You know that whole asking-questions thing that journalists are supposed to do as part of their work? You know, that thing where the journalist tries to ask the obvious, logical questions and then prints what people -- especially people whose training and experience yield on-the-record, authoritative information -- have to say that is relevant to the story?
This process is especially important when dealing with issues that push people's buttons and cause conflict in large, symbolic, even controversial groups. When these conflicts exist, it's especially crucial to talk to people on both sides -- on the record.
Religion Dispatches ran a story last weekend that demonstrates what happens when this process breaks down or, worse, is ignored.
The story is about an openly gay man named Mitch Mayne who has just been named as a congregational leader in a San Francisco congregation -- a real, mainstream congregation -- in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. As you would imagine, this has caused some buzz on the Internet. To add to the intrigue there's this:
Mayne was also in a committed, monogamous relationship with his male partner. About a year ago, Mayne decided to end his relationship, for reasons not related to religion. It was, he said, the hardest thing he ever did: harder, even, than burying his parents.
Mayne felt he needed time to heal, and he chose to take a break from relationships altogether.
A few months later, Bishop Don Fletcher of the San Francisco Bay Ward called and asked Mayne, as readers are told, to "serve as ward executive secretary," which is a lay-pastoral or bishopric-level leadership post.
This raises a rather important question for millions of Mormons and you can probably guess what it is. Thus, the story notes:
After a frank discussion with local Church leaders, Mayne committed to adhere to the same standards of sexual morality expected of heterosexual members of the LDS Church, and he agreed to serve.
All together now: What is the logical question? Remember that this active Mormon has previously been involved in a "committed, monogamous relationship" with a male partner. So the logical question is: "What precisely are those 'same standards' in sexual morality that Mayne has agreed to follow?"
The assumption -- I must note that assumptions are really, really bad in journalism -- is that this means that he has agreed to be celibate. But readers don't really know. The story also skips over another question: Was that previous same-sex relationship official in any way, through rites either secular or sacred? Was the partner Mormon, too?
All logical questions that could yield crucial information. Instead, reader are told:
A home. A welcoming home in a religious tradition that has a profound and lasting impact on its members, and a chance to express their faith through the path of service: that’s what Mitch Mayne and many other LGBT Mormons want.
In LDS communities, where lay congregational leaders have positions analogous to those of priests, pastors, and rabbis, news of Mayne’s calling is having an impact, revealing continuing divisions among Mormons and questions about evolving Mormon views on homosexuality.
Mormon views on same-sex relationships are evolving?
Back that statement up with some on-the-record quotations from people in positions of LDS authority and you have an A1 story in every newspaper in America. After all, it is almost impossible to overstate the importance of eternal marriage, family and children in the sweep of Mormon theology.
Instead, alas, readers are offered this:
There is, in fact, no consensus Mormon view on homosexuality. While most Mormons view homosexual sexual activity as a sin, Church leaders have expressed divergent perspectives on LGBT issues, ranging from condemnatory and derisive to ameliorative and compassionate.
In the past, LDS Church leaders have endorsed conversion therapies, or encouraged gay Mormons enter heterosexual marriages. Some have declined to use the terms “gay and lesbian” and instead have used the words “same sex attraction” in order to make the case that homosexuality is not an inherent and lasting feature of personhood. Consequently, many conservative Mormons continue to believe that sexual orientation is changeable, a gravely sinful “lifestyle” choice to be simply rejected, or a condition to be “struggled” with and overcome, like alcoholism.
Liberal Mormons tend to view homosexuality as a naturally-occurring human trait that is not abhorrent to God. Some congregations welcome participation by openly gay people who maintain chastity. Other Mormons, however, feel that it is unjust and impossible to expect gay Mormons to abstain from intimate relationships their entire lifetimes.
What is missing from these amazing paragraphs?
What you are looking for can be summed up in this word -- a-t-t-r-i-b-u-t-i-o-n-s. Where are the crucial names and titles that make these claims matter? In other words, where is the journalistic infrastructure? Is this article news or opinion?
So what does this story actually state as fact? Next to nothing. This is either a story or tremendous importance or it is not. The basic facts are hard to interpret, simply because the editors at this website have failed to get essential questions answered.
So where to turn? To veteran Peggy Fletcher Stack at the Salt Lake Tribune, of course. While it's clear that there is some mystery in this event, her subsequent report does contain on-the-record facts:
Though many liberal Mormons and gay activists are heralding Mayne’s appointment, it does not represent any change in LDS policy, which says it is no sin to have gay attraction, only to be sexually active outside the bonds of marriage between a man and a woman.
"Obviously we are not changing the standards of the church in terms of what you have to do to qualify to go to the temple or hold a church position," said Roger Carter, Mayne’s LDS stake president. "There is no reason that men and women who have same-sex attraction cannot be participants in our meetings and in our congregations. They should be."
And then there is this signal that debates are continuing behind the scenes.
Mayne was in a committed, monogamous relationship with a man, but that ended a year ago. Since then, Mayne said, he has lived by LDS standards, and his ecclesiastical leaders found him worthy to serve.
Mayne triggered some criticism by online Mormon commenters when he wrote on his blog that he couldn’t promise a "lifetime of celibacy."
"I don’t have a crystal ball or psychic powers," he said in a phone interview. "I don’t know where the road will lead me, but my intent is to live my life according to the savior’s will, with him by my side. That’s embedded in my DNA as a Mormon."
Stay tuned. And if people make claims about evolving Mormon doctrines, look for names, titles and clear statements of attribution. In other words, look for some journalism.
IMAGES: A "sealing" altar used in Mormon "eternal marriage" rites. Second image: Two activists seeking changes in Mormon doctrines on sexuality.