An Open Letter

Dear Public Affairs Department of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints:

I’m sure you’ve heard the news. Joanna Brooks will be a guest on The Daily Show this Thursday.

I suppose this makes it official. You no longer control the Mormon message.

Who does, you ask? Let’s do a Google news search for “mormon” and see who turns up.

Hrm. Leaving out Mitt Romney, who is famous in spite of being Mormon rather than because of it, it seems to be people most Mormons have never heard of!

Looks like Slate has run a couple of Mormon history articles by Matt Bowman. Huffington Post and The New Republic have run a few of his articles, too. (And good lord, have you read his book?) CNN recently ran an article on Mitt Romney’s religious speechmaking that quoted Kristine Haglund, and of course she was on that C-SPAN panel a few months ago. Salon published an article on Romney, Mormonism, and women featuring Judy Dushku. And you might have heard about a certain Washington Post piece that quoted Darius Gray (and, self-destructingly, Randy Bott.) NPR’s Talk of the Nation had Joanna Brooks and — oh, there you are! — Michael Purdy on the show. And did you hear that Simon and Schuster has picked up her book? She’s even going to promote it on — oh, yeah, The Daily Show. I guess that brings us full circle. 

There are plenty more examples, but this is enough for us to pick up on the pattern. The world is listening to liberal, intellectual, faithful-yet-somewhat-heterodox Mormons. Other than the Bott debacle, in which conservative Mormonism used its moment in the spotlight to inflict upon itself a black eye, orthodox Mormons have been ignored and your press releases have been read by only the lockstep faithful.

Why does the press go to Brooks or Haglund or Bowman for comment instead of you? No, it’s not a vast left-wing conspiracy. Here are three reasons — call ‘em tips — liberal Mormons have stolen the spotlight and you’ve been left in the lurch.

1. They are candid about the “hard” issues. People who are genuinely curious about Mormonism want the straight dope, not a carefully worded party line. They instinctively know that there are historical, doctrinal, and institutional difficulties. The orthodox may get a little bent out of shape when it’s said out loud, but the public is more likely to trust Mormons who acknowledge those issues than those who try to define them out of existence.

2. They are sympathetic to Mormonism. This pertains not so much to you as to other unorthodox voices who might come to the fore. For example, Richard Packham of the Exmormon Foundation was able to publish a Business Insider article in which he reveals temple secrets, but no one seems to have paid it much attention. It was mean-spirited, deliberately sensationalist, and not particularly informative. Persecution complexes to the contrary, the world isn’t eager to bash on Mormonism. Those who do are ignored.

3. They present a Mormonism relevant to the 21st century. Political homogeneity, heterosexism, regular sexism, and anti-intellectualism may have gone down just fine in the late 20th century, but nowadays they alienate your base of potential converts. Brooks and the others believe in a Mormonism that can transcend those issues. Maybe they’re right.

This last point is the most salient. You might deride liberal Mormons for their heterodoxy, but they are doing your job for you. They have translated Mormonism into a language that is intelligible to the larger public, a language that speaks to the issues the public cares about. Instead of fighting them, you’d do well to emulate them. Show the world that Mormonism can abide folks of all types. Tell them that, in addition to stodgy, conservative white men, Mormonism is big enough for Democrats, racial minorities, gays, skeptics, and even hipsters.

Oh. I see. You already get it. Perhaps you’d like to forward this along to your employers? They seem not to have gotten the memo.