Scrutiny and opportunity

smootWe cover Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney so much because so much of the mainstream coverage of him delves into religion. Many stories about Romney, a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, mention his ties to his church. Other stories obsess over how voters of varying religions will react to a Romney candidacy for president.

And yet I haven’t seen any stories that ask the questions veteran religion reporter Peggy Fletcher Stack asks in The Salt Lake Tribune. She looks at how a Romney candidacy would affect the Mormon church. There has been so much focus on evangelicals and not enough on Mormons.

It’s a nice and lengthy story that includes many perspectives. Some folks think the church will benefit from the increased scrutiny, some don’t. She looks at how the Mormon church handles public relations during times of increased scrutiny and what previous Mormon politicos have had to deal with:

In the past dozen years or so, LDS officials have worked overtime to send the message that Mormons are Christians and they don’t worship founder Joseph Smith. They enlarged the words “Jesus Christ” on the church’s logo and increased the number of times Christ is mentioned in speeches and magazine articles.

Hinckley has also downplayed the more unusual elements of the faith. He has dismissed the pre-1978 ban on blacks becoming priests and the practice of polygamy, which ended officially in 1890, as “in the past.” He has written inspirational books without using any Mormon language. He welcomed the world to Utah for the 2002 Winter Olympics.

All of these efforts may help Romney, who could hardly look more All-American. His answer to questions about underwear could be an ad he once ran that showed him bare-chested on a beach.

“If you listen to Mitt and [President Hinckley] long enough,” says [Ron] Scott [a journalist], “you might conclude that Mormons are really just Episcopalians who wear funny underwear.”

But some members are wary that in an effort to explain the LDS faith to a critical audience, officials may end up watering it down.

“Downplaying temple garments? What else do we want to demystify and de-weird for the sake of gains in popular opinion?” asks Steve Evans, a Seattle attorney who helps run the Mormon blog “I’m all in favor of clarifying misconceptions, but eventually I am worried that we lose something vital.”

That’s a long excerpt, I know. But that section flows together so well. Fletcher Stack has covered Mormons, and other religious adherents in Utah, for the Tribune since 1991. She edited and published Sunstone, an intellectual Mormon journal. Her experience and knowledge show.

Fletcher Stack deftly handles contentious issues and provides some much-needed perspective for Romney coverage. In particular, I like the way she weaves in some of the conflicted feelings people in the church have without overdramatizing it.

Note: if you would like to discuss Fletcher Stack’s article or other related coverage, please comment below. However, this comment thread should not include people who want to discuss Mormonism itself. This is not the blog to engage in theological disputes.

Print Friendly

  • Tracy Hall Jr.

    I second Mollie’s endorsement of the piece by Peggy Fletcher Stack. I have always found Stack’s reporting about my religion to be carefully-researched and fair-minded.

  • murphy

    How Romney’s run affects his church will depend somewhat on how his run is received.

    If he campaign becomes opposed by any organized religious faction, that could dramatically increase the publicity about his church. It would not be pretty for anyone, but the people with the real mud on their faces would be his accusers who the left would accuse of theocracy. Also, this could only hurt the GOP, as >90% of mormon voters currently pull for republicans.

    If he is hailed by the religious right as “just another one of the gang” despite theological differences, this will be far less of a story with the media.

    The big shots on the religious right already recognize this, and you could hear it in their rhetoric even before the 2006 elections. Folks like Chuck Colson and Frank Page voice concern for Romney’s soul, and celebrate his politics.

  • Aaron Shafovaloff

    Of those who favor the idea of a Mormon president, there seem to be three approaches to dealing with Romney’s religion:

    1. The Mitch Davis approach. Help evangelical Christians think that Mormons really do believe in the Bible, that they really are Christians, that they don’t worship Joseph Smith, and that they have absolutely nothing to do with polygamy. In other words, make Mormons look like normal Christians so that Christians embrace a Mormon candidate with open arms. This is not much different from the general, misleading Mormon approach to mainstreaming. It’s a big reason I started

    2. The Hugh Hewitt approach. Be quiet and uncritical over the issue of Mormon theology, lest Christians have to face the same standard of scrutiny from secular absolutists.

    3. The John F. Kennedy approach. Be sufficiently open and honest about Mormon theology so that the campaign can move on from the annoying religion issue. Alleviate concerns that Mormon religious authorities or distinctive Mormon doctrine will play a key role in Romney’s politics.

  • Jason Pitzl-Waters

    We have seem articles on how Romney’s run might play with evangelicals, and now how his run might affect the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but I would like to see more analysis on how his religion would play out depending on who he is running against both in the Republican primaries and in the race for the oval office. How much will his religion matter if it comes down to him and McCain? Will McCain try to “out-Christian” him with a run to the evangelical vote?

    What about a contest between Romney and Obama. Would evangelicals prefer a liberal Christian to a Mormon? Would religion even be an major issue if it is a run between Romney and Clinton?

