Insider/Outsider Talk in the Church PR Response to Ordain Women

The Church PR department’s response to Ordain Women’s request for tickets to the priesthood session of Conference makes the point that OW is a minority movement:

Women in the Church, by a very large majority, do not share your advocacy for priesthood ordination for women and consider that position to be extreme.

One question this argument raises is how they know this. Are they relying on the Pew data (rah of fMh has an interesting response) or the American Grace data, or some internal survey of members’ attitudes, or perhaps just assuming that it’s true?

But I don’t want to get into that question here. Instead, I wanted to talk about another question I’ve seen raised a number of times on the Bloggernacle, namely, why would Church PR make this argument at all? After all, shouldn’t this be a question of right and wrong rather than how many people support the idea? We have all kinds of discussion in the Church of how we should do right even if it’s unpopular, so why should it matter how many women do or don’t want the priesthood? Either it’s right or it’s not; that’s what matters.

What’s particularly odd, too, is that the “it’s wrong” argument appears right alongside the “you’re a tiny minority” argument. At the end of the paragraph quoted above, the statement continues,

Ordination of women to the priesthood is a matter of doctrine that is contrary to the Lord’s revealed organization for His Church.

Now that’s more of what I would expect in a Church response: You’re going against God.

Here’s what I think is going on. The Church PR statement, while nominally addressed to OW leaders, is clearly also addressed to people outside the Church. After all, it was issued by the PR department, and posted on the Mormon Newsroom website. The authors of the statement want to make arguments to both the media–who are Church outsiders–and to the OW leaders–who are Church members. They realize that different arguments will be persuasive to the different groups. The “tiny minority” argument is for outsiders. It’s to reassure the world out there that the Mormons aren’t oppressing their women1. It’s only a small fraction of them who feel wronged by not getting to hold the priesthood. The “it’s against God’s will” argument is for insiders. Media people won’t be persuaded by it, but the PR people are hoping perhaps OW people (or other Church members who sympathize with them) will be.

My conclusion might seem like a blinding flash of the obvious. If so, please indulge me while I make another obvious and oft-repeated point. It’s much harder in today’s communication environment to keep messages to outsiders and messages to insiders walled off from each other. It’s been a while, but there’s been some Bloggernacle discussion of President Hinckley’s famous “I don’t know that we teach it. I don’t know that we emphasize it.” response to a reporter’s question about Lorenzo Snow’s deification couplet. That was a perfect example of communication meant for outsiders leaking to insiders. It happened in 1997. The leakage issue is much, much bigger now. So the Church PR people respond by just throwing both insider and outsider arguments into the same document, probably figuring that it would be impossible to keep separate responses separate anyway.

I think the “tiny minority” argument has always been addressed to outsiders in the past as well. For example, last fall’s Church PR statement to the media (from Ruth Todd) included this statement:

Millions of women in the church do not share the views of this small group that has come and organized this protest today, and some of the members feel this is very divisive as well.

Similarly, President Hinckley’s point that there’s “no agitation” for women’s ordination was also made to a reporter and not to Church members.

An unfortunate implication of this conclusion that the “tiny minority” argument is made only to outsiders is that Church PR people (or leaders) aren’t saying that if OW gets bigger, the Church will listen to them. They’re just saying that if OW gets bigger, the Church will worry more about looking bad to outsiders in relation to how it treats them.

  1. Note that here I’m deliberately following the “our women” phrasing sometimes used by GAs. I’m definitely not endorsing it! []


  1. I agree with you that the “minority” comments were intended for the press, not Ordain Women. In fact, that letter was addressed to myself and three other named women, with our names written across the top, and yet the Church Newsroom had it published in the Deseret News BEFORE I even received it. That makes me think that they were not talking to me, just using me.

    Unfortunately, this message, that minority voices are unimportant and should be silenced simply because we are minorities, has been received by the LDS public, and they are following the example set forth by the Newsroom. It is now open season on people with minority views.

  2. Another possibility is that the church is trying to speak to the millions of LDS women who, because of OW, are seriously considering the issue of female ordination for the first time in their lives. Most all church members I know (male and female) look to their fellow saints for guidance as to what is acceptable. Consider for example the ever-present debates over caffeine, what activities are ok to do without garments, how to observe the sabbath, etc.

    Whether intentional or not, the letter serves to inform women (and men) in the church that if they support OW they will be in the minority and viewed by the majority as a disruptive protest.

  3. “After all, shouldn’t this be a question of right and wrong rather than how many people support the idea?”

    I think this is an excellent question.

    Individually, certainly it should be solely about what the person feels is right and wrong.

    But the question becomes much more troublesome in a church which is built upon the principles of common consent. In that environment, looking at the church as a whole, it very much matters how many members support the idea.

  4. Ugh. April, I’m sorry. The response from the Church has been disappointing on so many levels. The disregard for individuals in favour of public appearance has been my least favourite part – including the signalling that it’s okay (and even expected) for others to act similarly.

    If you’re right, Ziff, and it was unintentional signalling because that part was meant for outsiders, I don’t know if that’s better or worse. It shows a lack of awareness of the potential impact. Never ascribe to malice that which can be adequately explained by having no actual clue about people’s lives, I guess.

