Yes, we have divinely inspired teachings, but they typically don’t have anything to do with history.
  1. “Some critics, including the website OnceDelivered.net, which identified itself as an expression of the Baptist faith, said the Latter-day Saints church had previously contended that Smith had been happily married to only one woman, and said the new teaching had used Scripture to “address the inconvenient truth of Smith’s polygamy.””
There are two issues here: First, one has to question why the New York Times reporter sought out a Website that states, “Mormonism fits a classic definition of a cult” and “So, is Mormonism a cult? According to our definition, yes.” Most LDS would rightfully classify OnceDelivered.net to be an anti-Mormon Website. There are many Websites out there that attack Mormonism with little understanding of what we actually teach and believe. It seems odd that the New York Times would be quoting from one for an obituary.

Secondly, the claim that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the term Latter-day Saints church would be incorrect and is offensive to most Mormons which underscores the lack of source reliability) previously contended that Joseph Smith was married to only one woman is incorrect. Yes, there are critics who have falsely made that claim, but the idea of plural marriage is taught by Joseph Smith and is part of our scripture in Doctrine and Covenants section 132 which can be found online at https://www.lds.org/scriptures/dc-testament/dc/132. That section was written in July 1843. Another activity you can try is to go to the Official Church Website LDS.org and type “Plural Marriage” into the search box. Many of those articles listed were written prior to Thomas S. Monson becoming prophet. There are many books that talk about this. One of our FairMormon volunteers stated he has 40 – 50 books on his shelf that discuss this topic. It was one of the main topics of the Reed Smoot Hearings in congress from 1904 – 1907. There is no new teaching on this. Ask most New Yorkers if early Mormons practiced polygamy and they would say yes. Many probably believe we still do. To say that we taught otherwise would be unbelievable.
  1. “In recent years, the church allowed historians access to church documents and records to a remarkable degree. Some published their findings online and in printed volumes, although they were usually vetted by church leaders.”
Having worked extensively with Church historians and independent historians, I have NEVER heard of Church leaders vetting anything except what is posted on the official Church Website to represent their position. Just the opposite is true. The Joseph Smith Papers are being published in their entirety on the Church Website. I have had complete freedom to publish anything without any vetting or oversight. There are LDS History conferences that are attended by Church Historians and many controversial and difficult topics are addressed. FairMormon has a conference every year where we talk about Church history. No one has ever vetted our talks.

The New York Times Obituary on President Thomas S. Monson needs a retraction and a rewrite. I’m sure the Times is interested in accuracy. Not correcting the record looks mean spirited, or ignorant. Neither of those positions is something that most newspapers aspire to be.
Thank you, Scott, for your response. And thanks to President Monson and his family for giving us a man who did so much to advance the cause of the poor, of the needy, of the hopeless. He brought real relief and real progress to men and women. How incredible that he would be treated so harshly, while the Times would essentially celebrate someone like Hefner, who exploited and degraded thousands of women for his gratification and financial gain. More than a retraction is in order -- if the Times really were about journalism and truth.

17 comments:

C T said...

What the NYTimes inadvertently taught us is that we can spend our whole lives reaching out to others in kindness and love, as President Monson did, and it matters nothing to them in comparison with whether we toe their fickle cultural lines.
Thank you for posting this well-deserved rebuttal.

Anonymous said...

There wasn't anything in the NYT obit that wasn't accurate and relevant.

If it wasn't flattering that's because a news agency isn't in the business of flattering the powerful. And if it was painful to Mormons then perhaps it's time to review where the church is in relation to women and gay people. The fact that the many wailings of the Mormon faithful weren't congratulating Monson for his regressive defense against what most Americans now consider to be merely human decency speaks volumes.

Jim W said...

The NYT obituary of President Hinckley was very good. Having a religion correspondent cover a religious figure was simple common sense; Goodstein painted a balanced portrait, neither shying away from nor obsessing over the hot-button issues during Hinckley's tenure. The Monson obituary is a clear step backwards.

Jeff Lindsay said...

To the "everything was accurate and relevant" Anonymous, I'm not sure if you read much of my post or anything of Scott Gordon's before you shared your opinion, but I wanted readers to notice that the grievance wasn't merely that the Times wasn't adequately flattering, but that serious factual errors were made that may reveal serious bias and perhaps a political agenda at the cost of real journalism.

If you did read the post and still insist that there was nothing that wasn't accurate, could you please clarify what facts you are aware of that might support your view with respect to Gordon's first contention? That is, can you provide any credible examples that show "Many Mormons faced sanctions for joining online forums questioning church positions on women’s roles"?

I have never known of any Church sanction to a Mormon solely for joining an online forum. Sure, being a vocal critic of the Church in public can have repercussions, but just joining an online forum has not led to sanctions, to my knowledge, nor does merely questioning LDS policies. Questioning is fine and happens frequently. Leading public outcry and condemning the Church is a different matter.

