Too much religion coverage?

So candidates for the Republican presidential nomination had a debate at 9 a.m. Sunday. I could be completely wrong about this, but I can't help but think that if Democratic candidates held their debate on a Sunday morning during the middle of worship for a vast group of Americans, people would snipe about how it was further evidence of their godlessness. But maybe Sunday mornings are officially just like any other day. Anyway, the day before the debate, a very interesting video started spreading across the intertubes. WHO 1040 (Iowa) conservative talk radio host Jan Mickelson harshly grilled Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney about his adherence to Mormonism. You can watch it here:

ABC News' Jake Tapper has a fantastic write up of the debate, if you don't want to watch the full 20 minutes. Here's how he ends the piece:

Romney argued that the church does not teach that Mormons cannot allow choice in society "and therefore there are Mormon Democrats. There is a Democratic party in Utah filled with Mormons, and the church doesn't say, 'They're wrong. They're being excommunicated,'" Romney continued.

The position of the LDS Church is, 'We are vehemently opposed to abortion, ourselves and for ourselves, but we allow other people to make their own choice,'" he said.

Mickelson expressed interest in having Romney return to spend more "quality time" on the air.

"No, I don't like coming on the air and having you go after my church and me," Romney answered. "I'm not running as a Mormon, and I get a little tired of coming on a show like yours and having it all about Mormon."

"See, I don't mind it being about that," said Mickelson.

"Yeah, I do, I do," Romney replied. "You're trying to tell me that I'm not a faithful Mormon. I'm not running to talk about Mormonism."

Tapper edited a lengthy interview down to a very readable article. He also provided some perspective on where the radio host was coming from. Now, I think that discussion of Romney's religion in the mainstream media is fine in so long as it's relevant. And with how many people (30 percent, according to a Pew survey) have said they consider Romney's religion to be a major barrier to their support, it should be covered by the media.

But Romney is running for the Republican nomination for president. The level of attention being paid to his Mormonism -- and critical nature of same -- can be (and frequently is) over the top. On the other hand, the lack of quality journalism about the differences between Mormonism and traditional Christianity and evangelical Christianity is also of concern.

When Romney paid a visit to Evangelical Ground Zero (Colorado Springs, Colorado) last month, The Denver Post ran a lengthy and informative feature all about Romney's Mormonism. And hey, if you can't discuss Romney's Mormonism on a visit to Dobsonville, when can you? The article, written by Chuck Plunkett, is both good and bad. At times it does one of the better jobs I've seen of explaining theological problems traditional Christians have with Mormonism. But it doesn't really explain why those differences are cause for political concern among some Christian voters. For instance:

when it comes to Mormon and conservative Christian beliefs, [Focus on the Family Senior Vice President Tom] Minnery said: "There are deep theological differences."

No less subtle are the origins of the two faiths -- which both claim to be God's "true" religion. Christianity has centuries-old roots. Although Mormons also believe in the Bible, their added sacred texts came from a 19th-century American who translated gold tablets that have since disappeared.

After Jesus was resurrected, he came to America, said this original Mormon prophet, Joseph Smith Jr.

Jesus, Smith said, came to visit a Jewish tribe that had settled here ages ago.

Ultimately, Smith said, God found that Christianity had fallen into a state of confusion, or apostasy, and he spoke through the angel Moroni to Smith in order to recalibrate the faith for the new age.

Such conflicting beliefs underlie the Focus on the Family officials' observations -- which experts say aren't at all idle.

Centuries, eh? Almost enough centuries to make a millennium or two! Anyway, while the theological differences between Mormons and evangelical Christians are admitted by both groups, the article doesn't quite explain why the differences are a political problem. I'd vote for a Zarathustran, Mormon or even a Methodist who shared my politics, so forgive my perspective -- but what I find really curious about the whole Romney Religion debate is Why. It. Matters. In a lengthy article like the three-pager the Post ran, couldn't we explain that a bit more?

askmittanythingBut the article goes much, much deeper on Mormon theology. It delves into aspects that average Mormons might not even know are part of their faith. Plunkett discusses Mormon belief in God's spirit children, who become human. If they are faithful and obedient, they can go to heaven where they might become perfect, he explains. Plunkett is absolutely correct that orthodox Christians views this as heresy and polytheism.

But the thing is that these doctrinal views are somewhat hazy in Mormon scriptures. While there are myriad comments from Mormon leaders about the doctrines, it's such dicey territory that the reporter should have sourced the heck out of anything he wrote up when he got this far into the weeds. That didn't happen. Had it, it would have provided a better and more objective basis for readers to respond and relate -- both Mormon readers who believe the doctrine or feel he explained it incorrectly and non-Mormon readers who are just learning about it or oppose it.

But my whole point in mentioning this article was not to pick nits on the piece so much as highlight an op-ed that ran last week in the same Denver Post. Some young PolySci grad, pointing to this article and previous ones in The New York Times and Boston papers, asks why we're spending so much time on Romney's religion anyway.

In light of his visit [to Colorado], The Denver Post ran a feature piece about Romney that would have been a tremendous opportunity to familiarize the public with the GOP's top fundraiser and his thoughts on key issues. The article was a whopping three pages entirely devoted to the Mormon faith. Romney does, in fact, have an ambitious political agenda, but you wouldn't know it from the article.

So this was the article the Post ran in place of political coverage and analysis. I'd have rather seen it supplement the political and campaign coverage. To paraphrase Romney, he's not running as a Mormon. He's running for president. Media coverage doesn't need to ignore the religious angle, but when it comes at the expense of the political one, that's disconcerting.

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