Mormons

One of journalism's oddest assignments: 'Polygamy beat' at Salt Lake Tribune

One of journalism's oddest assignments: 'Polygamy beat' at Salt Lake Tribune

Mormon polygamists are notoriously tough to interview and photograph unless there’s some sort of prior trust relationship. That’s why I was amazed to see photos in the High Country News of an annual polygamist gathering in southeast Utah.

The photos by Shannon Mullane, which unfortunately are copyrighted and can’t be reproduced here, are really good. They are also very human; polygamists giving each other back rubs and hugs; going on rafting trips and having picnics. Access like that comes from hanging out with people and showing up year after year as they get to know you. (I had to do a lot of that while researching my book on Appalachian Pentecostal serpent handlers.)

What’s different about this piece is that the families portrayed here are dressed like normal people, not like the women wearing long, flowered dresses and braided hair swept up into puffy coifs who get shown on TV.

On a Saturday in July, the sun shone on the red-rock cliffs of southeastern Utah. Heidi Foster sat on the banks of the Colorado River, handing out fruit snacks to kids from polygamous families.

Foster, a plural wife from the suburbs of Salt Lake City, was among about 130 people on a river trip. Foster, who brought five of her own children, saw it as part of an important weekend where her kids could drop their guard and be themselves. “If someone asks, ‘How many moms do you have?’ you can tell them,” Foster said.

The rafting was one of the highlights of the annual Rock Rally, a five-day polygamous jamboree at Rockland Ranch, a polygamous community about 40 minutes south of Moab. The rally included hiking, zip-lining, rafting and a dance with a country music band from a polygamous community on the Utah-Arizona line.

I looked at the byline, did some digging and realized that the writer, Nate Carlisle, has something called the polygamy beat with the Salt Lake Tribune. Never knew there was such an animal, but the Tribune has had the beat for years. Carlisle took it on in 2006.

It’s a very complex assignment with the need for deep sources.

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Concerning that 'prominent' 'Mormon' 'bishop' peeping around at a ladies dressing room

Concerning that 'prominent' 'Mormon' 'bishop' peeping around at a ladies dressing room

Take, for example, the word “bishop.” What does this term mean in (a) the Church of Rome, (b) the United Methodist Church, (c) the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, (d) various Pentecostal denominations and (e) the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (formerly known to newsroom pros as the “Mormons.”)

While we’re at it, what does “evangelical” mean in the title of the ELCA, one of America’s most doctrinally progressive-liberal flocks?

Words matter. So you just knew we were in for a rough ride, journalistically speaking, when headlines like this one began to sprout online: “Peeping Tom in Nashville Store Turns Out to Be High-Ranking Mormon Leader.” Things got really rough when local-TV news kicked in.

Now, I realize that this particular headline ran at a Patheos advocacy site called — Friendly Atheist. But this online post did combine lots of the issues and stumbles one could find elsewhere. Let us attend:

It’s bad enough that a man in an H&M retail store inside the Opry Mills shopping center in Nashville, Tennessee was caught spying on a woman whom he led into a dressing room (apparently acting like a sales rep).

It’s even worse that the man’s wife attempted to stop the woman from calling police.

But the kicker? The man in question, Stephen Murdock, is a Mormon bishop.

Combine the present-tense reference to this man bing a bishop with the phrase “High-Ranking Mormon Leader” and it would appear that a member of the church’s national hierarchy had fallen.

Here is how The New York Post summed up the crucial information about Murdock’s standing:

A high-ranking member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was busted taking photos of a woman in a store’s dressing room, according to police and church officials.

Steven Murdock, 55, a Mormon high councilor and one-time bishop, encouraged a woman to use an empty changing stall at an H&M in a Nashville mall, where she then saw a phone camera pointed at her, according to an arrest affidavit obtained by the Nashville Tennessean.

Like I said, religion-news can get complicated.

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Headline news: Americans’ cup of religious knowledge appears to be half empty

Headline news: Americans’ cup of religious knowledge appears to be half empty

Are old-school newswriters just too pessimistic by nature?

