Op-Ed: A Mormon’s Response to Church Leader’s Controversial Obituary

(Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

OPINION: By Jenny Rollins
BU News Service 

On January 2, 2018, Thomas S. Monson, the former head of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, passed away at 90.

After his death was announced on the Church News website, a slew of news sources released statements globally regarding this religious leader’s life and death. Some wrote obituaries while others mentioned it in their broadcasts.

After the announcement, I went onto social media to find my feeds flooded with tributes and memories of this man. I am a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, also known as the Mormon Church or the LDS Church, so it’s not surprising that this was the reaction I found.

But one thing did shock me. Over the next few days, I saw one article being shared by many of my friends and family: Monson’s obituary written by the New York Times.

The Times tweeted a link to the article with the caption, “Thomas Monson, the president of the Mormon Church who rebuffed demands to ordain women as priests and refused to alter church opposition to same-sex marriage, died Tuesday at 90.”

A man who spent over 50 years of his life in world-wide church service, who many consider to have left a legacy of compassion and kindness, was boiled down to 29 words on two controversial topics. Many Mormons were infuriated.

While the Times article does go into more detail about some of Monson’s accomplishments, it spends more than half of the time focusing on how he remained unbending in controversial issues like ordaining women to the priesthood and gay marriage.

Over the course of the next couple of weeks, a petition went around mostly Mormon communities asking the New York Times to print a correction and represent Monson fairly. It received over 180,000 signatures.

The Times issued a response in the form of an interview with Robert D. McFadden, a senior writer on the Obituaries desk and the author of the obituary in question. His defense is summed up pretty well in one statement.

“We’re not in the business of paying tribute,” McFadden said. “We’re journalists first and foremost. … We strive for warts-and-all biography, in short form.”

I considered the late Thomas S. Monson to be a prophet—a modern-day Moses. I have listened to and studied his words throughout the majority of my life, both religiously and secularly. He told the members of the church to be kind and loving. He told parabolic stories in a lilting voice that usually ended with a reassurance that God is looking out for each one of us.

Monson did not paint himself as a perfect person. His anecdotes included stories about the time a man was calling for him before he died but Monson failed to get there in time, and when he accidentally set fire to a field during his childhood.

One of my favorite recollections is of him wiggling his ears while delivering a speech during a worldwide broadcast.

I have a somewhat unique position as both a Mormon and a journalist. Unlike many of the angry petitioners, I didn’t want a fluffy tribute. I don’t think that those controversial, newsworthy stances should be left out. But I do think that for all McFadden’s talk of being a journalist first, his portrayal was incredibly one-sided and failed to meet journalistic standards of fairness and accuracy.

When I read the obituary, I was saddened by what felt like a hollow view of Monson’s life, but I wasn’t surprised. Growing up Mormon outside of Utah meant dealing with a lot of harassment. People have insulted me, mocked me, threatened my life, spat on me, run me out of neighborhoods and even used the common misconception that Mormons are practicing polygamists to sexually proposition me.

Discrimination against Mormons goes as far back as the LDS Church itself (organized in 1830), when Mormon pioneers were driven from state to state by angry mobs who beat, tortured, tarred and feathered and did other unspeakable things to men, women, and children. The first prophet of the church, Joseph Smith, was even shot and killed by a mob.

The New York Times is not an angry mob doing massive damage. The paper never produced threats or hate speech. The controversial topics the author covered are an essential part of Monson’s role as president of the Mormon church. Those topics should be included and even discussed in depth.

However, McFadden produced a limited, biased view of the late president of the Mormon church that was definitely an insult to his legacy.

In his attempt to show readers “warts and all,” McFadden gave his audience a drawn out view of each and every wart and then a quick pan of the rest of the body.

Over half of the paragraphs had to do directly with controversial political issues, and much of the remaining portion was framed in a backhanded way, leaving out significant parts of life and legacy of the religious leader.