  5. Ziff,

    Interesting point. I do think that the breaking down of the insider/outsider communication wall has far reaching effects. I agree with others here that think both prongs of the church’s assertion will be interpreted by both external and internal audiences. The emphasis on the minority status of women seeking ordination will act to signal to Mormons what it is “ok” to think and believe about the subject, especially coupled with the strong form this is doctrine statements. This is directly helping foment the backlash among church members against OW and on ordination in general. Of course, we can only speculate whether that was part of the intent of those who authored the letter.

    In any case, if that line was meant to placate external audience I think that shows a shocking lack of sophistication on the part of the authors. It plays right into the idea of Mormon women being “brainwashed” (a term I HATE when applied to all most any religious group) or I think more aptly described as socialized to accept accept their “place”. I think many if not most external audiences take the sign that there is such cohesion among Mormon women in how they view their place as further proof of what they suspect is wrong with the church! It just makes the protester’s look more brave and more sympathetic. I think Kristine said it best. Its compounding the PR disaster because “no one is going to root for Goliath”.

    Also, the way they handled this really upped the contentiousness of the whole affair. So if their goal was to decrease contention (no idea if it was), then it was a bust from that perspective.

    I am in serious doubt of the competency of the people advising the church from a PR perspective. Maybe the PR people’s advice is being ignored or “correlated” to oblivion through the decision making process. I am sure that is not an uncommon tail for PR people in many organizations. But as an armchair media strategist so much of this is head scratching.

  6. I agree with #2.

    It is hugely sad to me that the Church PR department is doing what it can to paint OW and other mormon feminists as a minority and therefore as apostate and against doctrine. Indeed, as is evidenced on the interweb, the self righteous are emboldened in telling those who have such views to fall in line or leave the church.

  7. This last bit really made me pause, “An unfortunate implication of this conclusion that the “tiny minority” argument is made only to outsiders is that Church PR people (or leaders) aren’t saying that if OW gets bigger, the Church will listen to them. They’re just saying that if OW gets bigger, the Church will worry more about looking bad to outsiders in relation to how it treats them.”

    Yikes. I’m really holding my breath to see how things play out on April 5.

  8. Ziff, this makes a lot of sense to me. And I can see how trying to have it both ways is going to be increasingly difficult. Sort of like how politicians in the past could give different messages to different audiences but now whatever they say in one context inevitably leaks out (thinking of Romney’s 1% comments).

  9. When looked at in a certain light, the basic question of OW is answered in the second highlighted sentence. This goes contrary to the revealed will of the Lord. The public pronouncements about the minority viewpoint are just for PR reasons.
    The statement, if just for internal consumption, could also have included a reminder about how issues with church doctrine and policies should be addressed (with your local leaders). I suspect that the church leaders are paying attention to the amount of feedback the local leaders give them on this issue. If there are plenty of sincere questions at the local level, this issue will be taken more seriously, AND, the members raising it will be dealt with respectfully as a whole. If it is just a large central PR campaign, the church’s PR statements will reflect that.

  10. Great analysis, Ziff.

    El oso, please. The instruction to take this up with local leaders is just stonewalling, surely you can see that. It’s like telling people if you don’t like a state law to go see your alderman.

    Further, the PR statement that OW is against the Lord’s revealed organization for the Church really begs for some explanation. Are we to conclude that just because something exists that it’s the Lord’s revealed organization? Or is it just possible that precedent is playing a huge role here? Do we believe in continuing revelation?

  11. I’ve been doing a little informal survey in my ward. Mostly I’ve gotten “yes I heard there were women who wanted the priesthood, but I haven’t paid attention to it” and “I don’t understand why they would want it.” I started pressing a bit and have found the majority of active women in my circle to be strongly committed to the principles of the gospel as they exist now. They are articulate in expressing what they believe in and what works for them in their lives. I haven’t heard any name-calling, just quiet conviction. I’m uncomfortable with what happened in the press but I do think it’s an important point. How many women are in the OW movement? Who are they speaking for? If 200 women want to be ordained and millions clearly do not, how is that not pertinent? Put doctrine aside. Why isn’t the majority opinion a valid argument? My friends aren’t saying OW is bad or even apostate. They just don’t agree. I personally wish I could have a glass of red wine once in awhile, too. I can see how that might seem to be trivializing to OW but how can an organization—forget Christ’s church on earth—-function by catering to a vocal minority?

    Emily, I agree with you regarding local leaders. I don’t like that policy, but I don’t know how they get around it with so many members.

    I would feel much better had general authorities met personally with leaders of the movement and expressed their opinions. While I disagree with OW, I can see how a public “dissing” only escalates the friction and is very hurtful to individuals.

  12. In the case of issues pertaining to salvation, the majority opinion isn’t a valid argument because that’s akin to asking for what’s popular, instead of asking what’s right. Lehi didn’t espouse a majority opinion. Neither did Samuel, Abinadai, Noah, or Eve. In general, doing what’s right is extremely unpopular.

    In this case, I feel that the popular members of the church are standing in the way of the progression of the saints as a whole. Almost as if we’re saying to our Heavenly Parents, “We’re not ready for these blessings that you promised in the temple ceremony.”


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