Mormonism 101

Religion flared up in last night's debate in Las Vegas, with Anderson Cooper asking the GOP presidential candidates to address questions about whether or not to vote for a candidate based on their faith.

Cooper prefaced the question with statements made by Robert Jeffress, a Southern Baptist pastor, the Values Voter Summit where he said, “Mitt Romney is not a Christian,” and “Mormonism is a cult.” Perry stated that he disagreed with Jeffress, but he stopped short of denouncing him.

"Should voters pay attention to a candidate’s religion?" Cooper asked, and a few of the candidates answered before Romney responded.

Romney: You know, with — with regards to the disparaging comments about my faith, I’ve heard worse, so I’m not going to lose sleep over that.

What I actually found was most troubling in what the reverend said in the introduction was he said, in choosing our nominee, we should inspect his religion. And someone who is a good moral person is not someone who we should select; instead, we should choose someone who subscribes to our religious belief.

Jeffress has written a response op-ed in the Washington Post on "Why a candidate's faith matters."

I believe I have been misquoted repeatedly as telling the GOP not to vote for Romney. I have never made such a statement; I realize I might very well end up voting for Romney if he is the Republican nominee. While I prefer a competent Christian over a competent non-Christian, religion is not the only consideration in choosing a candidate.

Much of the discussion and media reaction has revolved around Jeffress and what this means for Romney on an electoral level. Few reporters seem to care really about the details of his faith and explaining them to their readers. Theological tension and divide is more fun to write about, I suppose.

However, a recent New York Times A1 piece puts together some of the pieces in one place on Romney's faith and role in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

In ticking off his credentials on the campaign trail — management consultant, businessman, governor — Mitt Romney omits what may have been his most distinctive post: Mormon lay leader, offering pastoral guidance on all manner of human affairs from marriage to divorce, abortion, adoption, addiction, unemployment and even business disputes.

What's puzzling to me is why the piece doesn't mention the big speech Romney gave on religion back in 2007. Yes, media consumers may have a pretty short memory, but it's not as though Romney has never addressed his own faith.

Mr. Romney declined to be interviewed for this article. Facing a primary electorate in which Christian conservatives are a powerful force, he is trying to keep his religion from becoming a barrier to his election. When his faith has become an issue — a Texas pastor supporting a rival candidate recently proclaimed Mormonism “a cult” — Mr. Romney has not offered a full-throated defense, but instead called for civility.

It's true, though, that Romney does not seem to be addressing his faith in ways that he did during the last election. Read the whole piece and then come discuss some of these questions that a reader had submitted:

Mitt became a Mormon "bishop" at 34. Mormonism's racial doctrines were repudiated when he was 31. How does the NYT write this story without even asking how he contended with that for three decades, or at least 13 years of adulthood?

Outside of that, the real story here is the Mormon hierarchy's reaction to Mitt's liberal politics, no? NYT just nods at that and marches on. Very incomplete for what it tries to be.

What do you think: are these questions something the piece should have explored more? One part of the piece revealed something potentially interesting about the way Romney feels about being a faithful Mormon. Bryce Clark, who received Romney's spiritual advice, tells the Times about how he was straying from his Mormon faith due to alcoholism and drug abuse.

As the highest-ranking Mormon leader in Boston, Mr. Romney was responsible for determining whether Mr. Clark was spiritually fit for a mission, a rite of passage for young Mormon men. Mr. Clark had previously lied to him, insisting that he was eligible to go. But instead of condemnation that night, Mr. Clark said, Mr. Romney offered counsel that the younger man has clung to for years.

“He told me that, as human beings, our work isn’t measured by taking the sum of our good deeds and the sum of our bad deeds and seeing how things even out,” recalled Mr. Clark, now 37, sober and working as a filmmaker in Utah. “He said, ‘The only thing you need to think about is: Are you trying to improve, are you trying to do better? And if you are, then you’re a saint.’ ”

Someone's theological beliefs told through someone else's lens can easily get muddied, but it's interesting to see that Romney might emphasize process and attempts to be a better person.

Thankfully, we have some religion reporters writing some explainer pieces that help readers understand the differences between the traditions. Tmatt discussed a finer detail in an Associated Press piece, but if you look at the explainer as a whole, it can serve as a way to make sense of why we're talking about this again and who has issues about what. Similarly, Ann Rodgers offers a helpful piece at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette explains the complex, theological differences through many different lens. Read the whole thing, but here's a portion with some context from Richard Ostling.

In parts of academia, cult is a neutral word, meaning a set of devotional practices. Archaeologists write of the "cult of the Israelites" without prejudice.

But in the 1950s, evangelical watchdog groups began using "cult" for Christ-centered groups that differ from classical Christian theology, including Mormons. In 1978, when members of the Peoples Temple committed mass murder and mass suicide, the media adopted the word "cult" from evangelicals who had monitored the Peoples Temple.

"In the last generation, from the Jonestown suicide-murders to the Solar Temple suicides, the word 'cult' has taken on a sinister and even lethal connotation," said Richard Ostling, a former religion editor of Time magazine and The Associated Press and co-author of "Mormon America."

"It implies a type of control over the individual lives of believers, which simply doesn't pertain in the Mormon context."

As long as religion comes up in presidential debates, political reporters will struggle to cover these complicated, theological distinctives. But as long as we have some religion reporters (or political reporters who understand theology), readers might be able to sort out these tensions.

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