Mormon leader calls for balance, and Associated Press calls it 'transformation'

Mainstream media apparently are still hyperventilating over Pope Francis' "Who am I to judge?" remark, plugging it into other news stories. This week's version is a speech by Mormon Elder Dallin H. Oaks, who called yesterday for religious and secular people to respect each others' rights and beliefs.

"Compromise" and "balance" were the keywords in Oaks' speech at the Second Annual Sacramento Court/Clergy Conference in California. Oaks, a member of the first-echelon the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, urged his listeners to tune out extremist voices on either side.

He preached a view not of an opaque wall between church and state, but a "curtain" that allows "the passage of light and love and mutual support." But he also said that county clerks -- all but saying Kim Davis' name -- need to put aside their own beliefs and perform their sworn duties.

Nice olive branch, don't ya think? But the Associated Press version makes it sound like a p.r. strategy, inserting commentary into what was supposed to be a news report:

The speech marked another landmark moment in the conservative religion's transformation from a faith that frowned on gays and lesbians to one becoming more welcoming and compassionate, albeit in small steps that may seem nominal to outsiders.
As with the Roman Catholic Church under Pope Francis, the conservative Mormons are trying to assert a softer position in society, while holding firm inside the church to its own doctrines against gay marriage and homosexual activity.

This story is almost like a candy store for media critics like myself. First, we have the LDS Church called "conservative" -- the word is used three times in this story -- without explaining what that means. Social? Cultural? Political? Theological?

The article also calls the talk a big sign of "transformation," as if the church is about to change its basic beliefs. It's odd that AP invokes Francis, who is likewise prodding the Catholic Church toward a gentler attitude without anything like a transformation.  

AP even observes that the Mormons are changing none of their beliefs about homosexuality. Certainly not enough for gays, as we read in the article:

Some gays who left the church or were forced out of Mormon society say they are being welcomed back — even though they remain in same-sex relationships. But Mormon doctrine still leaves them in a precarious position: To be a full participant in the religion, they must refrain from acting on homosexual desires.
And some comments from church leaders still rankle the LGBT community. That was the case in April when now-deceased leader L. Tom Perry urged Mormons to let their values "be heard against all of the counterfeit and alternative lifestyles that try to replace the family organization that God Himself established."

AP also uses Oaks' talk to expound elaborately on the Kim Davis case. It spends six paragraphs -- more than a quarter of the article -- on how the Kentucky county clerk spent five days in jail rather than issue marriage licenses for gay couples.

During those five days, the article says, her deputy clerks issued the licenses without her name. But it doesn't acknowledge that Davis herself was open to that compromise -- measures already passed in North Carolina and Utah, as the Washington Post said in September.

The wire service also says the LDS church helped to get a state law passed in Utah -- last winter -- outlawing discrimination in jobs and housing against gays gay and transgender people. If this is transformation, a creeping glacier is a transformation.

To its credit, the story notes that some who favor traditional marriage frown on Davis' actions. Who says? Just "religious opponents of gay marriage." This is that vague anonymous attribution, a growing habit among so many media -- and it's used three times more in this story.

And what of the Washington Post? Well, its own report on Oaks' talk is a lot more nuanced, right from the lede:

The Mormon Church has been among the most vocal in expressing worry that the expanded rights of LGBT people — among other liberalizing changes in the United States — are trumping those of religious Americans who may disagree with gay equality. On Tuesday, the church offered its first high-level comments on perhaps the most contentious case in that realm, saying through a top leader that Kentucky county clerk Kim Davis erred and that more balance, tolerance and civility are needed when it comes to protecting religious freedom.

The Post quotes Oaks' conciliatory remarks about compromise and "mutual support." And it says his talk "reflects the Mormon Church's desire not to be associated with divisive culture wars." As do the AP and other media, WaPo recalls the "public relations bruising" from the church's support for Proposition 8 in California in the late 2000s.

Even the word "nuances" is in the article:

It also shows the way the Davis’s case is bringing out the nuances among the religious liberty crowd. The movement, with religious conservatives as its most vocal proponents, can seem monolithic, but divisions over the Davis case revealed different views and strategies. Some prominent religious freedom advocates said Davis had gone too far in refusing not only to issue marriage licenses to gay couples but in barring her staff from doing so as well.

The paragraph has problems, though. While it's good to observe that the religious liberty movement is not monolithic, shouldn't someone have been quoted directly? Instead, we get that anonymous attribution: "some prominent religious freedom advocates."

Another problem is saying only that Kim Davis stopped her staff from issuing gay marriage licenses. That contradicts the Post's own story from September, cited above, which says Davis favored compromise.  If she stopped her staff, then allowed it again, the article should have explained.

At least the current story has live quotes from Paul Edwards, editor of the Deseret News. Here's something I didn’t see in the other pieces:

On the Davis case, Oaks said public officials “take an oath to support the constitution and laws of their jurisdiction. That oath does not leave them free to use their official position to further their personal beliefs— religious or otherwise—to override the law.” However, Edwards noted, Oaks said it was a “far more significant violation of the rule of law” when governors or attorney generals refuse to enforce a law with which they disagree, either on secular or religious grounds.
This was, Edwards said, “a not-so-subtle jab” at President Obama and some state officials who refused to defend their own marriage laws when those laws discriminated against gay couples. Oaks’s “principle cuts against culture warriors on all sides,” he said.

Yeowtch. At least the paper got someone to say it for the record.

The Salt Lake Tribune, the Mormon's hometown paper, took a much narrower focus. Although it says Oaks "argued for balance and good sense between religious freedoms and civil liberties," it keeps the attention on Kim Davis -- naming her five times in its 700 words.

But the Tribune does quote one of her supporters, and even avoids calling him conservative. The Rev. Gregory Johnson, an evangelical leader -- both nationally and in Utah -- tells the newspaper that Davis' beliefs should have exempted her from signing the marriage licenses.

Parts of Oaks' talk apparently impressed everyone.  This sentence -- "On the big issues that divide adversaries on these issues, both sides should seek a balance, not a total victory" -- was in all three articles.

Photo: Elder Dallin H. Oaks, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Used by permission from the Mormon Newsroom.


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