Here is a list of things that McFadden could have included or expanded on that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints did during Monson’s time as head of the church:

—The outreach and support of Muslims and Islamic leaders.
—The implementation of  global refugee assistance programs and extensive support for immigrants.
—The official addition of a worldwide women’s meeting into the semiannual general conference of the church and the  expansion of education programs.
—An official statement condemning racism after Charlottesville.
—Assistance for the poor, as well as efforts to eradicate homelessness.
—The creation of leadership positions for female missionaries.
—The official statements promoting LGBT civil rights and nondiscrimination legislation and the extensive support for religious freedoms all over the world.

The choices of interviews also struck me as strange. There were no quotes from family members or other religious leaders who knew him well. Instead, there was a church history scholar and a quote from a random Southern Virginia University student from 2012.

There was also only one quote from the man himself: a tweet in response to the exodus of the 1,500 members of the church. Monson spoke in many countries all over the world and in a worldwide broadcast every six months. There were many quotes to pick from.

Multiple times McFadden cited critics without citing those in support of certain policies or procedures.

The obituary did include the church’s connection to the Boy Scouts of America, but then suggested that the church began to sever ties with the Boy Scouts because of the organization’s acceptance of LGBT members and leaders without mentioning that the church issued a statement saying that was not, in fact, the reason they began to sever ties.

It also included the age change for missionaries from 19 to 18 for men and 21 to 19 for women. However, it connected the change directly to the idea that Mormon women tend to be married at 21 and can’t go on a mission. The announcement merely said that more women would be able to serve at 19.

Even McFadden’s obituary for Cardinal Bernard Law was more balanced.

According to McFadden’s response letter, “We have to let the facts of the life paint the picture. In my experience, when we do that fairly and accurately, there are few complaints.”

By his own logic, based on the hundreds of thousands of complaints against this article, he did not do this fairly and accurately.

The one faux pas that McFadden admitted to was failing to express just how beloved President Monson was amongst the members of the Mormon church. But then he wrote, “I think by his very position in the church, all that was implied.”

Journalism is about allowing voices to be heard, not about leaving out the other side of the argument because, “all that was implied.”

McFadden said that he tries to cover “the arc of a life, from birth” and convey the person’s “flavor,” but that did not happen in this article. There was no arc, no flavor, just criticism.

“I think the obituary makes clear that he was a man of strong faith and convictions, who stood by them even in the face of detractors, while finding ways to move the church forward,” concluded McFadden. I’m pretty sure he was referring to the more fair, accurate obituary by the Washington Post and not his own biased piece.

I am offended by McFadden’s claim that this piece was written in the name of accurate journalism. Mormons are used to criticism. We embrace it. For example, check out the Mormon missionaries that stand outside of “The Book of Mormon” Broadway musical and use the satire to teach people about the church.

Monson took criticism well. He was a firm believer in turning the other cheek. However, the response to this article — which was exactly the opposite of how Monson lived his life — has made McFadden’s obituary viral to the point of being viewed more than the other more accurate obituaries. Still, Monson’s legacy will go on whether or not a pretentious Pulitzer-winner gives him his due credit.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of Boston University News Service. 

4 Comments

  • This was, in general, a fairly articulate, pointed reply to the New York Times obituary that focused so much on a few recent controversies to define an LDS leader who had served for 50 years – and who was never thought of as controversial to begin with. The last parting shot was gratuitous. It’s better to stay focused on the issue and not drift into ad hominem.

  • Noticeably missing in this article is mention of Jeremy Runnells CES letter and Spotlight’s focus on the child sexual abuse practices in the Mormon Church and the petition to stop them as set out in protectldschildren.org. Maggie Rayner, author In Polygamy’s Shadow

  • Not everyone is a sycophant for their Corporocult. The NYT certainly has the power of revelation to expose him as they perceived him.

  • I agree with the claims of this article, however, to model balanced journalism it would seem necessary to point out the church’s own difficulty displayed with balanced recognition of all facts. The irony of the situation as I see it is that many church members are correct in assessing that the NYT has failed to adhere to journalistic standards however fail to care about the church’s own failings in this domain when they are not in their personal interest. To have a moral high ground on such an issue, I believe that it is necessary that the church pursues balanced recognition of facts in action rather than simply rhetoric. As mentioned above, this would look like entering into open on-record discussion with critics over issues such as protectldschildren, CES letter, ect rather than simply putting forth their own narrative in a theater in which social taboo prohibits opposition or evaluation.

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