Is voting a theological act?

romneyRepublican presidential candidate Mitt Romney has a lot on his resume. In some ways, the former Massachusetts governor would be one the most qualified, at least in a business sense, presidents in a very long time. Romney was CEO of Bain & Company, a major management-consulting firm, CEO of the Salt Lake Organizing Committee for the 2002 Winter Olympics and the successful Republican governor of one of the most liberal states in the country. He also spear-pointed an attempt at fixing the state's healthcare policy that had the help of the Heritage Foundation.

Have you seen any of this lately in the headlines? Probably not, and unless there is a good news hook, you shouldn't see it outside the occasional feature story.

Romney stood out in last night's debate. But the Mormon issue keeps popping up as the dominate story to his campaign, and that's largely many people in the base he's so religiously courted seem to hint that the only thing keeping them from voting for him is his religious beliefs. Is that true?

A headline in Thursday's Dallas Morning News captures the problem some journalists are having with the Romney-Mormon story: "Dallas minister: Vote for a Christian, not Mitt Romney."

From the headline we're led to believe that we have a flesh-and-blood Christian preacher telling his flock to shun supporting Romney's candidacy since he is not a Christian. But is that what he really said?

A prominent Dallas minister told his congregation that if they wanted to elect a Christian to the White House, Republican Mitt Romney wasn't qualified.

Dr. Robert Jeffress, pastor of First Baptist Church of Dallas, said Mormonism is a false religion and that Mr. Romney was not a Christian.

"Mitt Romney is a Mormon, and don't let anybody tell you otherwise," Dr. Jeffress said in a sermon on Sept. 30. "Even though he talks about Jesus as his Lord and savior, he is not a Christian. Mormonism is not Christianity. Mormonism is a cult."

Some in the large crowd began to applaud as Dr. Jeffress continued with his remarks.

"What really distresses me is some of my ministerial friends and even leaders in our convention are saying, 'Oh, well, he talks about Jesus, we talk about Jesus. What's the big deal,'" he said. "It is a big deal if anybody names another way to be saved except through Jesus Christ."

Correct me if I am wrong, but Jeffress only stated his theological convictions and attempted to correct a politician's campaign rhetoric involving religion. Any chance there might be a recording of the sermon out there to double check? Jeffress is clearly attempting to discourage his congregation from voting for Romney, but those aren't the precise words he used. The headline attempts to take the reader the extra step and read into what the minister intended to convey.

For all Romney's efforts to minimize the effect his Mormon faith has had on the campaign, there are still plenty of people out there who have said they will not vote for him since he is a Mormon. There are plenty others more concerned with Romney's perceived ideological flip-flops, but that's another story. The DMN story rightly notes that several prominent evangelical leaders have either endorsed Romney or held that his faith should not be a factor in the campaign, but the headline on this story is partially misleading.

In reporting on statements like the one from the Dallas minister, journalists must be careful not to overstate -- or underplay, for that matter -- the plain-language meaning of words. There is plenty of room for readers to read between the lines for the words' real intent, but without clear evidence showing that intent, reporters (and headline writers) ought to shy away from interpreting for readers.

Unfortunately for Romney and journalists, this story isn't going away. There are voters out there who won't vote for Romney because of his faith, which makes it a story. In other words, the faith aspect of Romney's campaign is not entirely driven by reporters looking for a story, but a shrewd reporter will avoid non-news stories about Romney's religion and resist the urge to blow statements out of proportion.

UPDATE: A kind reader of ours, Mark Kelly, notified us that a member of Jeffress' church, Denny Burk, posted this morning on the sermon and confirms some of the suspicions laid out in this post (and he links to an MP3!):

(1) Factual Error: The lead line in the DMN article reads as follows: "A prominent Dallas minister told his congregation that if they wanted to elect a Christian to the White House, Republican Mitt Romney wasn't qualified." This is not true. Dr. Jeffress said nothing about electing a Christian to the White House in his sermon. Nor did he say anything about who we should vote for in the 2008 presidential election. You can listen to the relevant excerpt here. If you want the full context, you can listen to the entire sermon here: "The Power of a Positive Purpose." The remarks about Romney begin about 19 minutes in. Jeffress made the theological point that Mormonism is not in line with orthodox Christianity, but he didn't make the political point about who we should or should not vote for. ...

My concern is that the DMN article was misleading on this point. This is not a small item to get wrong now that other media outlets are repeating the error (see below), which apparently has led the Interfaith Alliance to call into question the church's tax exempt status!

The bottom line is this: Dr. Jeffress never expressed support for or against a Presidential candidate, but the DMN makes it sound as if he did. I'm hoping that the DMN will run a correction in the very near future.

Read the rest of the post for an explanation of how the quotes were taken out of context. We'll be watching for a DMN correction.

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