The publicity around the wear pants to church day hit its zenith yesterday: it got covered by the New York Times. I don’t think anyone anticipated the media interest in this, but then I think the vitriolic response to it on Facebook was equally surprising. At least I was surprised.
The NYT article is brief, lightly touching on both the reasons for the pants day and the negative responses to it. It’s not unfairly negative toward the LDS Church, but I don’t think Church members will find it flattering, either. The fact that women wearing pants to church in 2012 is an issue that provokes venom is enough of a rebuke on the overall membership, even without editorial commentary by the Times.
The Church cares about its public image. A lot. But no amount of “I’m a Mormon” ads on busses or the internet, no YouTube video, no Church-sponsored website, can get rid of the impact of articles in major newspapers that spotlight the darker sides of Mormonism. I think the only way for the Church to avoid looking like a throwback is for its leadership to start rebuking the intolerance behind those nasty comments on Facebook.
And I don’t mean in a general, non-specific way. Obviously the Church already teaches about charity and kindness. I mean in way that puts tolerance, self-restraint, and kindness in the context of the diverse, modern world and Church we inhabit. I do believe that the majority of the membership would never say the bilious things that got said about pants day, but the fact that lots of them did is a problem. Just the fact that so many people felt threatened by pants is a problem.
We need cultural change.
And of course this is about more than a tiff on Facebook. I’ve been bemused by the “I’m a Mormon” ads since they came out because while they do show a cross-section of members, they seem slanted toward those members that are actually rather rare in real life: the mixed-race family, the career woman, the man of color who makes his living as a musician. Perhaps I misunderstand the intended audience, and the “I’m a Mormon” ads are as directed at the members as the general public. If that’s the case then I’m happy the Church is doing something to engender tolerance. But given the general MO of the Church – which is to put its best resources toward outreach – I think the “I’m a Mormon” campaign is made to make the world think Mormons aren’t weird.
But we are. And one thing the pants day did is to bring some of that weirdness, the ickiest, usually hidden even from ourselves weirdness, to the fore.
Mormon feminism is not going away. I don’t know what the next move for All Enlisted will be. I don’t know if it will be them or another group that plans the next move that might get media attention, but when it happens, if the response to it is as weird and ugly as it was to pants day, the Church is going to continue to have a PR problem.
So this raises the important question of how much power to effect cultural change the leadership has? Nate Oman’s post at Times & Seasons recently sparked a wide discussion on the bloggernacle about this very issue. The discussion is too long and nuanced for me to summarize here (there are responses to Nate here, here, and here, and his own responses to those can be found here and here), but what it all boils down to is who is wagging whom? I think the leadership does have the power to influence the things the membership thinks about, and how they think about them. And if they want real influence in how the world thinks about Mormonism, they’ve got to try. People can tell the difference between advertising and actual content, as Neylan McBain has pointed out. And I hope when they do try, it will be because it’s the right thing to do, and not just because they’ve been embarrassed.