Scrutiny and opportunity

smootWe cover Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney so much because so much of the mainstream coverage of him delves into religion. Many stories about Romney, a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, mention his ties to his church. Other stories obsess over how voters of varying religions will react to a Romney candidacy for president. And yet I haven't seen any stories that ask the questions veteran religion reporter Peggy Fletcher Stack asks in The Salt Lake Tribune. She looks at how a Romney candidacy would affect the Mormon church. There has been so much focus on evangelicals and not enough on Mormons.

It's a nice and lengthy story that includes many perspectives. Some folks think the church will benefit from the increased scrutiny, some don't. She looks at how the Mormon church handles public relations during times of increased scrutiny and what previous Mormon politicos have had to deal with:

In the past dozen years or so, LDS officials have worked overtime to send the message that Mormons are Christians and they don't worship founder Joseph Smith. They enlarged the words "Jesus Christ" on the church's logo and increased the number of times Christ is mentioned in speeches and magazine articles.

Hinckley has also downplayed the more unusual elements of the faith. He has dismissed the pre-1978 ban on blacks becoming priests and the practice of polygamy, which ended officially in 1890, as "in the past." He has written inspirational books without using any Mormon language. He welcomed the world to Utah for the 2002 Winter Olympics.

All of these efforts may help Romney, who could hardly look more All-American. His answer to questions about underwear could be an ad he once ran that showed him bare-chested on a beach.

"If you listen to Mitt and [President Hinckley] long enough," says [Ron] Scott [a journalist], "you might conclude that Mormons are really just Episcopalians who wear funny underwear."

But some members are wary that in an effort to explain the LDS faith to a critical audience, officials may end up watering it down.

"Downplaying temple garments? What else do we want to demystify and de-weird for the sake of gains in popular opinion?" asks Steve Evans, a Seattle attorney who helps run the Mormon blog bycommonconsent.com. "I'm all in favor of clarifying misconceptions, but eventually I am worried that we lose something vital."

That's a long excerpt, I know. But that section flows together so well. Fletcher Stack has covered Mormons, and other religious adherents in Utah, for the Tribune since 1991. She edited and published Sunstone, an intellectual Mormon journal. Her experience and knowledge show.

Fletcher Stack deftly handles contentious issues and provides some much-needed perspective for Romney coverage. In particular, I like the way she weaves in some of the conflicted feelings people in the church have without overdramatizing it.

Note: if you would like to discuss Fletcher Stack's article or other related coverage, please comment below. However, this comment thread should not include people who want to discuss Mormonism itself. This is not the blog to engage in theological disputes.

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