As the early coverage of the Mitt Romney address continues, I would like to ask a basic question: Are most mainstream reporters assuming that the Christians -- Catholic, Orthodox, evangelical and mainline -- who do not consider Mormonism "to be Christian" are those who know little or nothing about the details of Mormon doctrine or those who actually know quite a bit and disagree with it?
• A Washington Post "what worked and what didn't" blog item is already posted here.
Now back to the text of the original post:
Please note that I phrased this question in a way that avoids the question of whether someone plans to vote for or against Romney in his quest to become president. It's pretty clear that these doctrinal clashes and, in some cases, prejudices are going to affect many voters. Meanwhile, there are signs that it will not affect others, including many who, again, do not consider Mormonism a stream of Catholic, Orthodox or Protestant Christianity as defined in creeds that almost all Christians accept, at least in terms of their content.
There are plenty of conservative, traditional Christians out there who plan to vote for Romney. There are many who have identical views of Mormonism who will not vote for him. There are Christians -- Catholic, Orthodox, evangelical, mainline -- who reject Mormonism's claims who know quite a bit about Mormonism, including people who have studied it for decades. There are others who know Mormonism inside out and see it as a unique thing, something that can most accurately be called "Mormon Christianity."
Confused? Yes, the mainline press coverage is confused -- it is making the situation much too simple.
Take the following Mark Silva piece in the Chicago Tribune. There are passages in this report that are simply terrible. Here is the first key paragraph:
The fact that Romney, a Mormon, is coming to Texas on Thursday to articulate his vision of "faith in America" is a measure of just how much sway evangelical Christians still hold in presidential voting, particularly the Republican Party's naming of a nominee.
Yes, evangelical voters are powerful. Yet this wording, once again, suggests that only evangelical Protestants reject the claims that Mormonism can be considered a form of traditional or creedal Christianity. Yes, "traditional" is a loaded term. But you can't cover this story without facing the essential differences in these groups over basic issues about the nature of God.
More on that in a minute. The Tribune report throws in another explosive term:
Now, almost a half-century after a Catholic named John F. Kennedy traveled to Texas to confront a fundamentalist audience with his explanation that he was not the church's nominee but rather a Catholic running for president, another millionaire from Massachusetts will stand here to confront public misconceptions of his faith that could stand between him and his party's nomination.
JFK, of course, spoke to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association -- a group that certainly included people who would claim the term "fundamentalist," but many others who would have rejected it. Anyone who thinks that all of those ministers in Houston -- even Southern Baptists and independent Baptists -- were "fundamentalists" simply does not know anything about Houston or Texas in general.
Once again, this whole approach is skewed. This is not a simple clash between Mormons and "fundamentalists." The MSM loves that story line, but it is just too simplistic.
It is hard to jam all of this complexity into wire-service length reports. I know that.
However, it is possible to deal with some of the basics. Take, for example, the report in today's Washington Post by Jacqueline L. Salmon, which ran with the headline "Romney Aims to Prove His Christianity." It includes this passage, which will cause debate in many quarters, but has to be considered a solid attempt at a summary:
Like all Christians, Mormons worship Jesus Christ as the son of God who atoned for their sins by dying on the cross, and they study the Bible as the word of God.
But, unlike traditional Christians, Mormons also revere the Book of Mormon equally with the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. They believe that Jesus visited the Americas after he was crucified and that he will return and reign from the United States and Jerusalem. They believe that the dead can be baptized, that God was once a man and that a human can become like a god. And, they say, God speaks through living apostles and prophets, such as Gordon B. Hinckley, president of the Mormon Church.
Mormons believe the faith's founder, Joseph Smith Jr., a Palmyra farmer, was guided by an angel to a set of ancient records etched on golden plates. Those records, which include an account of Jesus Christ's appearance in the Americas after his crucifixion, are in the Book of Mormon.
For many traditional Christians, such ideas are heresy.
Yes, many traditional Christians -- Catholic, Orthodox, evangelical and mainline -- consider many of those points to be heresy. This will cause some of them to reject Romney, but not all.
The nation's largest non-Catholic flock is the giant Southern Baptist Convention, and it is wading into this whirlpool with a series of articles stating its stance on Mormon doctrine. You can feel the tension in the very first part of this series and there is no way around this tension when doctrine and conservative politics collide. Hang on. It is going to be a real challenge for reporters to cover the many camps in this debate with fairness, accuracy and balance.
Second photo: A Romney campaign photo of him working on the text of the speech.