Back in the 1980s, when I was working at The Rocky Mountain News (RIP, maybe) in Denver, I was in regular contact with press officials in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints both locally, especially during the building of the Colorado temple, and those working in the big white tower in Salt Lake City, Utah.
We frequently discussed issues of newspaper style and how the church's unique beliefs were handled in the mainstream press. We didn't always agree, of course, but I knew where they were coming from. We had many discussions, for example, about what to call the leaders of local and regional Mormon flocks. The key: Mormons don't have professional, full-time clergy in the same sense as other churches. The word "ordain" isn't used in the same way.
Thus, it has been interesting to follow the many interesting comments on my recent post about the New York Times story covering the ongoing political and religious pilgrimage of Mitt Romney. The key reference was right near the top:
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.
It seems clear to me that Mormons have, in recent years, continued in their efforts to find ways to talk about their lives in language that is less foreign to other Americans. Thus, rather than saying that a local LDS leader was the "bishop" of his "ward," it is becoming more likely that -- when talking to outsiders -- Mormons are more likely to say that some is the "pastor" of their local "church" and THEN go on to explain the differences. Read the comments on the earlier post and follow the discussion.
Now, The Washington Post has rolled out a pre-campaign-madness story on the same topic and there are some slight, but interesting, differences that, in some ways, resemble the suggestions made by GetReligion readers. Thus, readers are told:
If he runs again in 2016, Romney is determined to rebrand himself as authentic, warts and all, and central to that mission is making public what for so long he kept private. He rarely discussed his religious beliefs and practices in his failed 2008 and 2012 races, often confronting suspicion and bigotry with silence as his political consultants urged him to play down his Mormonism.
Now, Romney speaks openly about his service as a lay pastor in the Mormon Church, recites Scripture to audiences, muses about salvation and the prophet, urges students to marry young and “ have a quiver full of kids,” and even cracks jokes about Joseph Smith’s polygamy.
Note the term "lay pastor." It's a subtle point, but one that I think captures the key distinction that I have heard Mormons make about their own local leaders and the "professional" clerics who lead other flocks.
And what about the "b" word? This is really crucial, because Romney's years as a "bishop" are closely linked to the major theme of the story -- which is how he hopes to be more open (think Netflix "Mitt" documentary) about who he is as a man, husband, father and community leader, as opposed to being a robotic politico:
Romney’s friends and family believe he could have overcome such character concerns by talking more about his church service.
“He just didn’t talk enough about how he, as a man, was able to do so much to help those in need,” said Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), who also is a Mormon. Being a volunteer bishop, as Romney was, is “a high calling in the Mormon Church. You spend most of your time helping people with their problems -- everything from financial problems to work problems to marital problems to sexual problems.”
Again there is a new adjective -- he was a "volunteer" bishop. I still would have liked to see the Post team offer at least one clear sentence that discusses the doctrinal details of his volunteer, yet "pastoral" work. Again, the whole point of the story is that Romney, as a church leader, has had contact with the daily lives of real people as they live their real lives.
So major progress has been made here and should be applauded, but the news style work will continue.
Meanwhile, I would like to gently challenge one rather mushy wording in this Post story. Once again, this is a passage about Romney opening up and talking about the role his faith has played in his life through the decades. Spot the problem?
Romney did just that in November, when he addressed the student body at Brigham Young University, which is owned by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He talked about how his spirituality had shaped his life.
“There may be times in your life when you may feel that it is a bit of a burden being a member of the church,” Romney said. “Some folks will think you’re not Christian, some may be insulted that you don’t drink, and others will think you’re trying to be better than them by not swearing. But I can affirm this: Your fellow members of the church will be a blessing to you that far more than compensates.”
Yes, the vague "s" word shows up. In a common online dictionary, "spirituality" is defined as:
... the quality or state of being concerned with religion or religious matters : the quality or state of being spiritual
I guess the "state" of Romney's attempts to be "spiritual" is an interesting topic, but that is not what this Post story is actually about.
Sure, I'd love to know how much he prays and studies The Book of Mormon. However, this is a story about the man's ACTIONS and how, in practical ways, he has lived out the doctrines of his faith. That's what is the material that's relevant to his public life.
So follow the money. Follow the hours in his pocket calendar. Look at the factual details of his life. Go for it.