Politico hangs a story on a thread

So the Politico recently published another lengthy story on Mitt Romney. Now that's hardly an atypical event for Politico, but this one was a little different. Let me summarize it for you: Mormon, Mormon, Mormon, Mormon, Mormon, Mormon, Mormon, Mormon.

Just the other day, I looked at Jodi Kantor's New York Times profile of Romney's faith, which had some pretty significant problems factual and otherwise, but was mostly a good faith effort. I'm less inclined to give this Politico piece by Edward-Isaac Dovere the benefit of the doubt given its less-than-auspicious beginning:

Mitt Romney wants voters to see him as the man to save the economy and right the country, the redeeming American hero riding in on the proverbial white horse.

Just not that White Horse.

That’s the one in the old Mormon prophecy attributed to Joseph Smith, which predicts that after the banks fail and when the Constitution is nearing collapse, Mormons flush with wealth — the White Horse, in the prophecy’s metaphor — will rise and lead America back to greatness.

Ah, the old White Horse prophecy. As someone raised in the Mormon church, I was only vaguely aware that it existed -- until a few years ago when it started being dredged up the first time Romney ran. Among Mormons it's discussed only as a curiosity, and the rare times it is brought up it's always with the understanding that it's essentially folklore of disputed origin and not church doctrine.

You'd think the reporter would know better than to use this, of all things, to connect Romney's secular presidential run to his private faith. Oh wait, he does. Skip ahead a couple of grafs:

The White Horse prophecy itself was discounted by the church almost a hundred years ago but Mormon political figures like Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and even Romney himself still get asked about it from time to time. And even though it’s long been discredited by the church, there are pieces of the prophecy that echo with important themes of mainstream Mormonism today: church members believe the Framers were divinely inspired, and Mormons have a special role to play in preserving the Constitution and the nation as a whole.

Now wouldn't the fact that Mormons believe the founding of America is divinely inspired make the same point as the writer is reaching for -- trying to connect Romney's political motivations to his private religion -- by invoking the White Horse prophecy? It's also less sensational and its an agreed upon doctrine.

Making matters worse, the entire framing of the the Politico article is the same lazy device Kantor fell back on in her Times profile:

Now that Romney’s essentially secured the Republican nomination, the media attention to his religious beliefs has already kicked off a sort of national Mormonism 101. Deep into his second run for president, Romney’s Mormonism remains one of his great mysteries — and obstacles — in many voters’ minds. The Senate has more Mormons than Episcopalians or Lutherans, but polls consistently show that Romney’s religion has remained a factor.

"Many voters minds"? OK, can we hear from some of those voters who claim to have a problem with Mormonism?

"Polls consistently show"? Polls show a lot of things about Mormonism, and if you're gong to rely on the really dismal science of public opinion polls, it would be nice if you could actually tell us something specific about what they say, rather than just lazily reinforcing this narrative that people have a problem with Mormons. A narrative that, by the way, is contradicted by the next sentence where it's pointed out that Mormons are overrepresented in the Senate. (Yes, I know that the Senate isn't exactly proportional representation and Western demographics skew things, but I think the point still stands.)

It gets worse:

And with religion flaring up in the 2012 race recently amid revelations about proposed ads linking President Barack Obama to his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright —some Democrats have lashed back with suggestions that discussing Romney’s religion is now fair game, too.

One, if you're going to invoke the recent revelations that an independent GOP superPAC considered a proposal to run ads about Jeremiah Wright, you should clarify that this had no connection to the Romney campaign which disavowed such a line of attack.

Two, "some Democrats have lashed back"? Which Democrats? To their credit, the Obama campaign has said they are explicitly going to steer clear of Romney's religion.

If there are any prominent Democrats that have said Romney's religion is fair game, that's news to me. Maybe I missed this, but name names if that's the case. Considering two Democratic Senators are Mormon, things could get awkward.

I can't, however, say the same about the press corps which seems to have no problem making attacks on Romney's religion. (Thanks for edifying us Martin Bashir and Charles Blow! I look forward to more concern trolling about how Republican extremists are poisoning the discourse.) In any event, the hits keep on coming:

Yet Romney, for the most part, has steered clear of answering detailed questions about his religious beliefs—referring to “people of different faiths, like yours and mine” in his commencement address to the evangelical Liberty University is about as far as he’s gone in the 2012 campaign.

