Journalism from the inside out

Stories about religous and moral controversies are about polity and denominations, protests and politics -- but they are also, and mostly, about people. When a writer cares enough to spend time getting to know the people behind the positions, then it is possible (or more possible) for the journalist to let the story unspool invitingly without jumping in there with the exclamation points and scare quotes.

Part of what makes David Van Biema's recent Time article on Mormons as they enter the mainstream such a terrific read is that it is remarkably nonjudgemental (with one exception, which I'll get to later.) The narrative is also driven by excellent illustrations and good quotes, as one can see in the lede:

Last November, Jay Pimentel began hearing that people in his neighborhood were receiving letters about him. Pimentel lives in Alameda, Calif., a small, liberal-leaning community hanging off Oakland into the San Francisco Bay. Pimentel, who is a Mormon, had supported Proposition 8, the ballot initiative banning same-sex marriage. And that made him a target. "Dear Neighbor," the letter began, "Our neighbors, Colleen and Jay Pimentel" -- and it gave their address -- "contributed $1,500.00 to the Yes on Proposition 8 campaign. NEIGHBORS SHOULD BE AWARE OF THEIR NEIGHBORS' CHOICES." The note accused the Pimentels of "obsessing about same-sex marriage." It listed a variety of local causes that recipients should support -- "unlike the Pimentels."

Pimentel, a lawyer and a lay leader in the small Mormon congregation in Alameda, is markedly even-keeled. Yet the poison-pen note still steams him, even though in May the California Supreme Court validated Prop 8 as constitutional. He is bothered less by the revelation of his monetary contribution, which he stands by, than the fact that the letter's author didn't bother to find out that every other Saturday for 15 years, he or someone else from Alameda's 184-member Mormon ward has delivered a truckload of hot meals to the Midway Shelter for Abused and Homeless Women and Children -- one of the organizations the Pimentels allegedly wouldn't support. "The church does a lot of things in the community we don't issue press releases about," he says. "And when people criticize us, we often just take it on the chin. I guess you could say I'm not satisfied with the way we're seen."

Could one find a better repudiation of stereotypes about Mormons than an "even-keeled" lawyer doing good works that aren't usually publicized by his denomination (or by him)? Only then does Van Biema does go on to discuss the "big picture." He examines public perceptions of Mormons in the aftermath of Proposition 8, and, more important, how Mormons see their own involvement in politics and the larger debate over gay marriage. But he does it mostly from the perspective of Mormon practitioners, scholars and church leaders. He comes as close as an outsider can to writing from the inside out. How many journalists writing about the Mormons (or most other groups) take the time to do that?

It's not that Van Biema avoids perspective -- after all, the magazine is now courting a smaller segment of readers in a fragmented market. Here's a good example of a sentence where Van Biema takes a step back and gives readers his opinion: "But in figuring out if it should pick up the gauntlet again, the Mormons, who feel they have so much else to offer, must consider whether the issue is becoming a referendum on Mormonism itself." Yet even when voicing his opinion, he shows a really welcome restraint.

He's also very helpful in describing those doctrinal places in which Mormons and orthodox Christians differ. His explication of how Mormons perceive salvation in terms of families, not individuals, was particularly useful.

A couple of quibbles -- Mormons are not unanimous on the gay marriage question. While Van Biema makes a glancing reference to opposition, he doesn't go into detail as to why some otherwise traditional Mormons would beg to differ. And, in the interest of fairness, I have to take exception to one particular adjective -- when Van Biema describes the counterreaction of gays to the Prop 8 victory as "vicious." It's almost the only place in the piece where the writer ramps up the rhetoric instead of exhibiting restraint, and it sticks out like a sore thumb.

But on the whole, Van Biema did what I wish more religion reporters would do -- got out of the way and let us make up our own minds.

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