I know, I know. It's an opinion piece. Nevertheless, I am very, very afraid that, at some point in the future, I am going to see people quoting the following and then adding the crucial kicker -- "according to an article in The New York Times."
Here we go.
If you are holding a cup of coffee, please set it aside, far from your keyboard. The headline on this essay by David S. Reynolds is blunt: "Why Evangelicals Don't Like Mormons."
Uh. Actually, I have known some evangelicals who rather like Mormons, consider them close friends and even colleagues, while remaining aware that -- in terms of doctrine -- their faiths cannot be reconciled. Believe it or not, the National Association of Evangelicals board met in Salt Lake City last spring. That's in Utah. Years of formal and informal dialogue continued. Bread was broken. These things happen.
But moving on. Back to the lede in this Gray Lady essay:
According to a CNN exit poll of South Carolina Republican primary voters, Newt Gingrich, a thrice-married Catholic, won twice as much support from evangelical Protestants as Mitt Romney, a Protestant. And among voters for whom religion meant “a great deal,” 46 percent voted for Mr. Gingrich and only 10 percent for Mr. Romney.
That sound you just heard was the explosion of thousands of minds in church-history departments from sea to shining sea.
Let's back up for a moment.
In my reporting days in Colorado, covering most of the 1980s, I spent many hours meeting with press representatives of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, talking about the kinds of language issues that keep coming up here at GetReligion. One of the crucial topics was whether a believer needed to be "Trinitarian" in order to be called "Christian." There is, for example, the matter of Oneness Pentecostals, whose rejection of the Trinity does not seem to cause them to lose their "Christian" label in public media.
In all of my meetings, I never heard a Mormon leader simply state that they considered themselves another branch of, well, Protestantism. I never heard that word claimed. In light of the harsh realities of daily journalism, when a few words have to go a long way, they often suggested that "Mormon Christians" could be accurately contrasted with "Trinitarian Christians." And so forth and so on.
Please note that I am not trying to settle this hot-button issue in public and journalistic language, primarily because I am not sure that it can be settled that easily.
My point is that it is ridiculous -- even in an editorial column -- to simply state that Mitt Romney is a Protestant. I think that this publication's elite readers are supposed to assume that Romney is a Protestant because he is not a Catholic. Then again, many mainstream journalists seem convinced that Catholic Rick Santorum is a evangelical Protestant.
This use of the term "Protestant" is central to this Times piece. It is also, as usual, assumed that doctrinal conflicts linked to Mormon beliefs are caused by some uniquely evangelical bias -- as opposed to the Vatican's stand on this issue, or the concerns of all but a few liberal Protestants.
Evangelicals, you see, are the problem.
This is the second evangelical-heavy state Mr. Romney has lost. With a third, Florida, next on the list, it’s important to consider the often antagonistic skepticism that many evangelicals have of Mr. Romney’s brand of Protestantism: Mormonism.
For many evangelicals, that faith -- a “false religion,” as the Baptist pastor Robert Jeffress called it -- raises serious doubts about Mr. Romney’s suitability for office. But such concerns ultimately say more about the insecurities of the establishment denominations than about Mormonism itself.
Many evangelicals assert that Mormonism denies the divinity of Christ and is therefore not a branch of Christianity. But the Mormon belief is that Jesus was the first-born child of God and a woman, and that humans can aspire to share his spiritual essence in the afterlife.
So, so much to say. So many crucial doctrinal points ignored. The essay goes on to note the fact that marketplace of American religion has produced more than its share of alternative religions, in addition to Mormonism. Any short list would include the Christian Scientists and the Jehovah’s Witnesses. The assumption of the Times copy desk, once again, is that all of them can fit neatly under this "Protestant" umbrella.
Says who? Well, says this writer in The New York Times.
Once again, this is not a news piece. I know that. I know that we are not supposed to hold editorial columns to the same journalistic standards as pieces in the news pages. Wait, does that include matters of fact and definitions?
Do readers understand these kinds of editorial differences? What happens when the "Mitt Romney, a Protestant" reference -- which at the very least deserves debate, no matter where it appears -- is quoted elsewhere? And what about the other sins of commission and omission included in this piece?
Yes, this is not news. But in this day and age, the wall between editorial comment and news seems to be falling. What happens when editorial writers make fact statements of this kind? Who is responsible for accuracy in this case?