The Religion Guy admits he sees a cup that’s half empty, rather than half full, in pondering a new survey of Americans’ factual knowledge about religions conducted by the ubiquitous Pew Research Center.

Here’s one of the 32 multiple choice questions Pew posed to 10,971 adults in February: “According to the Gospels, who delivered the Sermon on the Mount?” A paper-thin majority (51 percent) correctly chose Jesus — not John, Paul or Peter.

Folks, this is the most celebrated religious discourse in human history. A slightly more promising 56 percent knew that Jesus grew up in Nazareth, not Bethlehem, Jericho or Jerusalem.

Less surprising, yet no less troubling given America’s increasingly diverse culture, only 60 percent knew that Islam observes the month of Ramadan (not Buddhism, Hinduism or Judaism), while 42 percent were aware that Sikhs wear turbans and small daggers (not Muslims, Hindus or Buddhists). More surprising, only 24 percent could identify Jews’ Rosh Hashana (New Year).

A generation ago, The Guy’s typical upstate New York hometown had roughly equal numbers of Protestants and Catholics, one synagogue and a couple Eastern Orthodox churches, with most residents identified with one faith or another. In that monocultural environment, most students, The Guy included, would have flunked on Buddhism or Hinduism. But it’s hard to imagine classmates wouldn’t know who led Israel’s biblical Exodus from Egypt (missed by 21 percent of Pew respondents) or what Easter celebrates (missed by 19 percent). Something happened.

Fact number one for the media to consider: American adults on average got less than half the answers right, 14.2 out of the 32, (Pew ran a similar survey in 2010, but the questions weren’t comparable so there’s no trend line.)

Religion News Service columnist Mark Silk took Pew’s online test of sample questions and candidly admitted he missed the one about Buddhism’s Four Noble Truths. He then made the really important point here, reaffirming Stephen Prothero’s 2008 book “Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know -- And Doesn't.”

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Why did Latterday-day Saints change brands? That news story (oh no) may be linked to doctrine

Why did Latterday-day Saints change brands? That news story (oh no) may be linked to doctrine

In the months since the leader of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints announced the attempt to tone down use of the word “Mormon,” I have heard two questions over and over from people outside the Latter-day Saint fold.

Yes, that sentence was somewhat long and awkward, for obvious reasons.

Question No. 1: What are they going to call The Choir.

Question No. 2: Why did Latter-day Saints leaders take this step, at this moment in time, to change their brand?

If you are interested in that first question, a long, long feature story in The New York Times — “ ‘Mormon’ No More: Faithful Reflect on Church’s Move to Scrap a Moniker” — has a fabulous anecdote that shows up at the very end. Here we go:

For many Latter-day Saints, the most important cue came from the church’s iconic musical organization, known since 1929 as the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. The group was on tour in Los Angeles last year, singing in Disney Hall, when a bishop asked choir leaders to begin thinking about new names.

At first many performers felt “a little uptight” about the idea, said the group’s president, Ron Jarrett. … They mulled options: the Tabernacle Choir in Salt Lake City, the Tabernacle Choir in Utah, the Tabernacle Choir of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and finally landed on the Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square.

Still, the group had to manage a swath of legal issues, like how to protect copyrights and recording labels all made under the former name. Products and recordings made before 2019 will maintain the previous legal name, but new ones will not.

“For me, it has been an opportunity to really evaluate who we are and what we stand for,” Mr. Jarrett said. “I was able to say, ‘I will follow a living prophet, and our music will remain the same.’”

The singers have retired their catchy nickname, the MoTabs. They are trying out a new one, Mr. Jarrett said: the TCats, or TabCats.

I think legions of headline writers would embrace that kind of short, catchy, option, should the church’s leaders come up with an unofficial official nickname. After all, you may recall that use of the “LDS” brand was also discouraged, along with the big change in the status of “Mormon.” The Times story notes the practical implications online:

The church’s longtime website, LDS.org, now redirects to ChurchofJesusChrist.org, and Mormon.org will soon switch over, too. In May, the church stopped posting on its @MormonChannel Instagram feed and encouraged followers to move to @ChurchofJesusChrist instead.

