I saw an interesting reddit post this week that pointed out what a bad 72 hours the Church, and particularly BYU, had been having in terms of PR failures. I thought I’d share the list and add a wee bit of personal commentary, but I promise to end on a positive note.

  • BYU decides its faculty has no right to private conversations with their bishops
  • A picture is released of Nelson posing like Jesus
  • BYU trashes an LGBTQ group’s resource pamphlets after agreeing to give them to freshmen
  • BYU fails to stop racist heckling at a volleyball game with Duke
  • It’s revealed the General YW President’s DIL murdered her own son and got away with it

BYU, Strike 1

As one commenter put it, for a Church so invested in the Tabernacle Choir, it sure can be tone deaf. In response to last week’s horror show in which the Church (via its legal firm Kirton-McConkie) defended a bishop who did not report seven years of ongoing child sex abuse as being under the umbrella of “priest-penitent privilege.”

While it is correct that Arizona does not require mandatory reporting (nor is reporting prohibited), neither does the Church mean what other churches mean when it comes to confidentiality. One of the most obvious breaches of confidentiality is that all faculty and students at BYU are subject to having the private disclosures made to their bishops being reported directly to the university, which can result in expulsion for students or faculty being fired (or not getting tenure).

The problem with that is that it’s so incredibly subjective, or as we like to call it in the bloggernacle, leader roulette. A bishop can (at his discretion) withhold endorsement on various grounds, with dire financial and career consequences to the so-called “penitent,” to name a few:

  • if the bishop thinks you are a “doubter”
  • if the bishop thinks you are critical of church leaders or policies, even if that’s just because he loves something that you begrudgingly keep silent about
  • if you say anything at Church that the bishop doesn’t like
  • if the bishop questions whether you are paying what he deems a sufficient tithe
  • if ward members disagree with / complain about your statements or views or politics, and the bishop agrees with them or takes them at face value

For sure people are going to be fired because overstepping bishops with too narrow a view of what orthodoxy and orthopraxy are required and refuse to endorse. I know of cases in which this type of threat has happened. It’s not a new thing. At all.

What is new is that BYU has changed its application process this week to require that anyone applying for a job at BYU agree up front to waive their “right” to priest-penitent confidentiality. Now that they’ve said priest-penitent confidentiality can be invoked to protect a bishop from being sued for keeping the most egregious sex abuser’s confidence, they want to be clear that a bishop also can’t be sued for getting you fired by revealing information shared and refusing to endorse you.

To be clear, that’s been happening for a long time. It’s just hypocritical. Now, to cover their bases, Kirton-McConkie has gotten them to add a waiver to new applications. You literally cannot apply unless you affirm that anything you say in a bishop’s office can be used against you, and that requirements in endorsements are subject to change (including more stringent requirements on your beliefs and actions as your employment continues).

Nelson as Jesus?

A picture of Pres. Nelson in front of the refurbished DC temple in a pose that looks quite a lot like the new Church logo he approved has caused a bit of a kerfuffle. Was this intentional? Does our heart surgeon Church president have an actual God complex? You decide.

BYU, Strike 2

Not much more I can say about this one than Elisa said so well in last week’s post. The Church is absolutely hell-bent on shoving LGBT students either back in the closet or out of the university. They are going to lose this fight, obviously, but first they are going to lose a whole lot of church members, and the majority of this current generation.

BYU, Strike 3

This is another one where I felt like I was reading a headline from the 1970s. BYU used to have a serious race problem. Guess what? It still does. The racist heckler was apparently not a student, just a BYU volleyball fan who thinks the ‘n’ word is acceptable when hurled at the opposing team, and whose comments did not result in anyone kicking him out until a day later, presumably after permission to address racism could be obtained from someone with more authority than the coaches, the refs, the security, and the other spectators. Did they have to check with Kirton McConkie? I actually wonder if that’s why nobody did the right thing.

When I was a kid in Primary, we used to sing songs like “Dare to do right” and “Choose the right, let the consequence follow.” I never hear those anymore, but you know what I hear almost every week? “Follow the prophet.” When you abdicate all your moral reasoning to authority, this is what you get. Morally flaccid bystanders.

