Got news? Can evangelicals vote for a Mormon?

I joined Stephen Mansfield and Richard Mouw in answering the provocative question "Is There Anything Wrong With Voting For A Mormon?" for Christianity Today. Our answers don't fall under what this blog covers but while I was pleased with how my piece turned out, the feedback was overwhelmingly negative. (I said a Christian can in good conscience vote for someone with different religious views but that the danger is in confusing pastoral and political roles.) The hate mail poured in. Some were upset about voting Mitt Romney, since he is Mormon. And some people were convinced that President Obama is a Muslim. All this to say that I realized that there is a group of people out there who I don't understand and who I wish I did understand. When I read the beginning of this Reuters piece written by a religion reporter ("Southern whites troubled by Romney's wealth, religion"), I thought it might give a clue:

Sheryl Harris, a voluble 52-year-old with a Virginia drawl, voted twice for George W. Bush. Raised Baptist, she is convinced -- despite all evidence to the contrary -- that President Barack Obama, a practicing Christian, is Muslim.

So in this year's presidential election, will she support Mitt Romney? Not a chance.

"Romney's going to help the upper class," said Harris, who earns $28,000 a year as activities director of a Lynchburg senior center. "He doesn't know everyday people, except maybe the person who cleans his house."

She'll vote for Obama, she said: "At least he wasn't brought up filthy rich."

Rather than have a reporter tell me her views about Obama's religion, I'd much rather learn why Harris is convinced he's Muslim. I mean, there's room for both, obviously, but aren't Harris' views the ones we'd like to learn more about? I'll note that this woman was the only voter in the piece who said she was voting for Obama. Why was she chosen for the lead anecdote?

The article suggests that Lynchburg voters have the same attitude about Romney's campaign discussions and/or gaffes regarding wealth as the political press does, although the claim isn't substantiated. In fact, when a voter is quoted on the matter, he rejects class warfare against wealth as well as Obama's general governing philosophy. We're told, briefly, that the poll shows that Romney's positions on protecting the traditional definition of marriage as well as life in the womb help him with voters, an avenue that sounds like it would be interesting to pursue in a lengthy piece of this nature, but they're dropped as quickly as they're raised.

Midway through the story we're told that Romney has 46 percent of the group's vote relative to Obama's 29 percent. All very interesting. We get a further dig-down into Lynchburg:

The city is best known as headquarters of an evangelical empire: Thomas Road Baptist Church, with 25,000 members, founded by the late Reverend Jerry Falwell, and its fast-growing offshoot, Liberty University.

At Liberty's May commencement, Romney, a Mormon, sought to stake out common ground with fundamentalist Christians. Without directly mentioning the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, as the Mormon church is formally known, he told the crowd of 34,000: "People of different faiths, like yours and mine ... can meet in service, in shared moral convictions about our nation stemming from a common worldview."

According to Reuters/Ipsos polling data, however, 35 percent of voters overall, and the same proportion of lower- and middle-income white Bible Belt voters, say they would be less likely to vote for a candidate who is Mormon.

While it's fascinating that 35 percent of voters say they'd be less likely to vote for a Mormon candidate, for the story to really understand the impact of those views, we need to know more about whether that 35 percent affects actual voting patterns and whether it's evenly distributed among Republican, Independent and Democratic voters or not. A Gallup poll, for instance, showed that Democrats are less likely to vote for a Mormon than Republicans.

The article quotes people who think or joke (it's unclear), for instance, that Romney has multiple wives. Are these people really representative of average low- and middle-income white voters in the South? I thought this anecdote, though far less dramatic, might be more representative and telling:

On a humid evening at the Thomas Road church, the weekly "Hands Stitching 4 Jesus" group was crocheting teddy bears for children in Mexico. Middle-school teacher Stephanie Parrish, 27, was setting up a slide show from her recent mission to Guatemala with Campus Crusade for Christ.

Her thoughts on the presidential election?

"Abortion and gay marriage -- where they stand on morality, that's big for me," she said.

In 2008, Parrish was a fan of former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, who was defeated in the GOP primary. She counts him as a Facebook friend. She has yet to "friend" Romney, although she plans to vote for him.

"I'm not extremely excited," she confessed. "I'd prefer not to have a Mormon."

The piece seems to have started with a premise and then tried to shoehorn in data, whether it fit or not. Most of that has to do with things other than religion news, however. But again, as with this anecdote, wouldn't it be great to know why Parrish would prefer not to have a Mormon and why she's not extremely excited? This piece could have been much improved by not forcing a narrative that didn't quite fit and by asking some key follow-up questions about this group of people.

Whether or not evangelicals can or will vote for a Mormon is a great idea for a story. It is definitely being debated and you can listen to a Southern Baptist Theological Seminary panel discuss the topic here, for instance. Let's see some reporters dig into this with a bit more substance and a bit less campaign navel-gazing.

Note: Do not discuss your personal views about whether a particular group can or should vote for or against a given political candidate. Or, rather, discuss them elsewhere. Stay focused on media coverage of the topic and how it should be explored, etc.

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