No more Mr. Nice Mormon? LDS scholars speak on reaction to Bloomberg story

Published: Friday, July 27 2012 2:00 p.m. MDT

FILE - In this Oct. 2, 2010 file photo, Stephen Colbert, left, and Jon Stewart appear on stage at the Beacon Theatre in New York. (Charles Sykes, ASSOCIATED PRESS) FILE - In this Oct. 2, 2010 file photo, Stephen Colbert, left, and Jon Stewart appear on stage at the Beacon Theatre in New York. (Charles Sykes, ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Does the LDS Church's official response to Bloomberg Businessweek's recent story on Mormon finances signal a new approach to public outreach by the church that has a reputation for being nice?

Or, as comic Jon Stewart might say, "No more Mr. Nice Mormon."

The reaction to the Businessweek story — particularly the magazine's cover illustration that parodied a C.C.A. Christensen drawing of Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery receiving the Aaronic Priesthood from John the Baptist, was swift and pointed.

"The Businessweek cover is in such poor taste it is difficult to even find the words to comment on it," said LDS spokesman Michael Purdy. "Sadly, the cover is a reflection of the bias and speculative nature of the article itself. It is narrow and incomplete, omitting, for instance, a good deal of information given on how church resources are used. The article misses the mark and the cover is obviously meant to be offensive to many, including millions of Latter-day Saints."

Contrast that with the church's official reaction to the raucous and overtly offensive "The Book of Mormon" musical that took Broadway — and America — by storm last year: "The production may attempt to entertain audiences for an evening, but the Book of Mormon as a volume of scripture will change people's lives forever by bringing them closer to Christ."

The response to "The Book of Mormon" was roundly hailed — even by the show's creators.

"Before the church responded, a lot of people would ask us, 'Are you afraid of what the church would say?’ ” said Matt Stone, one of the show's creators, during an interview with NPR. "And Trey (Parker, another of the show's creators) and I were like, 'They're going to be cool.' And they were like, 'No, they're not. There are going to be protests.' And we were like, 'Nope, they're going to be cool.' We weren't that surprised by the church's response. We had faith in them."

No one is expecting a similar expression of faith and goodwill from the editors of Bloomberg Businessweek.

Typically, the LDS Church seems to prefer a positive approach to media relations. For several months it has devoted a portion of its Newsroom website to highlighting good work that it sees being done by various media outlets in their coverage of Mormonism. The website also features a lot of background information for reporters doing research on the church, and a style guide to help explain to reporters how to refer to the church.

But in the case of the Bloomberg Businessweek cover and story, the church's decision to react so directly and so firmly is understandable, according to noted scholar and historian Richard L. Bushman.

"I think the church has been criticized so often for its involvement in business and its wealth that it is sensitive," Bushman said. "It would like to dispel the impression that it is a corporate empire aimed at making money." So when a story comes along that continues to perpetuate that impression, Bushman said that in his opinion "the impatience is justified."

Paul Reeve, a professor of history at the University of Utah who specializes in Utah and Mormon history, said he wonders if maybe the strong response to the Bloomberg story was intended more for church members than for the public at large. As a historian, he couldn't help but refer back to the Kirtland Safety Society, a financial venture whose failure resulted in ill will and apostasy during the early days of the LDS Church.

"While the church is concerned about its outward image," Reeve said, "sometimes they have to worry about what the members of the church think when they read these things. And sometimes I think they feel they have to react in order to alleviate those concerns among the members of the church."

Even if that reaction isn't exactly "nice."

But don't expect the church to come out swinging every time some media outlet gets Mormonism wrong. Brian Cannon, a history professor at BYU, sees the Bloomberg Businessweek response as more of an aberration than a course correction.

"In a year when (LDS) wealth has received considerable coverage because of Mitt Romney's ties to the church and his great wealth, it would be natural for the church to clarify matters, particularly in terms of placing its investments within the context of its philanthropic and religious endeavors and mission," Cannon said.

Copyright 2015, Deseret News Publishing Company