Mitt Romney is in the news again, which means it's time for people to argue about whether the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is, well, you know, normal and safe and whatever.
This leads us to a really interesting question linked to a New York Times piece that ran the other day: Is it a mistake when journalists print a factually inaccurate statement about a religious believer, yet there is evidence that they were quoting -- without saying they were quoting -- the believer himself?
The discussion starts here:
WASHINGTON -- A prominent Republican delivered a direct request to Mitt Romney not long ago: He should make a third run for the presidency, not for vanity or redemption, but to answer a higher calling from his faith.
Believing that Mr. Romney, a former Mormon pastor, would be most receptive on these grounds, the Republican made the case that Mr. Romney had a duty to serve, and said Mr. Romney seemed to take his appeal under consideration.
Three years ago, Mr. Romney’s tortured approach to his religion -- a strategy of awkward reluctance and studied avoidance that all but walled off a free-flowing discussion of his biography -- helped doom his campaign. (The subject is still so sensitive that many, including the prominent Republican, would only discuss it on condition that they not be identified.)
Veteran religion writers will spot the problem quickly: Mormons don't have "pastors," if that noun is a reference to ordained clergy who work for the church as their calling and vocation. While Mormons use the term "ordained," it doesn't have the same official, professional implications that it has in other bodies. He was not a trained clergyman.
The accurate statement is that, at one point in his adult life, Romney was asked to serve as a "bishop" and for a period of time led a Mormon "ward," or regionally defined congregation. As a former GetReligionista put it, in an email to me:
The bishop acts like the pastor, but in a lot of ways the job is half-master of ceremonies, half-pastor. He does pastoral counseling, weddings, funerals etc. but is not expected to give a sermon every Sunday -- bishops usually have members of the congregation and/or visitors give talks on assigned scriptural themes. Also, bishops are not professional clergy. They're not paid for what they do and usually have zero formal theological training. And even though the time commitment often amounts to a full-time job it's done in addition to their day job. This is ameliorated by the fact it's usually a temporary commitment -- usually five years or so, just enough for some continuity. Sometimes more, sometimes less. The job is very different in crucial ways from what most Americans think of as a "pastor."
However, when you look up the word "pastor" in a typical dictionary, things get a little bit vague.
... A spiritual overseer; especially : a clergyman serving a local church or parish.
In other words, Romney may have served as a spiritual "overseer," and he may have acted in a "pastoral" manner in his ward role, but it would be factually inaccurate to say that he was an ordained clergyman.
So does the Times team -- which has one of the best corrections units in all of journalism -- need to print a correction on this one?
Meanwhile, there is another problem here. What if, in an attempt to help potential Republican voters relate to his non-traditional faith (from the point of view of a vaguely Trinitarian Christian American public, including in the mushy middle of, allegedly, God's Own Party) Romney actually referred to himself, at least one time, as a former "pastor"? Does that automatically change things, making it OK for journalists to inaccurately refer to him -- outside of an attributed quote -- as a "pastor"?
Has Romney done this? Yes, he has. See this transcript from a 2012 debate:
I understand what it takes to make a bright and prosperous future for America again. I spent my life in the private sector, not in government. I’m a guy who wants to help with the experience I have, the American people.
My -- my passion probably flows from the fact that I believe in God. And I believe we’re all children of the same God. I believe we have a responsibility to care for one another. I -- I served as a missionary for my church. I served as a pastor in my congregation for about 10 years. I’ve sat across the table from people who were out of work and worked with them to try and find new work or to help them through tough times.
Was this Mormon candidate simply trying to speak in language that ordinary Americans would understand? Note that, in this same part of his remarks, he also noted that he has spent his adult life in the "private sector" -- code for the business world, as opposed to living his life in government jobs.
But he did say the word "pastor." So, again, does that mean that the most accurate wording the Times could have used in this case -- without attribution -- was to state that he was a "former Mormon pastor"? I would argue that it would have been better to say that, while Mormons do not have ordained clergy, Romney once helped lead his local congregation, or words to that effect.
There is one other thing to mention about this article: The basic premise. Right at the top, readers are told:
... Now as Mr. Romney mulls a new run for the White House, friends and allies said, his abiding Mormon faith is inextricably tied to his sense of service and patriotism, and a facet of his life that he is determined to embrace more openly in a possible third campaign.
Kirk Jowers, a Mormon family friend who lives in Utah and chaired Mr. Romney’s leadership PAC, said that Mr. Romney’s contemplation of a third bid is motivated by an “almost devout belief that he needs to do something for this country.”
But this time, Mr. Jowers said, Mr. Romney would treat his religion differently. “In 2008, Romney risked being a caricature of the Mormon candidate,” he said. “Now everyone seems to know everything about him, and that will be very liberating for him to talk about his faith.”
Now, as yet another former GetReligionista noted, what is unusual about saying that a religious believer is convinced that his "faith is inextricably tied to his sense of service and patriotism"? Would Hillary Clinton say that? Certainly. How about Jeb Bush or, for sure, Mike Huckabee? That would be "yes" and "yes."
Ah, but we are talking about a MORMON HERE. Those people are rather strange and foreign, right? Thus, the Times team offers a one paragraph -- one paragraph! -- venture into one of the most complex and controversial subjects in Mormon thought, a topic that (trust me on this) is simply hard to discuss in one paragraph.
One. Paragraph. Yes, I know that journalists have to do that sort of thing from time to time, but this was not one of them, methinks.
Some Mormons also believe in something called the “white horse prophecy” that, while not official church doctrine, says the Constitution will “hang like a thread” and be saved by a white horse -- which some elements believe to be the Mormon Church or a prophetic church figure. High-profile Mormon candidates often reinvigorate this lore, and Mr. Romney is no exception. A longtime friend says that he has seen Mr. Romney approached at church about the prophecy.
Yes, the Times team went there. Right into the heart of Mormon conspiracy theory land. Let me stress that I think this is a valid topic for coverage, but not for one-liners.
Be careful out there, people. Romney is back, for now.