Echo Chambers, Propaganda, and Agitation for Change in the LDS Church

[I realize that because I am a white Mormon man who holds the priesthood many women may feel that I can’t successfully understand or empathize with their experiences as women.  This article is not intended to invalidate their personal experiences and feelings. It is meant to illustrate a dynamic employed by agitators to promote their causes in the media.]

One side-effect of having LDS church member Mitt Romney as a major contender for the presidency of the United States and the resulting media and public attention it brings is that it emboldens LDS dissidents and agitators to attempt to push for changes in the church. They know that the church is under the microscope right now and they take advantage of the extra attention because they believe that the church’s public relations sensitivities make disciplinary action or push-back less likely. So it is no surprise that we see increased agitation on issues like women’s roles in the church, homosexuality, and financial transparency.

It’s important that people become careful consumers of information and the techniques these groups are using to artificially give their causes the appearance of widespread support, when in reality they often represent a small, interconnected agenda-driven group using blogs and media coordination to build disproportionate buzz and influence to manipulate perceptions.

As a broader example of perception manipulation, recent Gallup studies have asked people in the U. S. what percentage of the population they believe is gay or lesbian and found that, on average, adults believe that 25 percent of Americans are homosexual. In reality, fewer than 5 percent Americans identify as gay or lesbian and it is possibly less than 2 percent. Only 4 percent of adults correctly estimated the number.

Decades ago the number of homosexuals was inflated for propaganda reasons. And in the intervening years, television programs and movies artificially make it seem like it is far more common than reality. Mainstream media and Hollywood create an amplifying echo chamber to influence people’s assumptions. People make decisions and build their views based upon these distorted, exaggerated perceptions.

A similar technique was used with abortion. Before it was legalized nationally by Roe v Wade, proponents of legalized abortion often claimed that between 5,000 and 10,000 women died every year because of illegal abortions. In reality, the numbers at the time showed that fewer than 250 deaths had been reported and, even attempting to account for under-reporting because of illegality, the number was likely fewer than 1,000.

Bernard Nathanson, who was the key witness on this point in Roe v Wade and has since turned anti-abortion has written:

“…we generally emphasized the drama of the individual case, not the mass statistics, but when we spoke of the latter it was always ‘5,000 to 10,000 deaths a year.’ I confess that I knew the figures were totally false, and I suppose the others did too if they stopped to think of it. But in the ‘morality’ of our revolution, it was a useful figure, widely accepted, so why go out of our way to correct it with honest statistics?” (Aborting America, 1979)

So, having looked at these examples, let’s look at a recent example of how agitators use amplifying echo chambers and questionable statistics to manipulate perceptions and push an agenda in the LDS church. I want to emphasize that I do not believe that they are doing this cynically. As with Nathanson’s description above, I think that they are certain of the morality of their cause and that it allows them to become victims of their own amplifying echo chamber.

Recently, Sister Neylan McBaine gave a presentation at the annual LDS FAIR conference in which she discussed changes that she believes that the LDS church needs to make regarding women’s roles in the church. It has since received quite a lot of attention.

Sister McBaine describes herself as a marketer, not an academic. She worked on the Church’s widely celebrated “I’m a Mormon” advertising campaign. Her concern is that “what we say we do in regards to our women, what we actually do, and what the Lord says we should do … be in triangulated harmony with each other” from the perspective of a marketing professional.

She says that her research shows that there “is a tremendous amount of pain among our women regarding how they can or cannot contribute to the governance of our ecclesiastical organization.” She refers to a considerable “breadth and volume” of articles sampled from a “wide range of sources and philosophies” to support this assertion. She cites “statements, recently gathered across a variety of forums.” And she insists that the pain she observes is widespread among women in the church and not just “relegated to the extremist academics or feisty feminist bloggers.”

A closer look at her sources, however, shows that they are not at all wide-ranging and varied.  Most of her data is either anecdotal or is nearly exclusively drawn from a small, vocal, non-random, interconnected group of like-minded Mormon feminists and dissidents. There is no way to determine how wide spread the pain she describes really is among women in the church based on the biased sources she cites.

