Mormons, doubt, the Internet, and the New York Times

On July 20-21, the New York Times ran an article headlined “Some Mormons Search the Web and Find Doubt.” According to the NYT website, the print version of this story ran on page A1, which would make this a front page story, no?

That’s what intrigues me about this news story. The question I want to throw out there is: Why does the New York Times think this story is front-page newsworthy? I realize that sounds like a rhetorical question, and I admit my gut impulse is to ask it as a rhetorical question, which is why I think the question is worth exploring, i.e., I don’t think it’s self-evident that this story is front-page newsworthy.

But let’s handle this as a serious, open-ended question: What does the presence of this article on the front page of the New York Times tell us about religion in American culture at the present moment?

Evidently, editors at the New York Times believe that many Americans are or should be interested in reading about Mormons coming to doubt their faith because of information they obtain on the Internet. Why do the editors believe that? What do they think makes this story of that much interest to their readers?

I should interject here that to me, this story is utterly mundane. A headline reading “Some Mormons Search the Web and Find Doubt” strikes me as being more or less like a headline reading “Some Farmers in Florida Grow Oranges.” Or maybe “Some People Surf the Web to Find Porn.” Who is surprised by these facts?

I should also probably say that I study Mormonism professionally, that I myself come from a Mormon background, that I move in liberalish intellectual Mormon circles where people quoted in this New York Times article move as well. I understand why the developments discussed in this story are important for liberalish Mormons who are trying to promote new discourses within their movement, new ways of discussing Mormon history or defining the bounds of institutionally acceptable Mormon belief. I don’t think these developments are as significant as their boosters think they are–but they do reveal noteworthy things about how some Mormons are negotiating their religious identities in, oh let’s say it, a postmodern context.

But back to the editors of the New York Times and their imagined readership. What is their interest in this story? I’m thinking on my feet, this is all very rudimentary, but let me brainstorm a few hypotheses:

  • Does this story function to marginalize Mormonism culturally by reminding readers of an elite newspaper how incredible Mormon claims are?
  • Is this story attempting to intervene in Mormonism by lending a high-profile platform to some of the movement’s more liberalish voices? (Are Eastern reformers still trying to remake Mormonism according to their own lights 100+ years after the anti-polygamy campaigns of the 19th century?)
  • Does this story reflect pessimistic notions about how religion more generally, not just Mormonism, fares in the face of modern knowledge and technology? (Is this story predicated on a version of the secularization thesis?)

Again, those aren’t rhetorical questions. They’re possibilities that occur to me, possibilities I think might be worth exploring.

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