Here we go again. If you are interested in religion news (as opposed to pure politics), and you are willing to look at Mitt Romney's Liberty University commencement speech from the point of view of the audience, then it's pretty clear which paragraph deserves the most attention. Here it is:
People of different faiths, like yours and mine, sometimes wonder where we can meet in common purpose, when there are so many differences in creed and theology. Surely the answer is that we can meet in service, in shared moral convictions about our nation stemming from a common worldview. The best case for this is always the example of Christian men and women working and witnessing to carry God’s love into every life. ...
Focus on that first sentence. Romney tells the audience -- packed with evangelical, Pentecostal and even fundamentalist Protestants -- that he knows that they are believers in "different faiths." Not different churches, different denominations or different movements. He also says that he knows they are divided by doctrinal differences that are so basic that they are, literally, creedal. They are divided, in other words, by theology.
Romney then goes on to say, however, that they are united by "shared moral convictions" and a "common worldview." Basically, he asks for civic tolerance on behalf of a common cultural cause.
Divided by creed and theology. Got it.
United by "worldview," one of the vague, but hot, buzz words of recent decades in evangelical life. Got it, sort of.
This brings us to the top of The New York Times report on this event:
LYNCHBURG, Va. -- Mitt Romney traveled to Liberty University, the spiritual heart of the conservative movement, on Saturday, seeking to quell concerns about him among evangelical voters by offering a forceful defense of faith and Christian values in public life.
At a graduation speech at the college, founded by the evangelical leader Jerry Falwell, Mr. Romney made the case that he is bound theologically and politically to the same belief and value system as Christian conservatives, though he never explicitly mentioned his Mormon faith.
Now wait a minute. Yes on the whole vague "values" thing, but did Romney say that he was united to these Protestant conservatives in a common "belief ... system," a term that most of his listeners would have associated with doctrines and theology?
No, he didn't. In fact, he said he was a believer in a different faith. He then asked these listeners to accept him as an ally on matters of culture and morality -- a coalition-building formula that would have sounded very familiar on a campus built by the Rev. Jerry Falwell, founder of the interfaith, not ecumenical, group called the Moral Majority (which always included Mormons, from day one).
A few lines later, the Times repeats a common, and related, error in news coverage of this topic.
It was Mr. Romney’s most extensive and direct discussion of religion since his 2007 speech about his own faith and was intended to help him reassure conservatives, some of whom do not accept Mormonism as a Christian religion.
Note that, in this case, "conservatives" stands alone. In the context, however, it would appear that this means conservative Protestants, once again implying that they are the only Trinitarian Christians who do not accept Mormonism as fully Christian. Tell that to the Vatican, to Constantinople, the Lutherans, the United Methodists, etc., etc. In fact, has any Trinitarian Christian body accepted the validity of Mormon scriptures, doctrines and rites? I seem to remember that one or two Episcopal Church dioceses have done so, but I cannot find the reference.
Later on in the story, the Times repeats this same flawed formula:
Mormons consider themselves Christians, as noted in the church’s formal name, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but evangelicals do not consider the Mormon scripture to be Christian.
Here is my question for GetReligion readers: What is the alleged content of this statement that journalists keep making, the statement that evangelical Christians -- apparently alone -- do not accept Mormons as Christians (as opposed to other Trinitarian Christian groups)? I think the point is that many evangelicals may carry their doctrinal grudges into voting booths, the only territory that matters to far too many journalists.
You can see this same problem in many other stories about the Liberty University address. Take the USA Today story, for example, which noted:
Mormonism has been a controversial topic among some evangelicals.
Right. Some evangelicals. That's all.
Romney’s Mormon faith is a sensitive subject on campus at Liberty, where each class opens with biblical devotionals and the curriculum refers to Mormonism as conflicting with the school’s Christian theology.
Right. The issue is simply Liberty University's approach to Christian theology. That's the problem.
Here's the irony. It seems, when one reads the full text of Romney's speech, that the candidate knew more about the hurdles he faced in that public address than the journalists sent to cover it. Thus, he admitted that they were believers in different faiths, divided by theology and creed, but that they could -- with civic tolerance -- be united in worldview, "values" and a common cause.
Romney would need to give the same speech at Catholic University, Wheaton College, Baylor University, Calvin College and in numerous other settings, because he would need to make the same essential point. How many journalists understand that?