To demonstrate that this is in fact the case, let’s take a close look at her claims.

Before I dive into the details, I need to say that I am personally in favor of addressing bias against women in Mormon culture and that there are changes that Sister McBaine proposes that I agree with to a great extent.  However, I believe that such proposals should be addressed privately to the leaders of the church and not pushed through public agitation.

When she describes the “wide range of sources and philosophies” and the “breadth” of the articles she studied, the only sources she specifically names are the blogs By Common Consent, A Well-Behaved Mormon Woman, Feminist Mormon Housewives, and Times and Seasons. All of the sources but one are well known “bloggernacle” blogs with reputations for feminism and long-standing disagreements with the church on the topic of women’s roles. Some of the most vocal agitators on the topic have blogged and participated actively at all of these blogs over the last 8 or 9 years. The one exception is A Well-Behaved Mormon Woman, which is the only source she names that represents a more traditional LDS woman’s point of view. And later on in her presentation, Sister McBaine singles that blog out for criticism. Contrary to her assertion, the bloggernacle represents a very narrow range of sources and philosophies. The bloggernacle is the amplifying echo chamber of inter-linking, largely like-minded liberal LDS bloggers.

Next, Sister McBaine quotes several individual statements that she says represent the widespread pain among Mormon women. If we look at the footnotes for the sources of the quotes, we find that, of the four quotes offered, two of them are taken from the “Understanding Mormon Disbelief” survey (which we will discuss in more depth in a moment), one is from an unattributed private correspondence, and one is cited from the book Women in Eternity, Women in Zion by Valerie Hudson and Alma Don Sorenson, which in the book is also unattributed.

Like in the Nathanson quote above, this is an emphasis on the drama of individual cases. Does this drama really represent the experience of most Mormon women? It’s anecdotal.  There is no way to tell. Even if most women have wrestled with these kinds of questions (and I believe that they have) is it an ongoing source of pain? Or is it something that they have already confronted and reconciled to their satisfaction which no longer vexes them? We have no way to know based these anecdotes and non-random samples.

Which brings us to the “Understanding Mormon Disbelief” study. Sister McBaine’s presentation relies very heavily on this survey. She says that “survey data support the conclusion that tens, if not hundreds of thousands, of women each year are unable to maintain their church activity because they cannot internally reconcile their position within the church organization.”

The survey was sponsored and conducted by the Mormon Research Foundation, which is one of the many projects of John Dehlin, a Mormon dissident whose public disagreement with various church’s positions and efforts to organize like-minded dissidents are well known among Mormons on the Internet.  It specifically sought out people who once believed in the LDS church but who no longer believe. The survey itself acknowledges that the respondents were contacted by posting a link to the survey “on several sites associated with the ‘Bloggernacle’, or LDS themed blogs, as well as through social media.” 3086 people’s responses were included. Of the 3,086, 42%, or approximately 1296, were women and 44%, or about 1358, still attend church.

In other words, this was a self-selected poll of self-identified former members of the LDS church, who were contacted through the same narrow group of blogs that Sister McBaine used as sources for her “wide ranging” reading. The survey openly admits that it was not a random sample and they make “no claim of representativeness or statistical significance in the sample. This survey is representative of the respondents only.”

We cannot claim that a survey of about 3,000 self-selected former Mormons, sponsored by known LDS dissidents, gathered from the liberal leaning LDS blogs, only 1300 of whom were women represents the sentiment of faithful, mainstream, LDS women in general. In other words, the survey was conducted in the same amplifying echo chamber.

It is hard to see how anyone can conclude that “tens, if not hundreds of thousands” of women leave church activity every year specifically over the issues with which Sister McBaine is concerned based solely on this questionable survey. I mean think about that: tens or even hundreds of thousands every year! That’s an extraordinary claim from a sample of about 726 self-selected former members who are women and no longer attend church (3086 x 0.42 women x 0.56 inactive = 725.83). And of those who no longer attend church, there is no indication that they all left the church in the last year. For all we know many have been out for decades. Extraordinary claims need far better support than that.

