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Should the Mormon Church Compare Itself to Wal-Mart?

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On her personal blog, Neylan McBaine, LDS writer and "creative director at Bonneville Communications responsible for the Mormon.org 'I'm A Mormon' media campaign," writes

I feel like all of my professional experience has prepared me for this position, even working for Wal-Mart, which I said so many times must be like working for the Church: the leadership vision is pure, but sometimes the message gets garbled as it goes down the chain. I believe the video profiles I am now helping to create is a major step forward in resurrecting the Church's image with the general public as well as creating a much-needed sense of unity and pride among our own community.

I've already discussed the videos and ads, designed to burnish the image of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I agree with Ms.McBaine that they will probably help to create "a much-needed sense of unity and pride among [the LDS] community." And it is gratifying to see someone involved in the project acknowledge explicitly that the church's image is bad enough that it needs "resurrecting." However, I doubt very strongly that comparing the leadership of the LDS church to the leadership of Wal-Mart will help the image of the church -- not among members, and certainly not among those outside it -- particularly since a common criticism of the LDS church is that it is more a corporation and a business than a religion. (Given that its highest leaders tend to be wealthy businessmen rather than theologians or scholars, it's easy to see why that the criticism is so often made.)

Wal-Mart is notorious for poor treatment of workers. Its own audits documented violations of child-labor laws, it has been sued for sex discrimination and it does all it can to avoid extending health insurance to its employees.

On top of which it's not exactly known for the high quality of its merchandise.

Is this the "pure leadership vision" McBaine wishes to praise? And is the vision of the leadership of the LDS church really like that?

Even without the troublesome comparison, McBaine's statement that "the leadership vision is pure, but sometimes the message gets garbled as it goes down the chain" is not a credible description of the LDS church, given Boyd K.Packer's disastrous talk at the October 2010 General Conference of the Church, condemning homosexuality as "impure," "unnatural" and "wickedness". Especially after Packer's comments were edited before being published. Granted, McBaine's blog post, dated September 28, 2010, was published several days before the talk was given, but it's not as if there have been no other occasions when LDS leadership has had to retreat from positions it has taken.

In McBaine's blog entry, she links to an essay entitled "The Girl With Her Fingers In Her Ears" published on Patheos, where she explains that as a Juilliard and Yale trained musician, she resents the tacky organ music played in the waiting chapel in the Salt Lake temple. But she writes that she must not make too much of her distaste for the inferior music, because that would inevitably lead her down a theological "slippery slope":

I would start resenting many more of our cultural characteristics, mistakenly equating the questionable quality I perceive in them to questionable quality in our doctrine. From canned ham at Christmas parties to the invariably adorable treats of Young Women's activities, our culture includes scads of quirky middle-class mid-century Americanisms that sometimes obscure our stated goal of saving souls.

Urbane enough to feel superior over canned ham served at Christmas parties, McBaine cannot see what is wrong with comparing the leadership of the LDS church to the leadership of Wal-Mart. Even if it's entirely apt (and one must hope it isn't), it simply invites too much criticism.

One reason the ads McBaine oversees are bound to fail in their primary mission of "resurrecting the Church's image with the general public" is that she and the men she works with (she notes that they are indeed all men) are so out of touch with their audience that they cannot imagine how their statements and media products strike that audience. In the conversation where I came across a link to McBaine's blog entry, people were incredulous -- they thought it seemed like a joke. It might as well be. I once wrote for a website of Mormon satire (yes, there is such a thing -- you can even buy the book); we could have published passages from her blog entry there.

The LDS Church purports to be God's primary way of communicating with his children on earth; its leaders claim divine inspiration. It would be wonderful if they could marshal that inspiration to find answers to some of the devastating challenges humanity currently faces: climate change and its attendant crises, dwindling energy supplies, genocide, brutality against women, terrorism, rapacious corporate greed. But how will they ever address problems like those when they can't even exercise enough creativity and imagination to understand the way the rest of the world sees their church and its message? And shouldn't they make a lot more effort to do that if what's really at stake is the church's "stated goal of saving souls"?

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