SALT LAKE CITY — Can we just stop with the secrecy stuff already?
One of the most common stereotypes I see in coverage of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is that we Latter-day Saints are secretive.
Dan Harris's two-part series about the church for ABC this week was dripping with that stereotype. The series led with the stereotype in his first installment and played it up in his second part. Furthermore, Brian Williams' disappointing "Rock Center" documentary included the same stereotype frequently.
In fairness to Harris and to NBC, I don't think the reporting constituted a deliberate hatchet job on the LDS Church. (Harry Smith's piece on LDS welfare certainly was no hatchet job.)
I think all the reporters were trying to be fair, but it's a shame to have the focus on secrecy. (NBC's decision to show LDS garments was especially troubling. I mean, really, a focus on underwear?)
To be sure, Harris, Williams and other reporters who have used this secrecy stereotype sometimes ask Latter-day Saints (or estranged Latter-day Saints) about this perception or stereotype, and those Saints sometimes choose to acknowledge things that outsiders see as secretive — and then those same Latter-day Saints try to explain the so-called secrecy in terms or persecution and hesitancy in entering the mainstream.
So, if a scholar or other Latter-day Saint concurs, even in slight ways, with the stereotype, it's hard for reporters to avoid the conclusion that Latter-day Saints are secretive.
But I differ with that conclusion, and strongly.
If we Latter-day Saints are so secretive, can someone explain to me why it is so many of us volunteer for two years to explain just about anything people might want to know about our faith — full time?
If we Latter-day Saints are so secretive, why do our leaders in Salt Lake City make an effort to share more about our beliefs through lds.org, mormon.org and the "I'm a Mormon" campaign? Why do we invite anyone and everyone to our church meetings? Why does the church's website include a vast library of hundreds of links about the church and its doctrine? Why the vast emphasis on general conference and getting it to as broad a public as possible? Why the remarkable translation services? I know of nothing equivalent anywhere in the world of religion.
No, we are not secretive. We love to share. Did you see the Latter-day Saints in the Rock Center documentary? They seemed hardly secretive to me.
I acknowledge that Latter-day Saints choose not to disclose specifics about individual members, about financial matters and about the temple. I acknowledge that the way the church presents itself depends on the audience.
But many organizations avoid disclosing finances, specifics about individuals and about their sacred spaces. It is fully consistent with Christianity to not disclose cherished beliefs with those who wouldn't appreciate them, who wouldn't or couldn't hold them sacred. And certainly, almost any organization will tailor its messages depending on the audience.
As I see it, there is nothing particularly unusual or sinister about any of the church's discretion.
The problem with presenting Latter-day Saints as secretive is three-fold: First, it perpetuates a stereotype that hearkens to the oldest of the anti-Mormon tomes: Eber Howe's "Mormonism Unvailed" (sic). Basically, reporters continue a trope that started with those kinds of often anti-Mormon books — that there is something sinister at the core of the Mormon faith.
Second, the stereotype may have political consequences. Now, I try to avoid mixing politics and religion, but I think many political consultants know that people assume Latter-day Saints are secretive — with the sinister undertone that word implies.
So, to the extent Mitt Romney is portrayed as secretive about anything, it plays into this old sinister stereotype, hindering his political chances, in my view. Romney should be judged on his other merits — or lack thereof — not on a regurgitated echo of an anti-Mormon stereotype.
Lastly, and maybe most significantly, is that secretiveness is a two-way street, and that fact is too often missed. If a person chooses to avoid my message, I might seem secretive to that person regardless of what I do. For the perception of secrecy to stop, it requires someone truly willing to listen.
Having served a two-year mission and had thousands of polite but firm rejections in Japan, I realized that many people don't really want to hear my LDS message, so it is no wonder thousands don't understand us.
And in not understanding Latter-day Saints, it's equally easy to see why this trope of secrecy endures.
I recently visited some of our wonderful church history sites in the Midwest. The warm-hearted missionaries helped us and taught us at clean, welcoming visitor centers. The sister missionaries always insisted on bearing their testimonies and teaching us about the church and its message. Visitors can't escape our remarkable message from our generous missionaries, even if they wished to do so, at those places. Secrecy, indeed.
Sometimes I feel like the child in the corner with my hand up that the teacher refuses to acknowledge. It isn't because I am secretive, but there is only so much I can do.
We Latter-day Saints do have something remarkable to say. We are not rubes nor ignorant hacks. We study and ponder and pray and learn. We are in earnest. If we could only get more people to really listen to the simple message, none of us would hide.
God is not silent, but speaks. Scriptures are not only old, but new again. Death is not final, but beginning. Christ not only taught, but atoned. Prophets and apostles returned. Hope and forgiveness, pure gold, still come every day.
Lane Williams teaches journalism and communication at BYU-Idaho. He is a former journalist whose scholarly interests include Mormon portrayals in the media, media and religion, and religion and politics.