Mormonism is a religion, not just a culture

For people serious about their faith, religious beliefs tend not only to influence other types of beliefs but they tend to be presuppositional. Believers adopt particular cultural and political beliefs because of their religious views. For example, an evangelical who believes that abortion is wrong tends to adopt cultural and political views that flow from their religious convictions. Not all evangelicals oppose abortion rights, of course, and even those that do may have developed their position on the issue apart from their religious views. But those who are pro-life tend to be so in a way that is different than those who developed a secular-minded opposition to abortion. While this may seem too obvious to mention, it can lead to problem for journalists on the religion beat.

A prime example from several years ago is how the media covered the Tea Party movement. There were at least three main factions of the Tea Party, and the main one could be described as a subset of the religious right. Despite the perception of the movement being comprised of economically oriented libertarians, the majority held social conservative views. Nearly two-thirds (63 percent) of Tea Partiers polled in 2011 said abortion should be illegal in all or most cases, and only eighteen percent supported same-sex marriage. When the Washington Post contacted 647 Tea Party groups, they found that less than half of the organizations considered spending and limiting the size of government to be a primary concern.

The bottom line: By failing to understand the foundational beliefs underlying the movement, the media continually misunderstood (and misreported) what the movement was really about.

To truly understand a cultural or political movement comprised mainly of religious believers requires understanding the presuppositional religious views that shapes it. But since it can be difficult to determine the motivating belief and cumbersome to explain, it’s often easier to simply focus on the non-religious aspects. That is one of the reasons why so many religion stories become political stories. Journalists know how to write about politics, so if a story can be “translated” it becomes easier to tell.

A similar process seems to have occurred in a recent New York Times Magazine story focusing on Brigham Young University’s film animation program, “When Hollywood Wants Good, Clean Fun, It Goes to Mormon Country.” Instead of writing about religion-as-politics, though, it translates religion into mere cultural expression.

Jon Mooallem does such an excellent job reporting on the program and its budding influence in Hollywood that it feels nit-picky to point out that it all but ignores Mormonism as a religion. Here’s an example of what sets the article apart from the stereotypical reporter-as-anthropologist style of religion reporting:

Many of the students I met in Provo grew up in insular, Mormon communities. They came from what’s dismissed as flyover country. They don’t smoke or drink, and I noticed that one faculty member, for example, kept saying, “Holy schnikeys!” whenever he wanted to curse. And yet creative types in Hollywood kept raving to me about how much “more worldly” these Mormons were than the moody, Gen Y art-school grads coming out of New York and Los Angeles and how grateful they were to have them onboard. This cut against so many different stereotypes — of Mormons, of Hollywood, of tortured artsy kids — and at the oddest angles. By coincidence, it seemed, Mormon culture was grooming its young people to be ideal employees of the same industry it predisposed them to be wary of.

Just when you think you know where he’s heading, Mooallem throws in a perspective-shifting, “And yet ...”

My only complaint with that paragraph is that he doesn’t explain what it means for these seemingly “insular” young Mormons to be “worldly.” That would have been a fascinating area to examine.

But while the article is respectful of Mormonism as a culture, the impression it leaves is that being a Mormon is primarily about being part of a monolithic monoculture rather than a member of a religion. The religious elements aren’t exactly ignored, but they are certainly downplayed. For instance, here is how the mission of the animation program is described:

The B.Y.U. program is designed to be a similar kind of ethical counterweight: it’s trying to unleash values-oriented filmmakers into the industry who can inflect its sensibility. “Without being preachy about it,” Adams told me, “if we can add something to the culture that makes people think about being better human beings — more productive, more kind, more forgiving — that’s what we want to do.”

If this had been a story for an outlet whose readers are more familiar with Mormonism -- such as the Deseret News, which ran an article on the article -- then that might have been sufficient. But for readers unfamiliar with LDS beliefs (e.g., the typical New York Magazine reader), it makes Mormons sound like adherents to a stringent ethical philosophy.

A key theme embedded in the feature is that the young animators are driven to share a message. But the closest the article to comes to explaining what that message could be is a quote buried in a long paragraph:

“In the L.D.S. church,” he told me, “a really strong message is that everyone’s a child of God — that they’re a sacred individual. They’re born into this world clean and pure and beautiful.”

It’s easy to miss the significance of this quote -- I missed it myself until I read the article a third time -- and what it means for “Mormon culture.” This is the type of presuppositional belief that drives not only the students and the animation program, but BYU and the larger culture of Mormonism.

Hey reporters! Mormons don’t avoid R-rated movies and coffee because its part of “Mormon culture.” They do this because of beliefs -- doctrines even -- driven by even more foundational beliefs.

Failing to understand this point and make it explicit doesn’t ruin the article -- it’s still an entertaining and information feature -- but it does reveal a missed opportunity to show that Mormonism is more than just a cultural expression of really polite people.

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