If you're keeping score, at this point I've had issues with everyone of the article's first seven paragraphs. To what extent has Romney has "steered clear of answering detailed questions about his religious beliefs"? The better question is what politician doesn't? And is there a double standard at work here because Romney's Mormon? If anyone asked Catholic Nancy Pelosi to explain transubstantiation at a news conference would there be some sort of outcry if she dismissed the question as irrelevant to her job?

Let's not forget that Romney gave a detailed speech about his religion that political reporters endlessly dissected just four years ago. And now we descend into the realm of self-parody. On to paragraph numero ocho:

That leaves journalists and other observers searching for clues, and the attention already going to Mormon views of the Constitution, which has percolated up from the blogs to the New York Times, provides a window into how this can play out on the campaign trail.

Because Mitt Romney won't talk about the granular details of his religion, it's his own fault that the media is going to go on writing ill-advised and wildly speculative pieces about obscure bits of Mormon folklore. After all, "blogs" and the New York Times -- Charles Blow's employer! -- demand answers. And this alleged hunger for information about Mormonism -- which is not an obscure subject this day and age -- "provides a window into how this can play out on the campaign trail"?

Huh. As a voter in a swing state, I await my elite media marching orders! Now that we properly understand what's at stake, who wants to read 34 more paragraphs on the White Horse prophecy? Especially when it's, again, frustratingly non-specific:

It is well-known to many church members, and continues to be an active topic of conversation among Mormons today. That sense echoes through the speeches of Mormon leaders and the beliefs of rank-and-file church members, including top LDS leaders in the church and politics. Among them: Romney’s father, who said at the outset of his own presidential run that he believed in the special role Mormons had to play in preserving the Constitution.

Now about that last part involving George Romney, it is true that Mormons revere America and its founding documents as divinely inspired. Toward the end of the piece we get a better sense of what this means for Mormons with some sort-of helpful quotes:

“That’s a folklore -- we’ve heard it, and I think everybody’s heard it. It’s been out there for many years,” said Robert McKim, a Republican Wyoming state representative and a Mormon. “The next question some people ask me, ‘Well, you think Mitt Romney’s that person?’ I say, ‘I don’t have no idea about that.’ I really don’t worry about it, because I believe we have prophets at the head of the church, and I think if that time comes, they’ll tell us. It’s a passing comment that you don’t speculate on, because you have no way to prove or disprove it.”

David Campbell, a Mormon himself and professor at Notre Dame who has studied his fellow church members’ views on the prophecy, as well as the intersection of the church and politics, said McKim’s far from alone.

“If you asked a more general question, ‘Do you believe that one day the Constitution will hang by a thread and it will be a Mormon who saves it?’ we know from data that I’ve collected that many Mormons actually do endorse that idea, but they would not necessarily know that that came from something known as the White Horse prophecy,” Campbell said. “They just know that there’s going to be a time of Constitutional crisis maybe, and it will be a member of the LDS faith who will come and save things.”

We're finally getting at something worthwhile here.

How Mormons view their role in preserving American political traditions and freedom in a more general sense is a very deep and rich angle to explore, and does have some theological connection. But every time Dovere scratches the surface of this more general question, the piece seems to lead everything back to the White Horse Prophecy. Now if you're going to do a story on how Mormons view their political role in America I would be hard pressed to say the White Horse Prophecy is insignificant enough so as not to merit a mention, and Dovere provides a few good historical examples and quotes showing why that's the case. But it's a small and controversial part of a bigger story. Using it almost exclusively as the lens to view Mormons in a political context, is inevitably going make things seem a bit warped. The Politico piece's undue focus on the White Horse Prophecy only gets in the way of what could have been a better and more interesting story.

Predictably, MSNBC -- Martin Bashir's employer! -- is already hyperventilating over Dovere's story and playing up the nakedly political angle in a way that's not flattering or particularly fair to Romney:

“Because he hasn’t talked much about his faith, people have gone online,” [MSNBC's Tamron] Hall notes of Romney, and they have found things like the “White Horse” prophecy, which have concerned many.

Again, it seems much more likely that we're talking about this because the media want to talk about it, not because there's widespread interest in an obscure 19th century story Romney's church explicitly disavows. But if you really are curious about it, the Mormon organization Foundation for Apologetic Information and Research (FAIR) has a good paper that explains the White Horse Prophecy and its context from an LDS perspective. You can download it here (pdf).

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