Gray Lady's brave Mormon doctrine story

It takes a certain amount of courage to write a news story about the doctrines of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. First of all, the beliefs of almost all religions are so complex that, in order to explain them, a reporter is forced to confront the highly technical language that will be used both by its leaders and its critics. To make matters worse, various camps of believers on both sides of these debates will use this doctrinal language in subtly different ways. It's picky stuff.

The New York Times waded into these troubled waters the other day with a piece by religion-beat veteran Laurie Goodstein. According to the headline -- "The Theological Differences Behind Evangelical Unease With Romney" -- the goal was to explain why those nasty evangelicals have so much trouble coming to grips with the presidential aspirations of Mitt Romney.

In a way, this assumption that there are big, important theological differences is progress in and of itself. Most of the time, mainstream reporters simply assume that evangelicals are a bunch of bigots and move right on. It is a credit to Goodstein's reporting that what she delivers is a story with more depth than what is described in the headline. This story, you see, is bigger than ongoing tensions between candid, highly-informed evangelicals and candid, highly-informed Mormons.

She begins with the Rev. R. Philip Roberts, the president of Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is introduced as "an evangelist with a particular goal: countering Mormon beliefs."

Actually, there's a lot more to Roberts than that. It appears that he is a specialist in Christian apologetics in a variety of cultures, with the kind of intellectual range that one gets while earning a doctorate at the Free University of Amsterdam, followed with a dose of studies at Oxford University. The story simply adds that he has "traveled throughout the United States, and to some countries abroad, preaching that Mormonism is heretical to Christianity."

Anyway, this is a man prepared to debate about the fine points of theology.

“I don’t have any concerns about Mitt Romney using his position as either a candidate or as president of the United States to push Mormonism,” said Mr. Roberts, an author of “Mormonism Unmasked” and president of the Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, who said he had no plans to travel to South Carolina before the voting. “The concern among evangelicals is that the Mormon Church will use his position around the world as a calling card for legitimizing their church and proselytizing people.”

Alas, that is that. In other words, Roberts is an evangelist -- not a scholar -- who objects to the evangelistic efforts of Mormons. If this guy wrote a book on this topic, let's ask about his actual concerns when it comes to faith and doctrine. However, he vanishes at this point and never gets to make a point of substance. Moving on.

The Times does find other voices, however, and what they have to say is quite interesting. Here's the heart of the matter:

Mormons consider themselves Christians -- as denoted in the church’s name, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Yet the theological differences between Mormonism and traditional Christianity are so fundamental, experts in both say, that they encompass the very understanding of God and Jesus, what counts as Scripture and what happens when people die. ...

On the most fundamental issue, traditional Christians believe in the Trinity: that God is the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit all rolled into one. Mormons reject this as a non-biblical creed that emerged in the fourth and fifth centuries. They believe that God the Father and Jesus are separate physical beings, and that God has a wife whom they call Heavenly Mother.

You can see how that might upset evangelical Protestants. However, Goodstein immediately offers another important point of view, resulting in an angle rarely found in mainstream stories on this topic.

It is not only evangelical Christians who object to these ideas.

“That’s just not Christian,” said the Rev. Serene Jones, president of Union Theological Seminary, a liberal Protestant seminary in New York City. “God and Jesus are not separate physical beings. That would be anathema. At the end of the day, all the other stuff doesn’t matter except the divinity of Jesus.”

It would have helped if The Times had noted that many of the defining elements of Mormon theology are also rejected by the two largest and oldest branches of Christianity, as in the Catholic Church (click here for a key document) and the churches of Eastern Orthodoxy. Why not add that additional sentence to give readers the wider picture?

The bottom line: The Times was in a position to clearly state that the essential doctrinal differences behind the political scenes are between Trinitarian Christians -- left and right, Catholic and Orthodox -- and Mormons. While missing one or two key facts, the most important thing this particular story does is to undercut its own headline. There is, in other words, more to these tensions than narrow evangelical beliefs.

One more issue: GetReligion readers may want to know if this story deals with the explosive term "exaltation" and Mormon teachings about eternal life? Well, kind of.

Another big sticking point concerns the afterlife. Early Mormon apostles gave talks asserting that human beings would become like gods and inherit their own planets -- language now regularly held up to ridicule by critics of Mormonism.

But Kathleen Flake, a Mormon who is a professor of American religious history at Vanderbilt Divinity School, explained that the planets notion had been de-emphasized in modern times in favor of a less concrete explanation: people who die embark on an “eternal progression” that allows them “to partake in God’s glory.”

“Mormons think of God as a parent,” she said. “God makes the world in order to give that world to his children. It’s like sending your child to Harvard -- God gives his children every possible opportunity to progress towards this higher life that God possesses. When Mormons say ‘Heavenly Father,’ they mean it. It’s not a metaphor.”

I'm not so sure about the emphasis here on "early Mormons," since I heard very literal references to these doctrines during the 1985 funeral of LDS President Spencer W. Kimball and in interviews with other high church officials about that time.

The key is that this section of the story contains numerous doctrinal landmines that would inspire tremendous debates between LDS apologists and their critics, both secular and religious. For example, is it accurate to say that faithful Mormons were said to become "like gods" and then inherit their own creations, worlds or planets? Does that mean that the creator of this planet, Planet Earth, is "like" a god? The Times states as fact what is actually a subject that many would Mormon leaders and their critics would say is worthy of fierce debate.

But let's say that this Times statement is totally accurate. Is saying that a controversial Mormon revelation has been "de-emphasized" the same as saying that it has been changed or overturned? Has this change ever been publicly reported? You see, this would be a major news story in its own right. It is possible that Mormonism is evolving and moving closer -- on a few issues -- to the forms of Christianity that it has historically called heretical. But what are the facts?

Despite my criticisms, this Times story has put some crucial information into print about the hot-button issues that cause tensions between Mormons and Trinitarian Christians -- evangelicals, the Orthodox, Catholics and liberal Christians of various kinds. These tensions will affect some votes, but probably not as many as some journalists may hope. Either way, the story will continue. The differences between these believers are sincere, important and newsworthy.

NOTE: It goes without saying that comments arguing pro or con on Trinitarian or Mormon doctrines will be spiked with great haste. The goal here is to discuss this attempt by The Times to cover some of these subjects.

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