Last week a Belgian church member, with a long record of outstanding leadership service in the Church, put a link on his Facebook page. The link went to an article in a local newspaper, titled “Homosexuality kills more than smoking” (translated), reporting on the recent anti-gay outburst of Jim Wallace, head of the Australian Christian Lobby. With a short note next to the link, our Belgian brother indicated his approval of Wallace’s views. His Facebook has numerous church members and outsiders as friends.
I promptly sent the brother an email to express my concern for the misunderstanding this link could foster, as if he, and by implication the Mormon Church, sided with some of the extreme Christian right and their heartless rhetoric against gays. I explained that our church’s opposition to gay marriage does not justify any attacks on homosexual gender orientation as such. I referred to the instances where we have seen, over the past few years, some improvement of insights and attitudes in the church in the U.S. toward our gay brothers and sisters. I linked to Newsroom statements such as this one. I linked to articles about suicides among Mormon teens, caused by intolerance and bullying. I linked to the Deseret News report on Mormons building bridges, and more.
I quickly got an email back from him. He had immediately deleted the link to the Wallace article. He expressed his remorse for having given the impression of wanting to hurt people. But as vivid was his resentment for not having known earlier all the information I sent him. Apparently, in his unaltered view since several decades, the simple fact of being gay was something wrong and sinful. My information had totally changed his outlook. He wrote that he wished the local church leaders should be timely informed, in their own language, of these Newsroom statements and of initiatives such as Mormon building bridges, which drew hopeful light on sensitive issues. He lamented that he and his fellow members remained deprived of so much valuable information.
In theory such information is available to all who read English and follow the main sources. Even if only coming from Church controlled outlets, such as the Newsroom and Deseret News, the information at least broadens the perspective beyond Church magazines and is quickly available when needed. However, many Mormons abroad (including members in non-English wards in the U.S.) are not fluent in English. For some people in certain countries easy access to the internet is not evident either. For these members church information is usually limited to what appears in their local Liahona and, if internet is available, also on the official church website in their own language. These sources present only a fraction of newsworthy and helpful information. The selection of what appears on a non-English church website is made by some person along the line of authority, usually, as far as I know, by people from Public Affairs (PA) on area level, who then provide an already translated text to upload. Those locally responsible for PA in a certain country or region, or the webmaster of the local website, can also select and translate some material, but strictly controlled as to appropriateness.
It is telling that the various church websites in different languages only partially overlap in terms of news items presented. Some give more, some less, but very few seem to cater to challenging issues. The tendency is to choose success stories and news outside the controversial realm. Seldom does an assessment of particular needs of local members dictate the tempo and choice of articles. In some countries with a larger Mormon population, independent “Mormon” sources provide more information, but they may be viewed with suspicion – and sometimes rightfully so. Meanwhile the media and anti-Mormon sources are shooting from the hip whenever possible.
Some of our American readers, and Anglophone Mormons in general, will probably remark that the lack of timely and relevant information is also a problem in English-speaking wards where part of the members are unaware of items of interest that could create more context and alter perspectives. But at least the information is available in their language and is easy to point at when needed. Also the numerous Mormon blogs in English contribute to disseminating information and providing links. On the other hand, members who limit their church information strictly to the Ensign and perhaps Church News, and ignore the rest, may miss out on items of interest that could enrich and nuance their views. Also for these members the following remarks may be relevant.
The matter, in my opinion, raises a question as to the function of church Public Affairs toward members. Church PA has the resources and the translation facilities to quickly disseminate information worldwide. But this department seems mainly geared at informing outsiders and at enhancing the image of the Church in the media, not at assessing the information needs of members. In foreign countries these members are, for the most part, converts, often unfamiliar with broader perspectives and with the larger context. Some months ago, a Belgian member told me that he heard the church now has a great musical on Broadway about the Book of Mormon. He asked if it would be possible to bring it to Belgium. To avoid such confusion, couldn’t PA timely inform members of situations and events that are prime news for Mormons? Couldn’t PA respond toward members with regard to negative items on Mormonism that local media spread? There are quite a few examples where candid information could prevent misunderstandings or provide timely clarifications: the Book of Mormon musical, the City Creek development, DNA and the Book of Mormon, the Mountain Meadow massacre, caffeine use, the controversy about holocaust victims’ baptisms (and also of deceased members of the Royal Dutch family, which recently caused an uproar in Dutch media), etc.
Some Belgian members email me regularly to ask questions about disturbing items they read or heard in the media. Each time I try to answer as well as possible, but I would suggest PA could do this pro-actively for all, worldwide, tailored to the needs and the context of members in their respective environments. I believe it is also an essential part of our retention concerns for we lose members because of lack of quick and adequate information.
So, is this a function for PA (or any other Church instance for that matter)? What controversial items do members struggle with, where church PA could be of significant help? To what extent is the situation in the U.S. and other Anglophone nations different or the same? Is the Mormon information stream better in some countries than in others? Do you know examples of independent (and constructive) Mormon information sources in other languages?