So Vice President Dick Cheney gave a commencement speech this week at Brigham Young University. He told the gathered assembly of about 20,000 to savor second chances and be prepared for the unexpected throughout life. A small group of College Democrats and anti-war activists protested outside the venue where he spoke. Some students and faculty were upset with the choice of commencement speaker. This may not seem that newsworthy. I couldn't even bring myself to attend my graduation ceremony because of my discontent with the choice of commencement speaker. I think this is somewhat common. But what is interesting is how much the mainstream media trumpeted the protests in a way that reinforced stereotypes about Mormons. Now I know the point of the coverage is to say something about Cheney's declining popularity even in Republican regions. There's nothing wrong with pointing that out. But there's a religious component here, too, that was not handled very well.
Weeks ago The New York Times ran a story headlined "Rare Protests at Brigham Young Over a Planned Cheney Appearance." The article said opposition to Cheney ranged from his support for the Iraq War to his use of colorful language in a discussion with Sen. Patrick Leahy on the Senate floor:
In the two weeks since the university announced that Mr. Cheney would be the speaker at the commencement on April 26, hundreds of students have attended respectful and quiet campus demonstrations about his presence, and some 3,600 students and alumni had signed petitions by Tuesday afternoon seeking a "more appropriate" replacement speaker.
An Associated Press story written the day of the event was headlined "Cheney Draws Protests Even at BYU."
Even at BYU? Gasp! Again, I understand that Mormons tend to vote Republican. About half of Utah's voters are registered Republican while only about 20 percent are registered Democrat. But to act like Mormons are some monolithic bloc of same-minded people is just inaccurate. It doesn't take an army to staff a protest, so why is it so shocking that a protest of Cheney might occur at a Mormon school?
Who is the highest-ranking Mormon elected to political office in the United States? The Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, of Nevada. The link there is from 2002, but I couldn't find a more recent profile that actually focused on Mormonism. Meanwhile, Mitt Romney's candidacy for president can't escape the "M" word. What has the highest-ranked political Mormon in America had to say about the war? Talk about an anti-war protest!
Out West I grew up hearing many tales of the Udall family, many of them Mormon politicians. I don't believe Mo, Stewart or Tom were Republican. And while many media reports played up how Republican the county where BYU is, few mentioned that Salt Lake City mayor Rocky Anderson joined this week with Dennis Kucinich and Cindy Sheehan in calling for President Bush's impeachment. Again, the notion of Mormons (which is actually not the same as Utahans) as a monolithic political bloc may help Romney critics or lazy journalists but the truth is different.
For a much better approach, look at Peggy Fletcher Stack's piece in The Salt Lake Tribune. She notes that Cheney visited with Church of Jesus Christ, Latter-day Saints president Gordon Hinckley. She puts the protests in context of what Hinckley, who is a Mormon Prophet, has to say about political dissent:
Hinckley has never commented publicly on the protests about Cheney's visit to LDS Church-owned Brigham Young University. However, on the eve of the Iraq war in 2003, Hinckley discussed different views among Mormons across the globe of the impending crisis.
"We are now a world church with members in most of the nations which have argued this matter," Hinckley told millions of Mormons watching the church's 173 Annual General Conference. "There have been demonstrations for and against. ... In a democracy we can renounce war and proclaim peace. There is opportunity for dissent. Many have been speaking out and doing so emphatically. That is their privilege. That is their right, so long as they do so legally. He urged the Mormon faithful to treat those of opposing opinions with respect.
"Let us never become a party to words or works of evil concerning our brothers and sisters of the church in various nations on one side or the other," Hinckley said. "Political differences never justify hatred or ill will."
Though their numbers may be skewed in one direction, political differences among Mormons are nothing new. Even at BYU. Or in the Senate. Reporters should be careful about who gets caught in the crossfire when they try to explain political disputes..
Permit me to go back to the AP article, which was written by Brock Vergakis. Vergakis has this line that just strikes me as offensive:
He received thunderous applause from the 20,000 people at gathered at the university, which is owned by the Mormon church. The crowd cheered louder for Cheney than they did for church President Gordon B. Hinckley, whom Mormons consider a prophet.
This reminds me of the time I attended my church body's National Youth Gathering in Denver. It was the type of gathering where they think that just because you're young, you'll want your normal worship replaced with overly emotive praise bands and pietistic, guilt-inducing messages. Anyway, we're all in Denver's McNichols Arena and they start showing us images of various sports teams. Cheers erupt from various parts of the arena as, say, the St. Louis Cardinals or Los Angeles Lakers are shown on the jumbotron. And then all of a sudden they had "Jesus" ride into the arena on a donkey. The message was clear. We weren't cheering as loudly for Jesus -- and we should have been. I remember thinking it was stupid and wrong. I'm reverential with my worship and I cheer loudly for the Denver Broncos.
Okay, all that to say that this implicit assumption that Mormons like their Republicans more than their prophets is faulty. Is clapping the only way to show appreciation?