Knowing a beat inside and out

FaustJames Faust, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints since 1978, died on Friday. He also served in the high-ranking position of second counselor to President Gordon Hinckley since 1995. Salt Lake Tribune reporter Peggy Fletcher Stack has been all over the story.

From the very first article on the death, her reporting shows an understanding of Mormon history and church life. Here she explains that Faust was not only an active church leader but a public servant as well:

In 1945, Faust re-entered the U. and earned his bachelor's and law degrees. The Fausts eventually had five children. Within a few years after setting up his law practice, Faust was drawn into Utah politics.

When Utah became a state in 1896, Mormons needed to establish a two-party system, so church leaders divided the obedient Latter-day Saints equally between the Democrats and the Republicans.

The Fausts became Democrats, said Jim Faust, and have remained so to this day.

Isn't that fascinating? That the church divided members into political parties? Anyway, Faust was a Democratic state legislator from 1949 to 1951 and helped update Utah liquor laws in the 1950s, she says. Just think: they've been updated! He also joined the church's Public Affairs Committee, where he worked on liquor laws, abortion and fixed-odds gambling.

Fletcher Stack has followed up the story day after day. She explained how the vacancy in the church's three-man governing team might be filled and gave some interesting historical precedent. She added some details and quotes to his obituary. She interviewed Hinckley about his feelings over Faust's death. And she explained the lengthy and deep friendship the two men shared. She also wrote a separate story about his Democratic Party activism:

Faust, who had once been a Democratic state legislator, continued to serve as a kind of behind-the-scenes consultant, even after joining the LDS First Presidency in 1995.

"Every once in a while, President Faust would quietly make calls, urging people to run, mostly to help the state have a healthy balance of political parties," said [Todd Taylor, a Democratic Party executive] on Friday.

"He would talk to any potential candidates who were concerned that their LDS Church callings would conflict with public service. He assured them they could do both," Taylor said.

After all, Faust did.

He was a Democratic state legislator from 1949 to 1951, while he was an LDS bishop. In the mid-1950s he chaired the party in Utah and helped manage a campaign of Sen Frank Moss, D-Utah. He looked to two other prominent Latter-day Saint Democrats -- N. Eldon Tanner and Hugh B. Brown -- as mentors. . . .

He went on to say that the LDS Church would prefer to have members in both parties.

"Both locally and nationally, the interests of the church and its members are best served when we have two good men or women running on each ticket, and then no matter who is elected, we win," Faust told [his biographer, James P.] Bell.

UtahDemsFletcher Stack has to be one of the more prolific religion reporters out there. Since Friday she has also written two stories other than the ones linked to here.

One in particular is worth reading. She reports on an LDS nurse who says Mormon doctrine does not contradict the use of embryonic stem cells. For people who are confused about how both Republican and Democratic LDS members can support embryonic stem-cell research and have less than hard core views against abortion, Fletcher Stack has this helpful summary of views:

Mormons, however, have a slightly different understanding of the connection between bodies and souls that could open the door for stem-cell research without compromising their ethics, said Rick Jepson on Thursday at the annual Sunstone Symposium, an independent forum for Mormon thought that continues today at the Sheraton Hotel in downtown Salt Lake City. . . .

And he has LDS Church statements -- or the absence of statements -- to back him up.

To Mormons, individual human souls existed before this life and will continue after. They are uncreated, eternal beings. Brigham Young said life begins when a mother feels life move in her womb. Those fetuses that die before birth can return again for a second try in a new body, Young taught. LDS leader J. Reuben Clark suggested that the spirit doesn't enter the body officially until birth but checks the body's progress all during pregnancy.

It's easy for outsiders to look at Utah's overwhelmingly Republican electorate and think that Mormons are monolithic in their political views. But reporters need to understand some of the nuances of Mormon thought and history to find that things aren't always as they seem. Stories like Fletcher Stack's help readers understand the political views of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Sen. Orrin Hatch and Presidential contender Mitt Romney. Which is a lot more than most political coverage of these leaders.

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