The real problem BYU has with race is that despite identifying that it has a problem with racism in the recent study that was commissioned, it’s pretty clear that the univisity, and the Church backing it, are so entrenched in conservatism that they think the bigger problem is weeding out liberal ideas and “wokism,” and that racism is just “a few bad apples.” When you’re led by people who believe that apologies are somehow unmanly or problematic, don’t expect a lot of improvement.

YW President’s Tragedy

This story is honestly just horrifying all around. Five days ago, Bonnie Cordon mentioned her grief at the passing of her grandson Derek who “stopped breathing” in Feb of 2017 in a faith-promoting story about being inspired by a scripture on a whiteboard at Primary Children’s Hospital on a church assignment while she was still wracked by grief. Why she chose to share this story is hard to fathom because public records indicate that it was ruled a homocide due to child abuse by her daughter-in-law, but the case did not result in a charge or conviction. The injuries sustained by her dead grandson were deemed to be caused by “shaken baby syndrome.” The parents’ claims that he just “stopped breathing” were not consistent with the medical examiner’s findings.

Was she sharing this five and a half year old story because she wants to draw attention to the fact that her daughter-in-law didn’t go to jail for murder? As the blameless grandmother, my heart goes out to her for her loss. It’s just not clear why this is fodder for a faith-promoting story. I have to think her son is probably not thrilled to have this dredged up again. Or maybe she intends public scrutiny of their actions. It doesn’t feel like the kind of press the Church should be seeking by publishing this story on its site.

Positive Note

I said I’d end on a positive note, so I will. The Killers are touring their new album, and if there’s one bright spot in the Church it’s that Brandon Flowers is one of the most talented singer/songwriters the world has produced, and he’s still an active, believing member. This show was phenomenal! Seriously, they are just so good. Johnny Marr from The Smiths was the opener. This was just hit after hit, and they didn’t even touch a lot of their classics.

Brandon Flowers’ lyrics often have religious subtext to them. Fire in Bone started with a recount of the Prodigal Son. The song Dying Breed includes this line that sounds familiar to Book of Mormon readers: “There’s gonna be opposition / Ain’t no way around it.” And their latest album Pressure Machine is all about life, growing up in Nephi, Utah. Here are the lyrics to Terrible Thing from that album:

The parking lot is rammed with shotgun pickup trucks
At the Jones’ Rubber plant where all the guys end up
Beer-drinking boy scouts living life like they ain’t stuck
On these quicksand streets with their girls in a sling
I’m in my bedroom on the verge of a terrible thing

‘Round here, we all take up our cross and hang on His holy name
But the cards that I was dealt will get you thrown out of the game
Hey momma, can’t you see your boy is wrapped up in the strangle silk
Of this cobweb town where culture is king?
I’m in my bedroom on the verge of a terrible thing

I close my eyes and think of the water
Out at the Salt Creek when I was young

Down at Old Mill Park, half the town’s in tow
To crown the Bathing Beauty of the rodeo
While her mother fights back proud tears, a young cowboy gives the nod
The chute opens, bull draws blood, and the gift is accepted by God
The chute opens, the bull draws blood, and the gift is accepted by God
In this barbed wire town of barbed wire dreams
I’m in my bedroom on the verge of a terrible thing

I close my eyes and think of the water
Out at the Salt Creek when I was young
I close my eyes and think of the water
Out at the Salt Creek when I was young

Terrible Thing, Brandon Flowers (The Killers)

So that’s been quite a week, or actually less than a week. Someone observed that these horrible PR moves just don’t click if you’re “all in,” and I suspect that’s right. After all, the instinct is to deflect blame by seeing any criticism as unfair or anti-Mormon bias, re-casting the Church as the victim of bad PR, not the generator of bad PR. And I’m sure some of the reporting about religion in general can be unfair. But it also seems that we’ve got some really serious blind spots going on here, and a lack of willingness to face up to things. That’s how I see it anyway. What do you think?

  • How has your view of negative PR cycles changed over time?
  • What do you think of these specific negative stories?
  • Have you seen The Killers in concert?
  • Are we human or are we dancer?