Election day thoughts: New York Times visits Utah, includes crucial faith details in a tragic war story

The mayor of North Odgen, Utah, was a soldier on yet another deployment — returning to Afghanistan.

Brent Taylor was married and had a large family, although it was not unusually large by Utah standards. He was a Republican who was popular with many Democrats in his town.

No, this is not going to be a post about whether professionals in the mainstream media — The New York Times, in this case — did or did not replace the term “Mormon” with the full name of that religious institution, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, in a major story.

No, I want to say that the journalists behind this Times story made a sincere attempt to grasp the ties that bind in the piece that ran with this headline: “Brent Taylor, Utah Mayor Killed in Afghanistan, Was on 4th Deployment.”

I had some doubts, at first, when the faith element did not show up in the overture:

NORTH OGDEN, Utah — The call had come again. Brent Taylor, the mayor of North Ogden and a major in the Utah National Guard, would be going to Afghanistan for his fourth deployment.

He told his constituents about it on Facebook in January, leaning into the camera to explain that he had been called to serve his country “whenever and however I can” and that he would be gone for a year, as part of a team helping to train an Afghan Army commando battalion. “Service is really what leadership is all about,” he told them.

He said goodbye to his wife, Jennie, and their seven children, and turned over his municipal duties to his friend Brent Chugg. “You need to keep safe,” Mr. Chugg told him. “I will,” Major Taylor replied.

He did not make it home.

However, the faith details emerged — I think this was the right call — when the story shifted into details about family and community. I also think it was appropriate, as a radically divided nation heads into midterm elections, for the Times team to include some of this painful political atmosphere (without mentioning You Know Who). In my experience (including two recent invitations to speak at religious-liberty events at Brigham Young University), many LDS leaders and laypeople are very unsettled by current trends in America’s political life.

But back to the head of the story — the mayor and his family, and its community.

His death hit particularly hard in Utah, where a widely shared Mormon faith binds many of its three million residents in a way that is rare for the modern era. On Saturday, when Mr. Chugg arrived at the home of Jennie Taylor, they embraced and she began to sob.

“We are overwhelmed with heartache, but not regret,” Ms. Taylor’s sister, Kristy Pack, said on Sunday, standing outside the modest brick house. Even though Major Taylor died in a suspected insider attack, Ms. Pack said, “in our view there is not a whole lot of room for anger.”

Jared Pack visited a memorial to Major Taylor, his brother-in-law, in North Ogden on Sunday. Ms. Taylor now faces the task of raising the couple’s children: Megan, 13; Lincoln, 11; Alex, 9; Jacob 7; Ellie, 5; Jonathan, 2; and Caroline, 11 months.

It is possible that some Latter-day Saints may see minor errors in the terms used in this story.

For example, local LDS congregations are called wards and the buildings are “meeting houses.” However, when I have been in Utah, I have heard people call the individual buildings “churches” and I am sure that this is what reporters heard.

The bottom line: It’s hard to pick up all of the faith details when a reporter or two is dropped into a unique and complex culture. What we see in this next passage is a sincere attempt to capture mood in a unique community.

North Ogden is a middle-class suburb of about 19,000 people north of Salt Lake City at the foot of the Wasatch Range. On Sunday, residents rose at dawn to carry American flags on towering poles through the foggy streets, driving them into the cold ground along the road to City Hall.

Then they dispersed to the many churches in the town, where they bowed their heads as their leaders called on “brothers and sisters” to pray for Brother Taylor and his family. It happened to be a Fast Sunday, when Mormons skip meals and donate food to the hungry. At one service, somber boys in crisp white shirts circled the pews with the sacrament.

Would it have added depth to say the “sacrament” is bread and water and that there are fine points of LDS theology linked to that? Maybe. Maybe not. What I noticed was the “Fast Sunday” context — which is both appropriate and highly moving.

Here is how the story ends.

If you are heading to the polls today, think about this final passage as you vote. If, like me, you’ve already voted, then read this passage once or twice during the day when you see fired-up politicos on left and right say things on cable news that make your mad and sad at the same time.

Rather than disappear into a war zone, Major Taylor kept up a steady stream of Facebook posts while he was deployed, connecting his community to a conflict that is off the radar of many Americans. In what turned out to be his final public post, on Oct. 28, he tapped out a message about the recent Afghan election.

“It was beautiful to see over 4 million Afghan men and women brave threats and deadly attacks to vote in Afghanistan’s first parliamentary elections in eight years,” he wrote. “Many American, NATO allies, and Afghan troops have died to make moments like this possible.”

Then he turned to his own country.

“As the USA gets ready to vote in our own election next week, I hope everyone back home exercises their precious right to vote,” he wrote. “And that whether the Republicans or the Democrats win, that we all remember that we have far more as Americans that unites us than divides us.”

He concluded: “God Bless America. 🇺🇲️👊🏻”

Pass it on.

FIRST IMAGE: From Facebook account of Brent Taylor and, thus, various media outlets.

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