OK, but why did this change happen?

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Trends and realities in religion news: Candid words from Emma Green of The Atlantic

Trends and realities in religion news: Candid words from Emma Green of The Atlantic

I have just returned to East Tennessee from a short, but fascinating, trip to New York City to take part in a conference called “What’s Next for Religious Freedom.” It was sponsored by Yeshiva University and the International Center for Law and Religion Studies at Brigham Young University.

The event was recorded and I hope, eventually, to update this post with URLs for the various sessions. GetReligion readers can also check YouTube in a week or so.

The opening session was held at Shearith Israel Synagogue on the upper West Side, which is the oldest Jewish congregation in America in continuous existence (founded in 1654). The topic: “The Media and Religion: Trends and Challenges.” This very lively session was chaired by the rabbi and scholar Meir Soloveichik, the leader of  Congregation Shearith Israel and director of the Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought at Yeshiva University.

The panel?

* Emma Green, religion writer at The Atlantic.

* Sohrab Ahmari, op-ed editor at The New York Post and contributing editor at The Catholic Herald.

* John Podhoretz, editor and columnist at Commentary Magazine.

* Terry Mattingly, as in me.

This is the second summer in a row that I have been on a panel of this kind with Green and, as always, it was great to hear her candid thoughts. She’s a rising force in this field, working at a news and commentary magazine and website that is clearly trying to give religion the attention that it deserves.

Getting to hear from her again reminded me that I have meant to post the link to a recent World dialogue — “Getting the big story” — between Green and journalism historian Marvin Olasky, who for several decades has been the editor of that magazine. This conversation took place at Patrick Henry College outside Washington, D.C. Here’s the full video:

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Digging into the complexities of religion and abortion — and how politics influences views

Digging into the complexities of religion and abortion — and how politics influences views

“Everything you think you know about religion and abortion is wrong.”

Wait, what!?

That’s the compelling way that Kelsey Dallas, national religion reporter for the Deseret News in Salt Lake City, leads into an in-depth piece published today.

It’s certainly a timely subject, as regular GetReligion readers know. Just last week, we commented on the lack of religion in many of the initial stories on Alabama’s new law banning abortion in almost all cases. (Some later stories delved deeper into the God angle.)

Here’s what I always appreciate about Dallas: Her stories contain a nice mixture of expert analysis and helpful data. That’s certainly the case with her latest piece.

After grabbing the reader’s attention with that “Everything you think you know about religion and abortion is wrong” lede, Dallas clarifies the statement just a bit before moving into the meat of her material:

Well, maybe not wrong. But almost certainly incomplete, according to experts on religion and politics.

Religious beliefs do influence abortion views, but so do other factors.

Many faith leaders do oppose abortion rights, but their views don't tell you everything about the people in their pews.

Conservative lawmakers do often credit God with inspiring new regulations, but they're also pressured by their party to pass such laws.

In general, religion's role in the contemporary abortion debate is more complicated than it may, at first, appear.

"It's not that religion is absent from the debate," said Daniel Williams, a history professor at the University of West Georgia. It's that the debate is also "very much partisan and political."

Among the fascinating context offered by the Deseret News is this:

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Surprise! New York Times profiles Paul Huntsman, owner of Salt Lake Tribune, and religion is key

Surprise! New York Times profiles Paul Huntsman, owner of Salt Lake Tribune, and religion is key

Today’s Daily Religion Headlines email from the Pew Research Center features abortion stories from the New York Times and The Associated Press.

There’s a Washington Post story on the House passing a bill to ban discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, a Chicago Tribune story on police boosting their presence at Jewish schools and synagogues after Molotov cocktails were found and a Dallas Morning News story on parishioner reactions to authorities’ recent raid of Dallas Catholic Diocese offices as part of a sexual abuse investigation.

And there are a handful of other headlines with rather obvious religious angles.

But then there’s this one:

Can Paul Huntsman save The Salt Lake Tribune?

Wait, what!? Why exactly is that a religion story?

Well, first of all, Salt Lake City is in Utah. Isn’t every story there a religion story? (I kid. I kid. Mostly.)

