In an apparent attempt to shame a recently deceased Mormon leader in the name of social progress, the New York Times weakened the moral authority of the very causes it so eagerly seeks to advance. In the Times’ obituary of Thomas S. Monson, the recently deceased president and prophet of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the LDS Church and its members were subtly stigmatized for their traditional teachings and stances on social issues.
Rather than publish a eulogy focusing on what President Monson did during his life, the paper took the opportunity of his death to emphasize what Monson and the church opted not to do, tweeting that “Thomas Monson, president of the Mormon church who rebuffed demands to ordain women as priests and refused to alter church opposition to same-sex marriage, died Tuesday at 90.”
Online commentators contrasted the tenor of the Times’ obituary of Monson with the paper’s more sympathetic tone for the likes of Hugh Heffner and Fidel Castro. A senior writer for the Jewish online magazine Tablet observed: “Seems like the Times doesn’t typically lead obituaries with the implied sins of the deceased except in very particular cases. It’s a sort of selective sensitivity to sins that reveals its ideological affinities and biases. So Fidel Castro and Hugh Hefner no, Thomas Monson yes.”
While some felt the obituary was simply a statement of facts, the former executive editor of the Times, Jill Abramson, divulged her own feelings about the piece’s framing when she re-tweeted McKay Coppins’s bemusement at the obituary: “Been trying to figure out all day how the @nytimes justified this framing of the Mormon prophet’s obituary.”
In the long haul, zero-sum mentalities can actually undermine the pluralistic ideals that progressive papers, such as the Times, tout as their goal. At their finest, advocates for various social causes work to rid society of unhealthy guilt and intolerance. But too often overzealous activists adopt the very same rigid, exclusionary paradigms they seek to eradicate.
The impulse to reduce the social burden of shame and expose the excesses of unbending legalism is a benevolent enterprise, not unlike that of Jesus Christ stopping the stoning of the woman caught in adultery, or of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Hester transcending her scarlet letter. But when social crusaders combat perceived harms with their own stigmatizing statements meant to shame and exclude, rather than persuade and integrate, they abdicate their moral authority.
Which brings us to President Thomas S. Monson and the Mormons.
Those acquainted with the life of Monson remember a saintly soul who felt more comfortable blessing and praying for old friends in hospital rooms than standing in front of a TV camera to receive an accolade. A Navy serviceman, he turned down offers from Fortune 500 companies to work for the local newspaper. He was by all accounts a devoted husband who was frequently seen wheeling his late wife Frances to and from church events.
Even while leading a global church of 15 million members, he was known for sitting a spell with a parishioner in need, wiggling his ears at a kid in the front row of a church service, and even traveling out of his way to honor a friend of little renown from a different faith background. He was human, but he was also merciful, loving, and authentic. Latter-day Saints could not help but feel that something was amiss when his cumulative life choices — including nearly 70 years of nonstop service to his faith — were rewarded with a public shaming from the nation’s paper of record.
A change.org petition calling for the Times to rewrite the obituary is approaching 200,000 signatories. And, on Monday, the Times’ obituaries editor, William McDonald, addressed the growing controversy. In the “Reader Center” section of the Times, McDonald defends the piece as a “faithful accounting of the more prominent issues that Mr. Monson encountered and dealt with publicly during his tenure,” while also conceding, “What we portrayed was the public man, not the private one, or the one known to his most ardent admirers. In 20/20 hindsight, we might have paid more attention to the high regard with which he was held within the church.”
McDonald’s admission is admirable. We all have lapses in judgment. But after the news of recent weeks, during which we have learned how damaging it can be to focus on a public persona while glossing over private behavior, it seems odd that the Times would not be more eager to give at least equal billing to the private life of such a person of prominence.
If, as it sadly appears, the New York Times was, in the name of greater inclusion, attempting to stigmatize or shame a deceased LDS prophet and the Mormon faith, its efforts amount to the kind of hypocrisy more commonly associated with Hawthornean clergymen than with news organizations.
“The guilt culture could be harsh,” the Times’ very own David Brooks once observed, “but at least you could hate the sin and still love the sinner. The modern shame culture allegedly values inclusion and tolerance, but it can be strangely unmerciful to those who disagree and to those who don’t fit in.” Jesus Christ promised mercy to the merciful.
For the rest of us, we ought to be cautious how we mete and measure.