Note that the statement "Many Mormons faced sanctions for joining online forums questioning church positions on women’s roles" has been changed somewhat since the obituary first appeared. I saw the sentence Gordon quotes in the original obituary on Archive.org, but very strangely Archive.org is now saying it doesn't have that version. Not sure what's going on there, but it seems like the Times must have changed that line pretty quickly after publication and pushback. You can see a copy of the original article at PKTodayNews.com.

Since they backed off on that point, I guess the Times has recognized it was something of a stretch. Now it's "Some Mormons faced sanctions for questioning church positions on women’s roles." Not as blatantly ridiculous, but still improper. Again, questioning alone is never a cause for sanctions, as far as I can tell.

There are other issues Gordon raises, but let's start there. I'm interested in your reasons why Error #1 in the obituary is not an error but, in fact, entirely accurate.

Jeff Lindsay said...

Anon, don't assume that your dislike of President Monson represents that of Mormon women in general. Millions of Mormon women and men sustained President Monson as a prophet of God and admired him for his compassion and Christlike service. Yes, a few vocal critics have criticized him, but to focus on those few and assume that his attitude toward women does not reflect basic human decency is not reasonable. Ditto for for those who assume that anyone who differs with their views on gender issues or same-sex marriage is a bigot. The issues are complex and reasonable people can hold different moral and social views. Demonizing those who disagree is simply not reasonable, nor is it appropriate for an obituary, especially when those who have caused significant harm to so many people (Castro, Hefner) get glamorized in their obituaries when they have similar political leanings or social agendas as the publisher. That's not journalism, and that's Gordon's point.

Anonymous said...

The NYT is owned by a half Mexican half Lebanese communist who is not a citizen of the U.S A , and who goes by the name of Carlos Slim, which is not his real name.

The New York Times praised Fidel Castro, Hugo Chavez and other communists and those who worship and push debauchery such as Hugh Hefner.

Non Mormon prominent voices blasted the New York Slimes for the attack on Mr. Monson. They need to be thanked for what they did. I did not see one prominent Mormon with a national voice blast the NYT. And I know why, which is very disgusting and shows what is happening to the Mormon church overall.

Unfortunately too many Mormons, especially prominent Mormons who claim to be oh so righteous Mormons, are also politicized and defend their buddies (and their own actions) who attack those who hold opposing views. The hypocrisy is thick, eh Mr. Lindsey( and buddies?)

Anonymous said...

Carlos Slim, who is a Mexican citizen born to Lebanese Catholic parents, owns 17% of the New York Times. The bulk of the rest is owned by the publicly traded The New York Times Company.

Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

Electrocution means death by electric shock. Being electrocuted would cure you of anything since, by definition, you would be dead.

Anonymous said...

Anon 9:32 writes, Electrocution means death by electric shock.

The definition encompasses injury as well as death.

-- OK

Anonymous said...

That's news to me. By that logic, we should be able to use the term execute to mean someone killed or severely injured by the government. I guess if it can happen to gay, it can happen to electrocute.

Anonymous said...

Just re-checked my 1993 Merriam Webster hard copy--no mention of injury. Curious to know when societal misuse caught up with the "official" definition. . .

Anonymous said...

By that logic, we should be able to use the term execute to mean someone killed or severely injured by the government.

The meaning of a word is a matter of social convention, of usage, not logic.

Curious to know when societal misuse caught up with the "official" definition.

This is an empirical question, and it might make for an interesting research project in Linguistics 101. Note, however, that once the "misuse" of a term becomes widely enough accepted it ceases to be misuse.

The meaning of a word is not necessarily determined by logic or consistency --- e.g., the fact that arachnophobia means "fear of spiders" does not mean that homophobia has to mean "fear of gay people" instead of "dislike of or prejudice against gay people."

Nor is the meaning of a word determined by its original meaning. I think we can all agree that hussy no longer means "housewife."

Since this sort of discussion, if it goes on long enough, almost always seems to devolve into an argument about descriptivism vs. prescriptivism generally, let me just cut to the quick and refer anyone interested to the classic Language Log post on that topic.

-- OK

Anonymous said...

Agreed. Language is an ever-evolving social construct. I think this discussion is good evidence of why it is such a stretch for Cormack and other LDS linguists to claim that the BoM is an Early Modern English text. They cite instances of usage from the entire breadth of the period as evidence but provide no explanation as to why there are usages from the entire breadth of the period. Language is ever evolving--a native EmodE speaker from the beginning of the period wouldn't be using constructions from the end of the period and vice versa. It's comparable to a current-day American English speaker using the term gay to describe joy. That term has changed in less than a hundred years.

Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

Way to stifle the truth, Jeff.

Anonymous said...

The Times obits did not treat Thomas Monson harshly, nor did they celebrate Hugh Hefner. Both obits were accurate, balanced, and geared toward the values and concerns of the general readership of the Times, rather than an audience of LDS churchgoers --- that's all.

-- OK