The other day, I posted a piece that underlined a point that I have made several times during this long and depressing season of political/religious news. That headline: "Hey, Washington Post political scribes: So religion will have zero impact in GOP civil war?"
In that post, I argued (once again) that the political desk of The Washington Post just doesn't seem to get religion -- especially when it comes the role of evangelical Protestants, Mormons, traditional Catholics and others in the #NeverTrump #NeverHillary phenomenon. That's an important point to ponder as we prepare for the GOP wars that are ahead.
Some folks (including a former student who now works at NPR) were concerned that, while I said my target was the political desk, I had not done enough to note that other Post reporters (think religion-beat specialists) had done lots of coverage on other election-year religion angles, especially developments among evangelicals.
So let's stress that by making a similar point -- looking at two Post stories focusing on developments in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Can you spot the story by a religion-beat specialist?
The first story ran under this headline: "‘Mormon and Gay’? The church’s new message is that you can be both." It focuses on the content of an official LDS website with that title -- Mormon and Gay. As you would expect, the website supports the church's teachings on marriage and sex. Thus, the bitter debates about those teachings continue. The Post notes:
You can be gay while being Mormon, the new website says -- as long as you don’t have gay sex.
“They’re loved. They’re supported. They’re part of the church,” said L. Whitney Clayton, who serves on the Presidency of the Seventy, making him one of the most powerful leaders in the Mormon Church. “We want them to feel happy and included in the kingdom of God.”
To that end, the church released its glossy new website Tuesday, filled with high-production-value videos of gay and lesbian people explaining how they manage to stay Mormon and find fulfillment without entering same-sex relationships.
But to advocates for LGBT inclusion, the new website’s words of welcome fall far short of sufficient. Welcoming gay people without welcoming gay relationships, they say, is no true welcome at all. And this website does not introduce any change to the strict position of the church, which last year declared that anyone in a same-sex relationship is an apostate, and their children cannot be baptized unless they are over 18 and have renounced their parents’ relationship and moved out of their house.
Obviously, this story needs to feature lots of material from those who want the church to change its doctrines on sex outside of marriage and the nature of marriage itself. This news report, as you would expect, handles that task quite admirably.
However, anyone who knows a thing or two about Mormonism knows that its teachings on family and marriage (please click here) are, quite literally, at the center of its theology -- even when it comes eternal life and the future of God's creation. So, does this Post story do anything to cover that side of the debate, to show why Mormon leaders link "Celestial Marriage" and other church teachings on sexuality?
The answer to that question is, sadly, not all that surprising: Report on WHAT?
Once again, we have a debate with only one side talking.
Now, to be clear, the story does include some material in which Mormons defend the existence of the website itself. But the theology behind it? A defense of the belief that sex outside of marriage is sin? #Nope
As you would expect, there are also strong opinions about whether this website is a positive development for LGBTQ Mormons. A key figure is John Dehlin, founder of the independent Mormon Stories podcast. As you would expect, Dehlin is critical of the pleasant, even inspiring, stories featured in the official Mormon and Gay site.
... To Dehlin, those examples are misleading. “They’re parading around dramatic exceptions, at the expense of the vast majority who will find those lifestyles to be toxic,” he said.
As part of research for his PhD, Dehlin said, he helped conduct a survey of 1,612 lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people who were currently or formerly Mormon. His team of researchers found that two-thirds had left the Mormon Church. Those who remained in the church -- either entering heterosexual marriages despite their homosexuality or remaining celibate -- reported far higher levels of depression and lower quality of life and self-esteem than those who left the church.
Once again let me stress: This is crucial material and an essential part of this story.
However, it would appear that Dehlin is an activist on one side of this heated debate. So, is there material -- research even -- representing the views of people on the other side of that debate?
In other words: Have LDS leaders commissioned any research on topics related to LGBTQ people who are following church teachings, either by living in celibacy or in traditional marriages? Are there professors who have made this a key element of their academic work? Does the church hierarchy have a department dedicated to these topics? What about the Mormons who produced the website or whose stories are featured there?
Once again, it appears that we have another crucial debate -- with one side.
Now, what about that other Post story focusing on a high-profile Mormon issue? The headline this time: "Why Donald Trump could lose red Utah: Mormon America has found another candidate." Obviously, this story focuses on independent candidate Evan McMullin, a Mormon, who is a former CIA officer and a specialist in counterterrorism work.
As you would expect, this feature from the religion desk -- a mixture of new reporting and aggregation from other news sources -- covers crucial political territory. I thought this paragraph was, from a GOP point of view, especially devastating:
Mormons, who make up 1.6 percent of the U.S. population, account for about 60 percent in Utah. When Mitt Romney, a Mormon, was running for president in 2012, more than 60 percent of LDS members identified as Republicans; now 48 percent say the same, according to a Pew Research Center survey.
But then there is this lengthy passage that underlines some of the personal, and theological, issues behind this potentially historic candidacy (if McMullin is able to win a state's electoral votes):
Families and marriage are upheld as very important in Mormon communities, and many Mormons note how unusual it is that McMullin, 40, is not married. Some have joked that McMullin’s presidential bid is an elaborate plan to find a wife.
It’s unclear from McMullin’s speeches whether his faith was a driving motivation for his run for office. Some Mormons believe in a “White Horse Prophecy,” a saying from Joseph Smith Jr., the founder of Mormonism, that some interpret to mean that when the Constitution is imperiled, a Mormon will rescue the nation. McMullin’s campaign said he was unavailable for an interview about his faith. ...
McMullin aligns with the GOP on most issues, including opposing taxpayer funds for abortion, but he diverges on some issues. He believes human activity contributes to climate change, according to the Guardian, and sees the environment and racism as issues “where the Republican Party is stuck in the past … making it unable to lead the country forward.”
... Although McMullin, whose mother is now married to a woman, personally defines marriage as between a man and a woman, he has said he believes that the Supreme Court’s ruling on same-sex marriage means conservatives should move on from the issue. During his campaign, McMullin has also focused on poverty, criminal justice reform, slavery and sex trafficking and racial reconciliation. ...
While he worked in Congress, McMullin focused heavily on the atrocities in Syria. McMullin has published Facebook messages criticizing Trump’s policies, including his plan for a ban on Muslims coming into the country. Mormons are deeply sensitive to issues of religious freedom because of their history of being persecuted.
Now it is true that this second story (yes, it was written by former GetReligionista Sarah Pulliam Bailey) is a background piece, not an attempt to survey the views of those who are opposed to McMullin's bid, as well as those who support it. But I simply wanted to show that it is possible to weave theological material and questions into a story that also has essential political context.
So there you go.