To what extent do evangelicals oppose Mitt Romney because of his Mormon faith? In the wake of Romney's big speech last week, this is a natural question to ask. But based on stories by the Chicago Tribune and The New York Times, I think that reporters could do a better job of answering it with nuance and perspective.
To their credit, both papers explored the depth of evangelical opposition to Mormonism. Each provided an illuminating statistic: while one in four Americans voiced qualms about voting for a Mormon for president, one in three evangelicals did the same. Dahleen Glanton and Margaret Ramirez of the Tribune had a noteworthy interview with Frank Page, the head of the Southern Baptist Convention, about the theological differences between traditional Christians and Mormons over whether Christ is the only Son of Man who was the Son of God.
So far, so good: Yet as Mollie pointed out, reporters mischaracterize the nature of evangelical opposition to the Mormon faith. Laurie Goodstein of the Times described it as "anti-Mormon sentiment." Consider, too, the following passage by Glanton and Ramirez:
Mormonism, founded in 1830, is still considered a new religion and consequently suffers from prejudice and misperception, according to scholars and church leaders.
Much of the ill-feeling stems from a controversial church history that includes polygamy, a refusal to allow blacks into the priesthood until 1978 and misunderstood rituals such as secret temple ceremonies and wearing of sacred undergarments.
Actually, Glanton and Ramirez quoted an evangelical whose opposition to Mormonism was rooted in prejudice and misperception. But the two reporters quoted other evangelicals who simply opposed Mormon theology out of principal, not prejudice and misperception; the evangelicals opposed the Mormon doctrines concerning Jesus Christ and other theological tenets.
Are we reporters really going to ascribe all religious differences to bias? Talk about seeing reality in terms of black and white rather than shades of gray.
Also, both stories leave unclear the depth of evangelical opposition to Mormonism. Glanton and Ramirez allude to an important point: no matter their theological differences with Mormons, evangelicals oppose the Democratic candidates' support for abortion and homosexual rights even more. As the reporters note:
Rev. Erwin Lutzer, pastor of The Moody Church in Chicago, applauded Romney for focusing on the relationship between religion and politics instead of the specific doctrines of his faith.
Lutzer said if Romney wins the GOP nomination, evangelicals who cannot connect with any of the Democratic candidates might have no choice but to vote for him -- even those who now say there is no way they would choose a Mormon.
"From our standpoint, Mormonism has always been a cult," he said. "At the same time if we're confronted by someone further away from our values, we might be forced to."
I think both papers should have given this point greater emphasis. Are evangelicals so opposed to a Mormon candidate that many would vote for a culturally liberal Democratic presidential nominee, or would many simply stay home? In other words, do evangelicals consider Mormonism an equal or greater threat than secularism and religious liberalism?
These questions deserve answers. After all, take John F. Kennedy's troubles in the South in 1960. While Kennedy won the Old Confederacy, his Catholicism helps explain his narrow defeat in states such as Kentucky, Tennessee, and Florida.
I admire both reporters for going out of their way to talk with evangelicals about their views of Mormons. I just wish their portraits were more three-dimensional.