But seriously, this is a story that couldn’t be told — or at least couldn’t be told well — without recognizing the crucial religion angle.

Give the New York Times credit for hitting that angle immediately:

SALT LAKE CITY — Life was tranquil for Paul Huntsman, a scion of a rich and powerful Utah family, before he got into the news business.

He spent his workdays managing much of the Huntsman family’s considerable portfolio at the Huntsman building on Huntsman Way. Sundays meant services at a Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints chapel with his wife, Cheryl Wirthlin Huntsman, and their eight children. There were also skiing excursions to Deer Valley and hiking trips to Snowbird, and the parents were regulars at their children’s ballet performances, cheerleading banquets and lacrosse games.

Then Mr. Huntsman, a son of the billionaire industrialist Jon M. Huntsman Sr., bought The Salt Lake Tribune.

The news peg for the story is Huntsman’s effort to save the Tribune by turning it into a nonprofit entity. I won’t attempt to summarize all those details but will instead urge you to read the Times’ story. On social media, I noticed both positive and negative appraisals of the piece from insiders.

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A string of teen suicides in Utah — might town's Mormon influence offer relevant context?

A string of teen suicides in Utah — might town's Mormon influence offer relevant context?

Certainly, not every national story out of Utah has to include mention of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

But given the LDS church’s strong influence in the Beehive State, that faith connection is highly relevant in many cases.

Take the Wall Street Journal’s recent front-page on a string of teen suicides in Herriman, Utah.

Based on the Journal’s powerful lede, it’s not immediately clear whether religion is a crucial factor — or a factor at all:

HERRIMAN, Utah — Eight months to the day after his only son, Chandler, killed himself, Kurt Voutaz was in his kitchen eating lunch.

He and his wife, Catherine, had long since ripped the blood-soaked carpet out of Chandler's bedroom and cleaned the walls and ceiling. It was warm for February, and they had taken the snow tires off the car. They were hoping winter was over.

Suddenly, a police car sped across a footpath in the park behind their house. A couple of teenagers were standing nearby, shouting.

Mr. Voutaz stepped outside to see what was going on. He quickly wished he hadn't. Just a few yards from his house, a body was lying on the ground. It was Chandler's friend, Cooper Nagy. Like Chandler, he had shot himself.

Cooper was the fourth high-school student from Herriman to die by suicide since Chandler's death in June of 2017. Two more would kill themselves by May of 2018, bringing the total to six in less than a year, plus at least one recent graduate.

Keep reading, and the story provides the nut graf — noting that the nation’s suicide rate is rising and that “suicide clusters” involving multiple deaths and almost always adolescents hit roughly five U.S. communities per year.

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Salt Lake Tribune has best take when covering LDS shift on status of gay members' children

Salt Lake Tribune has best take when covering LDS shift on status of gay members' children

Well, that was weird.

Just over three years after the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints announced its policy of refusing to baptize children of gay church members until said children are 18, the church’s leaders reversed themselves.

Left hanging amidst all the news coverage yesterday was an answer to why the church leaders changed course so quickly. The big question: Was this a matter of doctrine or changing political realities?

The Deseret News, which is as close as one can get to an official voice of the church, said the following:

SALT LAKE CITY — Children of parents who identify themselves as lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender may now be blessed as infants and later baptized as members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, according to updates announced Thursday to November 2015 church policies intended at the time to maintain family harmony but perceived as painful by some supporters of the LGBT community.

The church also will update its handbook of instructions for leaders to remove the label of apostasy for homosexual behavior that was applied beginning in November 2015, said President Dallin H. Oaks, first counselor in the First Presidency, who announced the changes on behalf of the First Presidency on Thursday morning during the leadership session of the church’s 189th Annual General Conference…

In a news release, the First Presidency said the changes were the result of extended counseling with the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and "fervent, united prayer to understand the will of the Lord on these matters."

The article added that the switch was a change in church policies, not in church doctrine, but then added that “current revelation overtakes past teachings.”

So, maybe someone had a revelation about this? You see, “revelation” is not a word typically associated with policy decisions. That’s a doctrine word.

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