Sister McBaine also says that she conducted her own survey, but she provides no details, and admits that it consisted of a sample of her friends (also non-random).

In addition to these questionable surveys, she also cites a lot of anecdotal experience working on her Mormon Women Project. She explains how she spearheaded “a podcast series … in which the founders of a wide spectrum of Mormon women’s organizations—including Segullah, Feminist Mormon Housewives, LDS Wave and The Power of Moms—met monthly to share our feelings and experiences about being women in the Church.”

Again, she describes it as a “wide spectrum,” but the actual organizations she lists represent a rather narrow spectrum of interconnected sources. While the organizations themselves may be different, the individual participants in the podcast were largely the same people from the liberal blogging community. Some of the people at LDS Wave are bloggers at Feminist Mormon Housewives (some using pseudonyms). Other participants have been bloggers at the Times and Seasons and By Common Consent blogs. It doesn’t matter how varied the organizations are if it is really all just the same people. In other words, this is the same old amplifying echo chamber.

Toward the end of Sister McBaine’s presentation, she declares, “Having established the magnitude of this crisis and having struck at some of the roots of the pain, I’d like to turn now to what we can do to alleviate this pain.” (emphasis added) But it is clear that she has not in fact established the magnitude of the crisis. Most of her data is drawn from the same self-reinforcing echo chamber. Perhaps there is wide spread pain among LDS women about these issues. But we don’t know. We simply can’t reliably determine the magnitude of the crisis from her biased evidence. And the magnitude of the crisis is an important consideration in determining what should be done.

On the other hand, the respected Pew Research Center’s study on Mormons in America offers some counter-evidence. According to their survey of Mormons on the topic of gender roles in the church:

The survey finds little support for the notion that women should be eligible for the Mormon priesthood. … One-in-ten Mormons (11%) believe that women should be ordained to the priesthood of their church, whereas 87% think the priesthood should be open only to males. Large majorities of both men and women express this view, but Mormon women are somewhat more likely than Mormon men to say the priesthood should be open only to males (90% vs. 84%). The belief that women should be ordained to the priesthood is less common among those who have the highest levels of religious commitment than among those with lower levels of commitment. Even among this latter group, however, nearly seven-in-ten (69%) say women should not be eligible for the priesthood.

Admittedly, there are weaknesses in this survey. (And in reality God determines who holds his priesthood, not statistics) It is hard to draw any conclusions about whether women feel pain about this arrangement, even if they do faithfully submit to the church’s current organization. But the survey at least attempts to get a broad, representative sample of LDS women.

As I mentioned, I do believe that most LDS women have wrestled with these issues. Knowing that this has been an issue for women at all, even if they are at peace about it, is an important consideration. But it is one thing to have wrestled and come to an agreeable conclusion so that they are no longer wrestling, and another to continually wrestle without resolution which is the group that the Mormon Research survey is measuring. There is also the important question of whether most of the women who struggle believe that public agitation is the proper way to seek changes to address that pain.

There is always the question of whether the act of trying to measure concerns among LDS women isn’t really creating concerns among LDS women. There is a fine line between measuring existing concern and sowing seeds of concern by the very questions asked.

Returning to the role of the amplifying echo chamber in agitation for change, Sister McBaine’s presentation was subsequently promoted throughout the same LDS blogs that she relied upon in the presentation, creating a positive feedback loop that amplifies the liberal, questioning views they promote.

Once the buzz has been built in the blogs the mainstream media pick it up and make a story of it.

Peggy Fletcher Stack, the religion writer for the Salt Lake Tribune, was one of the original founders and long time editor of the LDS dissident magazine Sunstone and has long standing sympathies with the kinds of issues often raised among LDS bloggers. She frequently uses individuals from the same LDS “bloggernacle” blogs as sources for her stories and mines the blogs for fodder for new articles.

Take for example this article recently published by Stack, Mormon women seeking middle ground to greater equality, where she clearly cites Sister McBaine’s presentation and subsequent buzz in the bloggernacle as a reason why this is a story. In addition to quoting Sister McBaine, she quotes extensively from bloggernacle personalities including many who have blogged at By Common Consent, Feminist Mormon Housewives, Times and Seasons, and from LDS Wave (which was founded by a Feminist Mormon Housewives blogger). They are almost all from the same self-reinforcing echo chamber that Sister McBaine used as sources.

