Inspired by the "Book of Mormon" musical on Broadway but especially by the presidential candidacy of Mitt Romney, media coverage of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints continues to soar both nationally and internationally.
Some of it is sympathetic and reasonably accurate. Much, unfortunately, isn't.
In the past, Latter-day Saints have usually been obliged simply to endure dismissive and inaccurate treatment in the news. They were rarely in a position to respond effectively.
That may finally be changing, and a promising reason for the change is a new website called MormonVoices (mormonvoices.org).
MormonVoices has been created to respond to false or misleading information put forward in the media. The goal is to assist journalists, authors, bloggers, producers and others in getting their stories right and to correct misinformation and distortions — not only about Mormons and Mormonism but, sometimes, even about other faith communities.
MormonVoices isn't affiliated with the church — it's sponsored, instead, by the private Foundation for Apologetic Information and Research (FAIR), for which I am a board member — but it's consistent with recent requests from church leaders that Latter-day Saints become involved in online discussions in order to correct public misperceptions about the church and its members.
MormonVoices is intended to be a rallying point for those wishing to add their positive voices to the current conversation, to help create a chorus of faithful comments in critical online discussions. When public discussions on blogs, websites and news outlets begin to focus on issues directly relevant to Latter-day Saints, MormonVoices will send a brief message, via email or text, to those who've signed up on the site. This message will help volunteers know where conversations are surging and where their input might be most helpful. The project will also provide volunteers with links, recommendations to help them in educating themselves on the issues and suggestions for formulating replies. Those willing to join in the public conversation about Mormonism can then go online and, using their own words, help to further a positive image for the church and its doctrines.
"Every member a missionary," President David O. McKay's famous exhortation, has encouraged many thousands of Latter-day Saints to spread the gospel for well more than half a century. It may also have discouraged more than a few shy members of the church, and has puzzled still others, who, living in predominantly Mormon communities, have wondered how to fulfill their obligation to proclaim the gospel.
The Internet, though, has transformed this situation. Now, from a basement in Panguitch, Paris or Peoria, almost any member of the church can easily and cheaply participate in discussions around the world. Moreover, the Internet, which is well known (indeed, notorious) for allowing people to shed their inhibitions and even their good manners, is an excellent place for shy Saints to become bold missionaries. (MormonVoices, by the way, asks a commitment from its volunteers to be kind and to refrain from offensive language.)
If every member were an Internet missionary, there would be a mighty army of voices defending and commending the Restoration that would be heard literally worldwide. (I speak from personal experience; my new little blog (dcpsicetnon.blogspot.com/) receives "hits" every day from Europe, Australia, Asia and Africa, as well as from the United States and Canada.) Furthermore, wider member participation with the media would have a very positive impact on our public image and, thus, on the success of our missionaries, as well as on the coverage we receive from global media. (There are probably very few reporters who enjoy being publicly shown to be wrong.)
When I was an LDS missionary in Switzerland, I was appalled at the limited but almost invariably negative media coverage that the LDS Church received. For the last six months of my service there, my mission president brought me to headquarters and challenged me to try to affect that coverage in a positive way. I had some very small successes, but on the whole, things continued pretty much the way they were. And I'm quite certain that the church's negative image among the Swiss hindered our reception at their doors, which meant that people seldom actually heard our message.
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Now, as a complement to the wonderful church-sponsored efforts such as Mormon.org, efforts like MormonVoices can provide an effective way of improving our image and of countering the kinds of coverage that have long damaged it.
I, for one, am extremely excited about the opportunity.
Daniel C. Peterson is a professor of Islamic studies and Arabic at BYU, where he also serves as editor in chief of the Middle Eastern Texts Initiative and as director of advancement for the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship. He is the founder of Mormon ScholarsTestify.org. He blogs daily at dcpsicetnon.blogspot.com.