So even though I'm normally complaining about how journalists only notice religion when it involves politics, I'm giving myself up to the political machine this week and discussing more stories about Romney and his Mormonism. Coverage has been all over the map. Contrast, for instance, this headline from The Boston Globe:
Pressed, Romney to speak on his Mormonism
with this one from the Los Angeles Times:
Mormonism not focus of Romney speech
So now that that's clear, let's move on to the attempts by some news outlets to explain Mormonism. By far the worst entry I've seen comes from WCCO in Minneapolis. Apparently reporter Ben Tracy has a running feature called "Good Question," in which he explains where headaches come from and how much the president is paid. This week's good question was 'What do Mormons believe?' He somehow managed to be unfair to or misrepresent both Mormons and the vast majority of traditional Christians at the same time. Also, he used all of one source -- an ordinary member of the church:
"We call ourselves Mormons too," said Dick Halverson, a member of the Mormon church in Oakdale, Minn.
He said he's heard the accusations that his faith is a cult and not Christian.
"A 13 million-member cult worldwide?" he asked. "Jesus Christ is the cornerstone of our faith. So when we as Latter Day Saints hear that, it's astonishing to us."
However, Mormons also believe in Joseph Smith, a young American man they say was visited by God in 1820.
Latter-day Saints believe that Joseph Smith (pictured) was the first modern prophet. They believe he restored the Christian church, which, according to Smith, was lost soon after the death of Jesus' Apostles. To say they "also believe in" him makes it seem like they approach Smith and Christ in the same fashion, which isn't accurate. To be fair, Tracy goes on to explain Smith and his role in greater detail. But this was my favorite part:
"If you really want to offend your good Mormon friend, tell ’em they're not a real Christian," said Halverson.
Like other Christian faiths, Mormons believe Christ will re-establish a kingdom on earth. However, they believe it will be here in the United States.
There are so many problems with that last paragraph, I don't even know where to begin. Halverson himself acknowledges that not everyone agrees that Mormons are Christian -- so why would Tracy begin the next sentence by saying, "Like other Christian faiths" as if the issue were settled? Also, I think faiths is not the best word to use there. Finally, should someone tell Tracy that "other Christians" aren't all premillennialists or postmillennialists, such as, I don't know, the Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholics, Lutherans and Anglicans?
Another story I found interesting is the Associated Press' short -- as in 200 words -- piece headlined "Mormon Teachings Upset Some Christians." You would think a story with a headline like that might explain which teachings upset which Christians and why. Instead, it's just a brief summary (using Romney as a hook) of a few Mormon teachings that differ from traditional Christianity, such as:
Mormons believe that authentic Christianity vanished a century after Jesus and was restored only through Joseph Smith, whom Mormons consider a prophet.
Smith revised -- and in his view corrected -- large sections of the Bible in the 19th century, an act of heresy in the eyes of Protestant and Roman Catholic leaders. The Mormon scriptures include the Old and New Testaments, but also include books containing Smith's revelations.
Latter-day Saints counter that they are badly misunderstood and insist their church is indeed Christian.
It's not that there's anything wrong with this snippet so much as there is so much missing. A story about Mormon teachings upsetting some Christians simply can't be 200 words long, particularly in light of how poorly the issue has been covered up to now.
Speaking of glaring omissions, I'm absolutely shocked that more local reporters aren't talking to Mormons about how they feel about Romney's religion speech. The one I did find, by The Salt Lake Tribune's Peggy Fletcher Stack, was super interesting:
For months, political pundits and journalists have been urging Mitt Romney to give a speech about his Mormon faith, but a few fellow Latter-day Saints aren't sure it's such a good idea.
They worry about whether the speech, scheduled for Thursday at the George Bush Presidential Library in Texas, will help or hurt Romney's political chances and, equally important, whether it will help or hurt Mormonism's image. They say they don't want their sacred doctrines analyzed and possibly pilloried any more than usual by evangelical Christians or media commenters.
She speaks with professors and interested observers who recommend various approaches -- reassuring voters that any religious differences are not dangerous or telling them that Mormonism is just one form of Christianity. Some Mormons are against the speech entirely, she writes:
"I don't think there's a way to give this speech that wouldn't end up hurting Romney more than it helps him," J. Nelson-Seawright of Evanston, Ill., wrote on the Mormon blog, bycommonconsent.com.
"A lot of Americans (particularly politically conservative evangelical Protestants) fear actual, real-life Mormon beliefs," he wrote. "If Romney allays their fears, it will have to be by distancing himself from those beliefs."
Yet that would make his effort to run as a candidate of faith appear disingenuous, Nelson-Seawright said. If Romney implies that voters needn't worry about his religion, they may decide he doesn't have one. But if Romney presents himself as a genuine Mormon, he said, "then -- no matter how nice or competent he is -- speaking out on his faith will only convince his doubters that they're right."
And these are among the reasons LDS attorney Lowell Brown has long opposed any such presentation. Brown, of Southern California, worries that such a speech will set back the Mormon/Evangelical rapprochement about 30 years.
"Romney faces the challenge of Mormon 'distinctives,'" said Brown, who has been blogging daily about the Romney campaign for the last 18 months on article6blog.com. "There are so many things Mormons believe that virtually no one else believes. It takes a lot of explaining to get them into the right context," he said. "To try to address those differences in a political, national campaign seems like a nightmare to me."
Fletcher Stack's story and her sources were really interesting. Yes, she's in Salt Lake City, where the Latter-day Saints are headquartered, but you'll note that none of her sources live there. That's because Mormons live all over the place. Reporters might want to use the speech as a hook to speak with ordinary Mormons about how they're dealing with the national interest in their religion.