Also notice that Stack starts off her article talking about a “growing group of women” who “are not pushing for ordination, but they crave a more engaged and visible role for women” in the church. But by the end she is describing a “large middle group” pushing for the priesthood to be “expanded to accommodate greater involvement and visibility for women.”

That’s a bit of sleight of hand.  We don’t really know how “large” this group really is in proportion to the total number of LDS women, or how much growth “growing” means, or how many women in the church agree with them. Based on the sources she cites, it appears to be the same, interconnected group of people from liberal LDS Blogs.

And once it has appeared in a reputable mainstream source like the Tribune, it can be picked up by other mainstream media sources who are looking for another Mormon angle for a story related to the candidacy of Mitt Romney.

Now those same blogs will likely talk about the Tribune article or another one inspired by it, and cite it as evidence of the growing group of women in the church who feel as they do.  But it is really just circular, biased, self-referential propaganda in the echo chamber.

Note that in the footnotes of her presentation Sister McBaine says that some of her suggested changes “are from a forthcoming pamphlet from LDS WAVE called, ‘Increasing Women’s Contributions’ ” which she says members of the WAVE organization shared with her.  As an apparent addendum to the follow up coverage to Sister Mcbaine’s presentation in the Tribune, the Tribune published a list of suggested changes from “Mormon feminists” which appears to be taken from the same pamphlet mentioned.  That implies a level of coordination that is not forthrightly disclosed or implied in either the actual text of the presentation as it was delivered orally at the FAIR conference, nor in the Tribune article itself which presented all of the quoted individuals as if they were atomic and unrelated.

And that is how agenda-driven agitators in the church use echo chambers to amplify the propaganda for change in the church and make it look and feel like it has much more support than it probably really does.

Perhaps I am wrong and Sister McBaine has solid, substantial evidence of her claims.  But in my experience people usually marshal the best evidence they have to support their claims when they make their case in an important venue, as she did at the FAIR conference. If Sister McBaine has it, she certainly didn’t use it. Which makes me think she doesn’t have it.

Let me emphasize that I believe that Sister McBaine is a good, faithful member of the church with good intentions. She has admirable concern for the women of the church and I agree with her in many ways. She has simply not shown enough good data to support her contentions. I believe she simply has been caught in the bloggernacle echo chamber and her perceptions have been skewed by the company she keeps. And I believe she has fallen into the trap of public agitation instead of private consultation with the leaders of the church (which is the undercurrent of much of the LDS blogging phenomenon). But it is an honest mistake and not a malicious one.

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13 Responses to Echo Chambers, Propaganda, and Agitation for Change in the LDS Church

  1. jendoop

    Good stuff, thank you!

  2. Were you thinking of the term “agitprop” when you came up with the title and linkage of agitation and propaganda? Or did you associate the two on your own, independent from prior knowledge of their linkage and the combined term?

    Either way, that’s brilliant to see the linkage in the bloggernacle.

    They do go well together.

  3. This was a great post JMax. I know there have been instances where women have been wronged by men in leadership postitions, however I don’t think it’s ever been a direct effort to exclude or to heap misery on the women. I like to think that as Mormon said in The Book of Mormon that “they are the faults of men” (Mormon 8:17). Personally, I am thankful that I will never hold the priesthood. I have never wanted that kind of responsibility or pressure. I think we gals have it just fine.

  4. Jmax, this is a great, great post. You brought out another side to this issue that I think is really important. Thanks for your thoughtful posts.

  5. Fantastic article.

    “I need to say that I am personally in favor of addressing bias against women in Mormon culture and that there are changes that Sister McBaine proposes that I agree with to a great extent. However, I believe that such proposals should be addressed privately to the leaders of the church and not pushed through public agitation.”

