Mormons, misconceptions and media myths

LDS JesusHere we go again. It's time to take another look at mainstream coverage of the White House campaign of Mitt Romney. In other words, the New York Times has spoken.

Let us attend.

Mr. Romney's advisers acknowledged that popular misconceptions about Mormonism -- as well as questions about whether Mormons are beholden to their church's leaders on public policy -- could give his opponents ammunition in the wide-open fight among Republicans to become the consensus candidate of social conservatives.

Mr. Romney, in an extended interview on the subject as he drove through South Carolina ... expressed confidence that he could quell concerns about his faith, pointing to his own experience winning in Massachusetts. He said he shared with many Americans the bafflement over obsolete Mormon practices like polygamy -- he described it as "bizarre" -- and disputed the argument that his faith would require him to be loyal to his church before his country.

Once again, it seems that Romney's problems are (1) the once-upon-a-time polygamy factor and (2) ignorant folks who have "misconceptions" about Mormon theology.

The problem, of course, is that many people do not have "misconceptions" about Mormon theology. Some people have deep convictions that clash with Mormon theology and, to one degree or another, their disagreements are affecting how they view the candidate. As one mainstream journalist put it in an email to me the other day:

In my experience, it's often not "misconceptions" but correct perceptions motivating opposition to the LDS church. The idea that "as man is, God once was, as God is, man may become." The rejection of scripture alone and of faith alone. The notion that God (and Mrs. God) have physical bodies and that God literally had sex with Mary to create Jesus.

... Does this mean evangelicals can't vote for Romney? Of course not. Especially if he's running against Hillary.

A word of warning to those about to click the Comment button: This is not a post about whether the Mormon doctrine of exaltation -- with its concept that what man now is, the God of this creation once was -- is right or wrong. The issue is whether the Times is right or wrong when it says that mere "misconceptions" about Mormon beliefs are at the heart of Romney's struggles with some (repeat "some") religious conservatives. There is no need for doctrinal warfare in the comments pages. Again.

Our goal here is to discuss the theological convictions of the Times, not Romney.

1962For all I know, Romney could pull a John Kennedy and make a brilliant speech tomorrow that stresses religious liberty and the right of all Americans to make up their minds about ultimate issues -- while appealing to Republicans and independents to feel free to disagree with him theologically, but to back him politically. He could say that Americans enjoy a tradition of religious toleration (All religions are equal in the eyes of the state) but that no one should be coerced into believing that someone is a bigot if they do not embrace theological toleration (All religions are equal in the eyes of God).

There are sincere disagreements about the nature of God between Jews, Christians and Muslims. These disagreements are not "misconceptions." There are sincere disagreements between traditional Christians in all kinds of pews and devout Mormons who -- as is their right -- identify themselves as Christians, but have unique beliefs about the nature of God, the nature of Jesus and the nature of the Holy Trinity. These disagreements are not "misconceptions." It is inaccurate to say that they are.

Thus, I am happy to note that USA Today, in a new Jill Lawrence report on Romney and the faith issue, took a step in the right direction by interviewing some experts who are sympathetic to the Mormon community and its rights, yet who also know the locations of some of the doctrinal dividing lines that cannot be erased. Here is one key paragraph:

• Theology. Historian Jan Shipps, author of Mormonism: The Story of a New Religious Tradition, says Mormons hold beliefs that "people always find sort of strange." Among them: People are on a journey toward godhood, the dead can be baptized, and God speaks to man today through living apostles and prophets, such as LDS president Gordon Hinckley. Mormons also believe the Book of Mormon is the word of God while the Bible is "the word of God as far as it is translated correctly."

There, that wasn't so hard, was it?

People may debate how to phrase some of the issues mentioned in that short list, but this story at least mentions some of the points of disagreement that exist out there in pews of all kinds.

Romney will not, I predict, commit apostasy and fling aside his Mormon convictions. He also doesn't need to stand up and do a doctrinal seminar in which he details each and every point of disagreement -- and there are many -- between Mormonism and, oh, the Nicene Creed or the Westminster Catechism. But he does need to do a good speech defending religious tolerance and, when he gives that speech, let's hope that reporters at the Times do not have misconceptions of their own about what he did or didn't say.

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