Religious persecution tends to make for sensational stories. There's a lot of human drama, and for better or worse, it's easy to confirm the worst fears of certain segment of the population that is skeptical of the "organized religion" behemoth. It's no wonder that journalists pounce on them when they find them. When one can find a story of genuine religious persecution it tends to be a doozy, and a slam dunk for a crusading journalist. But stories where an entire religious institution is squarely and unjustly lined up against a single soul are pretty rare.
Take this Los Angeles Times story about Chad Hardy, a member of the Mormon church who recently got excommunicated for producing a beefcake calendar of those few former Mormon missionaries willing to strip off their short-sleeved white T-shirts and reveal a spray-on tan and a six-pack. Further, before Hardy could complete his final four credits toward a communications degree at Brigham Young University, a church-owned college, the school decided that Hardy had violated the school's honor code and refused to grant him a degree. Reporter Ashley Powers lets Hardy tell his story and explain his motivations and explain his relationship to the Mormon church at some length:
"It was the perfect secret weapon," he says as a makeup artist dusts the male models' flab-free abs. "It's friendly. It doesn't tear down the beliefs of the church at all. Underneath, it makes people realize, 'Oh, they're sexy Mormons. They're real.'
But "you're constantly wrapped in guilt," he says, recalling how, when he was a teenager, a church official asked whether he indulged in impure thoughts.
While studying at Ricks College (now BYU-Idaho) and BYU's main campus in Provo, Utah, he felt out of place. "They were all trying to out-righteous each other. It's who can follow the rules the best," he says. He fell into a deep depression. "Those rules, I think, kept me from God."
At the photo shoot, Hardy switches between directing models and doing telephone interviews. ("The church makes sex dirty," he is saying, "and we're making it beautiful.") He wears a graphic-print T-shirt, a camouflage hoodie and sneakers with the slogan "Born to Be Free." He is broad-shouldered, round-faced, blue-eyed and self-deprecating.
"Though we understand not everyone agrees with the project," Hardy replied, "the individual expressions of those involved have reshaped perceptions, removed walls, and shown ... acceptance and tolerance around the world."
The rest of the piece is similarly dripping with sympathy. But as you might imagine, there are usually two sides to a story like this. Here's pretty much the sum total of any opposing views from the church on what Hardy is doing:
BYU graduates must meet both academic and ecclesiastical standards, a university spokeswoman said, and in a letter to Hardy after the meeting, Dean Vernon Heperi said he had come up short.
"In my view," the dean wrote, "the material related to your calendars is offensive and disrespectful."
The returned missionaries are shown "in an inappropriate context" and the women in publicity shots for the "muffins" calendar are portrayed "contrary to the value of living a chaste and virtuous life." (Heperi did not return messages seeking comment. A Mormon Church spokesman declined to discuss Hardy or the calendar.)
While I understand the church wasn't exactly an open book with Powers, and that's a difficult spot for any journalist to be in, surely she could have found some reasonable voices within the church representative of an opposing view. Especially since she has the audacity to quote anonymous internet posts from LDS members in an attempt to give a flavor of how Mormons are reacting to Hardy's calendars:
One of the kinder Internet posts about Hardy calls him "an attention whore who ... can contribute to bad LDS stereotypes and raise public disdain of church members."
Then there's Powers' description of how Hardy was excommunicated:
Last summer, he faced a two-hour church disciplinary hearing in Las Vegas. Hardy was excommunicated by a panel of church leaders. Mormon officials suggested it was for reasons other than the calendar, though Hardy said that was what the panel questioned him about.
Why doesn't she explain what other reasons the church suggested he was excommunicated for, instead of deferring to Hardy's version of events?
But what's truly bizarre about the article is how it's positively obtuse in its bewilderment at how the awful, repressed church could possibly object to what Hardy's doing. But the answer is right there in the story, not that Powers bothers to notice. Here's the description of one calendar photoshoot from the lede:
A male model wearing a kilt of black vinyl strips, a red belt with a gold buckle and little else is flexing his muscles amid fake oil derricks and Roman columns in a photo studio. All chiseled pectorals and tanned thighs, he is playing Captain Moroni, a battlefield hero in the Book of Mormon who rallied troops with the Title of Liberty banner.
Chad Hardy, who is running the photo shoot, adjusts the model's kilt. Captain Moroni lifts his chin, grips a sword and hoists the banner.
"Flex your abs," Hardy reminds him.
And then there's this description later in the story:
Hardy was emboldened. The 2009 calendar cover resembles a painting of the second coming of Christ. The shirtless model wears a rose-colored sash and white loincloth and is outlined in a celestial glow. Inside, Mr. September stands in front of a chalkboard with a diagram of the Mormon Plan of Salvation. Amid arrows and squiggles, the word "judgment" is clearly visible.
So we have sexualized portrayals of Moroni, who's a sacred Mormon prophet, steamy photos that resemble "a painting of the second coming of Christ" and mocking Mormon doctrine as judgmental. Who could possibly object to that?
Hardy is free to make whatever claims he wants, but this piece does nothing toward explaining the full story. It also fails to provide any context of the portrayal of Mormons. The idea that sexualizing Mormon missionaries is a new or novel thing is absurd -- the South Park guys had been there, done that 12 years ago and I guarantee that an unfiltered Google image search for "Mormon missionary" will send you down parts of the information superhighway where it's a good idea not to roll down the window.