A few years ago, I covered an Atheist de-baptism ceremony where de-converts would blow dry their hair, attempting to reverse whatever they thought baptism meant. It was unclear how many of the few hundred officially renounced a formal membership where they had to do something specific to formally part ways, since it looked more like an excuse for a party. Depending on the religious tradition, leaving can range from pretty simple to formal letter writing, the latter describing the The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. A large group of Mormons formally leaving the church seems like a decent story to tell.
If you read the headline "Mormons quit church in mass resignation ceremony," what number would you guess could justify using the word "mass"? I thought at least a thousand. But when the piece said 150 Mormons left the church, I wasn't sure it justified "mass" departure. However, I'm told that Mormons leaving in some kind of group gathering like this is highly unusual, so I stuck with the rest of the story.
What I wondered, though, was how the story about it could be improved, so I made notes after sections for how one could edit the piece.
Participants from Utah, Arizona, Idaho and elsewhere gathered in a public park to sign a "Declaration of Independence from Mormonism."
"This feels awesome," said Alison Lucas, from West Jordan, Utah, who took part in the rally amid soaring temperatures. "I don't know if I would have had the courage except in a group."
I suppose Reuters isn't known for gathering the most thoughtful quotes, but if you pick out the quotes in this piece, they lack much substance.
The Utah-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is known for its culture of obedience, and the mass ceremony was a seldom-seen act of collective revolt.
What does the LDS Church do to retain members? Were there any scholars available who could speak to how rare it is? The piece quotes someone from the LDS Church, which is fine, but it would be more helpful to also have an outside researcher explain why it's unusual.
The church bills itself as the one "true" Christian faith, and its theology promises families eternal relationships among those who remain faithful, sealing those gifts through special religious rites.
Would a reporter describe Islam, Judaism or any other religion using a phrase like "bills itself"? Of course a religious tradition "bills itself" about anything. I don't understand the attempt at journalistic distance. A better phrase could have been "The LDS Church teaches..."
Among the reasons cited by those resigning are the church's political activism against gay marriage and doctrinal teachings that conflict with scientific findings or are perceived as racist or sexist.
What exactly conflicts with scientific findings? Any examples?
Last week, I noticed that mainstream coverage of the Colorado fires ramped up as soon as President Obama took a visit. The political lens reporters use for just about everything is kind of amazing, considering how little phrases like this have to do with the actual story:
Among prominent Mormons is Mitt Romney, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee facing off against President Barack Obama in November. Should he win office, Romney would be the first Mormon elected to the White House.
Listen. Stories like this are interesting in their own right. People love religion stories. You don't have to beg them to care by connecting it to the presidential election.
Some leaving the church Saturday did so with trepidation, as Mormon culture often stigmatizes those who fall away, leaving some without social or business connections.
"It's hard, so we have to be very careful," said Robin Hansen, a participant who said she quit over a "culture of abuse" which she believes is cultivated by church teachings promoting obedience.
This is true of many other religions, it seems. What I did appreciate about the story, and what other stories tend to miss, is what it takes for someone to formally renounce membership.
To resign from the church, Mormons must submit a formal letter asking their names be removed from church rolls, a church instructional handbook for lay leaders published on the Internet in 2010 shows.
On Saturday, participants filled a basket with their letters for mailing by [event organizer Zilpha] Larsen, who split with the church over doubts about the veracity of a translation of ancient Egyptian writings which are included in sacred Mormon texts.
The story itself isn't terrible, it could use more clarification, but what it really needed was a voice from someone who has studied the church and its teachings to help readers understand the significance of this number of renunciations. Leaving the LDS Church is no small task. This group started the process. What we need is more context for why it's significant.
Image via Wikimedia Commons.