  • Copedi

    Ms. Stack generally does a good job of covering LDS issues, and this was no exception. As an LDS Democrat, I was pleased to see her to discuss the reaction of those us in my camp, who generally respect Romney as a person but find some of his positions baffling at best (such as his apparent endrosement of Bush’s torture policies).

    One thing Stack didn’t get into in this story, except perhaps by implication, is that there is significant political diversity within the church. True, Republicans are in the majority (and more than a majority in Utah and Idaho), but there are plenty of Democrats too (especially, from what I’ve observed, among women with advanced degrees). You can even find some Greens if you look hard enough.

    It’ll be interesting to see how well the press can avoid stereotyping us if the church becomes a major issue in covering the campaign. That fact that the incoming Senate majority leader is LDS doesn’t hurt.

  • imnojudge

    Are we trying to make an issue out of what should be a non-issue? There are already plenty of LDS people serving in Gov’t today. I don’t know but I would guess percentage wise at least as many or maybe even more than active participants in other religions. I don’t think the LDS Church or the country has sufferd because of it. Latter-Day Saints are law abiding Constitution supporting folks and their religion isn’t really as weird as one who approaches it with an open mind and a pure heart would discover.

    It would be nice to really get past a person’s religion and his politics. Especially when you are dealing with someone who understands, loves and tries to live by Christ’s teachings as much as Romney.

    If you want to learn a little bit about Mormon’s watch PBS 9:00 tonite. There will be a hour long historically and factually accurate portrayal of part of their fascinating history.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    I like imnojudges’ comment: “Latter-Day Saints are law-abiding, CONSTITUTION SUPPORTING folks.”
    As a Catholic- former JFK supporter- from Romney’s Mass. I have been disgusted by so much of the reto-bigotry being spewed at Romney for his Mormon Faith. The above statement should be all that anyone needs to know about Romney’s values and morals–aside form public issues currently in debate and dispute and where he stands on those individual issues.

  • Rathje

    We need to be careful about equating Mormonism with Utah. Increasingly, Mormonism is shifting outside of Utah and these folks are a different breed entirely.

    It’s a common practice in non-Utah Mormon circles to roll our eyes at “those wacky Utah Mormons.” Many of us affectionately suggest that being in a homogenously Mormon community for so long has somehow warped their brains a bit.

    We find earnest Utah Mormons discussions of whether “a Democrat can be a good Mormon” a little silly and many of us are still mystified that Bush had an unbelievable 80% approval rating in Utah as little as 5 months ago.

    Just keep in mind that we’re not all Utah Mormons.

  • Copedi

    I have to agree with Imnojudge a bit that perhaps the media are making too big a deal of this. The Senate has five LDS members and, while they average out to be fairly conservative, none of them have been out of the mainstream politically (and, in fact, most have taken the “liberal” position on stem cells). Even outside of Utah/Idaho, there are plenty of Mormons serving in all sorts of political positions, and it just hasn’t been that big of a deal. Some have done well, others have been corrupt, just like with Catholics, Baptists and Pentecostals.

    About Imnojudge’s comment that “their religion isn’t really as weird as one who approaches it with an open mind and a pure heart would discover,” I’d have to agree. Yes, we do have some unusual practices, although practices similar to nearly all of them (including semi-secret rituals, special garments, expectations of modesty, belief in chastity, and abstinence from alcohol/tobacco) can be found in “mainstream” religions as well. Once you accept the proposition that the Son of God could have been born of a virgin and was resurrected after his death — which must seem pretty strange to non-Christians — it isn’t that big of a stretch to believe the other things.

    Explaining the religion (and other religions of public interest) is an appropriate thing for the media to do. But I’m not sure how relevant it is with regard to Romney any more than it would be to examine, for example, the openly Christian backgrounds of other candidates such as Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and John Edwards. There’s a relevancy, to be sure, but perhaps it’s being overstated.

  • imnojudge

    Again….the fact there is no issue or concern over Harry Reid being the Senate majority leader tells me that this should be a non-issue. If everyone were all tied up in knots about his being a Mormon like they are Romney, then maybe this Romney/Mormon hysteria would make some sense to me. My state (not Utah or Idaho) has a Mormon Senator. Frankly, in the two terms he has served I have not heard one discussion of his religion. I would not support him for President. But he is no Mitt Romney either. I think all of this discussion of Romney and his religion is playing right into the Democrats hands. It is probably part of their agenda to stir it up and sit back and watch us react while they benefit.

    Surely folks you can see method in this madness. Why would we choose to support a proven leader, one of considerable accomplishment both in the political arena and in the private sector, who lives by exemplary Christian standards, is charming and charismatic and electable? Gee, I dunno. Definitely we should look for anything we can to undermine and destroy him. If religion works so be it. Then the path is clear for the much more self-absorbed, self-aggrandizing candidates out there who support issues that will lead America where?? Further down the path the current trend is taking us??

    I am a voter who doesn’t give up easy. I care about my country too much. I hope for the best for Gov. Romney.