    I couldn’t agree more. I agreed with some of Sis. McBaine’s comments, but I was overall disturbed by the ambiguity of both her and Ms. Stack’s overall articles. I also didn’t like the conclusion that women feeling pained by their roles = church leadership are messing things up and they need to make drastic changes.

    When it comes to the calling of motherhood (yes, I see it as a calling), I will be the first to raise my hand and say that it’s painful. Pregnancy is painful. Birth is painful. Babies who want to be held all day and little kids who want your attention 24/7 can weigh on one’s sanity (and I don’t even have teenagers yet). There have been times when I have felt I have lost my identity and there have been times where I have been on the kitchen floor crying. The existence of those feelings, however, does not invalidate the fact that motherhood is important and rewarding. Making the conclusion that no one should ever be put in a situation where they feel pain seems to defeat the purpose of life. I will be the first to raise my hand and say the pain is all worth it! Through the pain, I have gotten on my knees and asked for help. I have received that help. I know I will continue to receive help. I am starting to see the fruits of my labor. I am also working on ways to keep my personal identity, which I think is important.

    I believe that priesthood and motherhood are equal. Both are used to serve others, NOT to gain advantage over another. Both have the potential to be powerful. I fear that some women desire the power that the priesthood has in a recognition kind of way and disregard the power that motherhood has because it doesn’t seem to have as much recognition. Anyone who seeks for recognition in either of these callings are going to have NO power.

    I know there are many righteous women out there who are not full time mothers. My comments above are in no way attacking anyone who can’t or doesn’t want to be a full time mother. I feel that culturally we could all do better at being sensitive to each other in this regard. I feel I need to share those thoughts because there is an attitude that motherhood is not worthwhile and that it is something the men of the church want to impose on us women. For women struggling with the worth of the calling of motherhood, I hope you will get on your knees and ask for understanding.

  6. Thank you, Teresa, for your excellent comments. You have made some great points. We live in a society where good is defined by pain avoidance. But difficulty and pain can also be creative and instructive and transforming.

    For me, that is the message of the story of the fall of Adam and Eve: they chose to give up paradise and immortality and enter into a world of pain and death in order to bring life and progression to children. It is an example for all parents to be willing to sacrifice themselves for their children.

    I agree with you that women must be able to maintain their own identities and pursue interests and talents unrelated to their duties as a mother. Early on my wife and I decided that she should have multiple nights every week when I take care of the children while she goes out to do things she is interested in.

  7. I think that echo chambers in general are a larger problem now than they ever have been. I think this is true in the bloggernaccle, but I also see it happening in the country itself. When media organizations have an obvious and stated bias (msnbc, fox) and is the only “news source” people consume, it is easy to believe that everyone thinks like you do.

    I think that because echo chambers get so loud, that it is important to read blogs from a large variety of bloggers. (For me this applies to more than just LDS or religious bloggers.) It is important to me that I include NPR in my news diet, while still checking in on msnbc and fox websites to try and understand the news sources other people use and trust, sometimes exclusively.

    I don’t think that as members of the church we all have to agree on non-religious issues, although I recognize that many members might have a different line of demarcation were religious issues end, and civil discourse begins. I think that all of us need to be careful of our own echo chambers.

    Thanks for a post with clear details that remind us why listening to ourselves and only a few like minded friends can be dangerous.

  8. Many things you say are clearly true, Jon. However, your post shows a misunderstanding of John Dehlin and many others who disagree with what you view as established Mormon doctrine. John Dehlin’s survey was performed in accord with high academic standards, admitted clearly its limitations, and did not make exaggerated claims (like those of Sister McBaine). John is only a dissident based on the labels of others. There are many who view him as an apologist FOR the LDS Church. As best I can tell, and as supported by the entire body of his public work, his primary goal is to create a space for those who self-identify as Mormon to feel welcome and not feel driven out of the LDS Church because they have questions and doubts.

    I find it a little disturbing that you would attack the methods of Mormon Feminists without addressing the substance of any of the most important arguments.

  9. Jonathan,

    I cannot see into the heart of John Dehlin or anyone else. But my opinions of his public actions are based on years of observation and interaction. I met John in person not long after he started building his online movement. I have followed him fairly closely for years.

