I have watched with a bit of confusion the furor surrounding the New York Times obituary of President Thomas Monson. Social media is awash in bitter complaints by LDS Church members that the obituary had an unfairly negative slant. The NYT responded to the complaints, defending the obituary’s wording.
I see the NYT obituary as covering the newsworthy elements of President Monson’s life from an outsider’s perspective, so I hear the complaints as so much whining. Remember, to an outsider, unfamiliar with President Monson (i.e., the average reader of the NYT), the Church’s hostility to LGBT causes and engagement in the Culture Wars are probably the most newsworthy events in the tenure of President Monson. The obituary reflects this.
I know a lot of the complaints stem from the NYT referring to President Monson as “Mr. Monson”, the focus on controversial topics, and overall tone of the obituary, presumably because it wasn’t fawning, which might be jarring for members accustomed to the leader worship of modern LDS culture. Indeed, there does seem to be a tone of resentment within the piece, or at least no effort to spin events in the most positive light possible, something that may also seem foreign to Church members.
It seems to me that the NYT’s tone in the obituary, and the corresponding complaints by Church members, represent some sort of proxy in the Culture Wars, with each side signaling through the argument their greater positions within America’s Culture Wars. Such a situation is unfortunate, but the Church has invested a great deal of political capital on the Culture Wars, and President Monson has been an important leader and even president during that time. It seems unreasonable to have spent so much political capital on specific Culture War battles, only to then cry foul when one’s church is associated with its position in those battles.
An institution’s political capital is defined as its money, institutional focus, rhetoric, organizational efforts, trust, and earned goodwill. All of these have been expended in great amounts as the Church has engaged in the Culture Wars. Indeed, most recently the Church has defined itself more by what it is against than what it is for. We have defined our Christianity as anti-LGBT and have aligned ourselves with Evangelicals and deeply conservative Christians on these topics. We cannot complain that we are then painted with the same brush as they are. We have chosen to define ourselves in this way.
Consider Mother Teresa. She is an icon of selfless work for the poor and downtrodden. She is the Kleenex of kindness and selflessness, with people saying things like, “He’s no Mother Teresa…” As a Catholic she probably agreed with her church’s stance on divorce, contraception, homosexuality, and women’s ordination; however, she chose to define herself by her selflessness and thus became an icon of Christian virtue.
Imagine if the LDS Church expended its considerable political capital and organizational resources to eradicate homelessness, provide nutritional supplements to those in need, or run women’s shelters rather than fight same-sex marriage and the baking of cakes for gay couples. How different might that NYT obituary read?