When headlines and copy collide

thecultLast week ABC News' Jake Tapper and Matt Stuart interviewed Mitt Romney, candidate for the Republican nomination for president. Their subsequent article dealt with his views on immigration and abortion -- but also a bit about his views on whether it's his job to respond to theological opposition to Mormonism. Except that's not how ABC News described it. The first headline to the story was "Romney Blasts Immigration Bill, Defends Mormonism Against 'Cult' Charge," according to the Article VI blog. They later dropped that headline, but the story now includes a subhead of "Romney Rejects Description of Mormonism as 'Cult.'"

Let's see how Tapper and Stuart substantiate that:

Romney also addressed the continuing question of his Mormon faith and its role in the election.

Romney -- who is trying to win support among conservative Christians despite their wariness of Mormonism -- recently delivered the commencement address at the Rev. Pat Robertson's Regent University.

On the Web site of Robertson's Christian Broadcasting News, Mormonism is repeatedly described as "a cult."

Asked why he didn't attempt to refute that rhetorical assault on his faith, Romney pushed back.

"I'm not running for pastor in chief and I'm not running as someone who defends my religion or explains my religion," he said. "I'm running for a secular office, the presidency of the United States."

In terms of actually addressing the Christian Broadcasting Network and Regent University, Romney said, "You know if my church wants to respond, they're certainly welcome to. But that's not what I'm doing."

The original headline and current subhead are just flatly incorrect. Romney did not reject the Christian Broadcasting Network's description of Mormonism as a cult. Neither did he support the view, obviously. Instead, he articulated a different position entirely. He said, quite clearly, that he's running for the secular office of president, not the theological office of pastor! Romney is saying it's fine if certain Americans have theological differences with him but that such differences shouldn't preclude voting for him for secular office. The opposite side of that coin is that Romney has significantly different theological views than, say, those who run CBN -- but that he wants their votes just the same.

Romney is articulating a position that sounds like what Lutherans call the Two Kingdoms, referring to a division between the secular and spiritual. For Lutherans the secular realm is where the government action happens while the spiritual realm is where the church operates. With such a doctrinal view, one could prioritize doctrine in the spiritual realm and political wisdom and leadership in the secular realm. This view may not be popular among some American Protestants of various political stripes who tend to view politics and religion as inhabiting one big kingdom, but it's not exactly unheard of either.

And yet ABC's headline, subhead and contextual explanations of Romney's view completely miss this rather basic notion that religious folks might see the secular and spiritual realms as separate. It's symptomatic of the way the media seem only able to understand religion in a political context. It's also why church bodies that refrain from constant political engagement are ignored or dismissed by mainstream media.

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