    John is a dissident not just because others label him so, but because his actions easily meet the definition of a dissident. A dissident is a person who disagrees with an established religious or political system, organization, or belief. John Dehlin has frequently and repeated publicly expressed his disagreement with the established practices, beliefs, and views of the church and its leadership on many issues.

    He has admitted that not only does he not believe that the LDS church’s doctrines are any more inspired or revealed than any other magnanimous religious movement, but that he doesn’t even know if he believes in God. He certainly doesn’t believe in God after the fashion taught by the church. Whether he wants to call himself “Mormon” or not, he is not a believer in the LDS Church.

    His concern for the trauma experienced by those who lose their faith is honest and admirable. But he stays in the LDS church for cultural reasons, and more importantly, in order to attempt to have an influence on the church from within.

    John doesn’t just make space for those with questions and doubts, he cultivates questions, doubts and unbelief. And he supports a community of doubt and dissent.

    Those who believe but have questions and doubts are welcome to participate in the church, but they shouldn’t be publicizing their disagreement with a joint proclamation by the combined councils of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and banding together into groups against them. The church is guided by revelation, not democratic agitation. If they disagree with the leadership, they should generally keep it private and bring their concerns to the leadership directly, not through public relations efforts in the media.

    Non believers are welcome to attend church and participate as non-believers. But they shouldn’t hold temple recommends or callings that involve teaching or leadership. And they shouldn’t pretend to be believers when they are not.

    The community that follows Dehlin (Dehlinites) is comparable to other dissident groups from LDS history, and is reminiscent of the early stages of the Godbeite Movement .

    Whether or not the survey itself made exaggerated claims (I clearly noted that the survey itself said that it was not statistically meaningful) it has been increasingly cited by others to make additional claims. And even though it followed academic standards, because it a non-random, self-selected survey of those with a bone to pick with church positions, with no statistical significance, it is valuable almost exclusively as propaganda.

    As for Mormon Feminism, your assertion that there is something “disturbing” about critiquing their methods unless I also address the substance of their arguments is absurd on its face. Methods can be critiqued independently of motivations. Good motivations do not excuse bad implementation.

  10. I will allow your analysis of John Dehlin, although I think it flawed relying on a select set of evidence rather than a broad look at the body of his work, and is based on analogy and anecdote rather than a statistically significant sampling of the results of his work.

    As for dismissing my assertion about Mormon Feminism, it is true that methods can be critiqued without addressing motivations. That said, one of the strongest motivations of Mormon Feminists is that Mormon women do not have an equally respected voice to that of men, and in critiquing only their methods you are once again implying that their voice should not be respected because some Mormon Feminists use methods that are fallible, and that it is ok to disrespect a ‘disgruntled fringe element’.

    I cannot see in your heart, but this post appears to at least one who considers you a friend to be much more a defensive attack on those you disagree with than something motivated by charity for your fellow Latter-day Saints. The advice of Gamaliel comes to mind–if this is the work of men, it will fail.

    The Church IS guided by revelation, which I think you will find only comes after the right questions are asked. My examination of Church history is that many of the questions asked by prophets were put to them by those not in authority.

  11. Awesome, thanks for writing this!

  12. The great sifting has begun. It is striking to me how many people are deceived by their university educations where they are taught the philosophies of men absent ANY scriptural mingling. The sidebar video clip from Neal A. Maxwell is so relevant, thanks for sharing! Thanks also for sharing your gift of testimony and reason.

  13. carlybp

    Great post, well researched. Thank you. I struggled with my role as a woman in the church for a few years, but kept living all the principles and tenets of the faith, I continued my “experiment upon the word.” I didn’t let it derail my testimony of other aspects of the gospel. As I looked for answers with a true and honest heart, with real intent, I found them. And just like anything spiritual they came line upon line. If you really understand gospel doctrine with a broken and contrite heart, you will come to know that ours is the most “feminist” gospel out there. While the culture has its quirks sometimes, the gospel is unmistakable; women are equal in every way and beloved by God. I feel very strongly about that. Thanks for sharing.

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