Mormons, misconceptions and media myths

LDS JesusHere we go again. It’s time to take another look at mainstream coverage of the White House campaign of Mitt Romney.

In other words, the New York Times has spoken.

Let us attend.

Mr. Romney’s advisers acknowledged that popular misconceptions about Mormonism — as well as questions about whether Mormons are beholden to their church’s leaders on public policy — could give his opponents ammunition in the wide-open fight among Republicans to become the consensus candidate of social conservatives.

Mr. Romney, in an extended interview on the subject as he drove through South Carolina … expressed confidence that he could quell concerns about his faith, pointing to his own experience winning in Massachusetts. He said he shared with many Americans the bafflement over obsolete Mormon practices like polygamy — he described it as “bizarre” — and disputed the argument that his faith would require him to be loyal to his church before his country.

Once again, it seems that Romney’s problems are (1) the once-upon-a-time polygamy factor and (2) ignorant folks who have “misconceptions” about Mormon theology.

The problem, of course, is that many people do not have “misconceptions” about Mormon theology. Some people have deep convictions that clash with Mormon theology and, to one degree or another, their disagreements are affecting how they view the candidate. As one mainstream journalist put it in an email to me the other day:

In my experience, it’s often not “misconceptions” but correct perceptions motivating opposition to the LDS church. The idea that “as man is, God once was, as God is, man may become.” The rejection of scripture alone and of faith alone. The notion that God (and Mrs. God) have physical bodies and that God literally had sex with Mary to create Jesus.

… Does this mean evangelicals can’t vote for Romney? Of course not. Especially if he’s running against Hillary.

A word of warning to those about to click the Comment button: This is not a post about whether the Mormon doctrine of exaltation — with its concept that what man now is, the God of this creation once was — is right or wrong. The issue is whether the Times is right or wrong when it says that mere “misconceptions” about Mormon beliefs are at the heart of Romney’s struggles with some (repeat “some”) religious conservatives. There is no need for doctrinal warfare in the comments pages. Again.

Our goal here is to discuss the theological convictions of the Times, not Romney.

1962For all I know, Romney could pull a John Kennedy and make a brilliant speech tomorrow that stresses religious liberty and the right of all Americans to make up their minds about ultimate issues — while appealing to Republicans and independents to feel free to disagree with him theologically, but to back him politically. He could say that Americans enjoy a tradition of religious toleration (All religions are equal in the eyes of the state) but that no one should be coerced into believing that someone is a bigot if they do not embrace theological toleration (All religions are equal in the eyes of God).

There are sincere disagreements about the nature of God between Jews, Christians and Muslims. These disagreements are not “misconceptions.” There are sincere disagreements between traditional Christians in all kinds of pews and devout Mormons who — as is their right — identify themselves as Christians, but have unique beliefs about the nature of God, the nature of Jesus and the nature of the Holy Trinity. These disagreements are not “misconceptions.” It is inaccurate to say that they are.

Thus, I am happy to note that USA Today, in a new Jill Lawrence report on Romney and the faith issue, took a step in the right direction by interviewing some experts who are sympathetic to the Mormon community and its rights, yet who also know the locations of some of the doctrinal dividing lines that cannot be erased. Here is one key paragraph:

• Theology. Historian Jan Shipps, author of Mormonism: The Story of a New Religious Tradition, says Mormons hold beliefs that “people always find sort of strange.” Among them: People are on a journey toward godhood, the dead can be baptized, and God speaks to man today through living apostles and prophets, such as LDS president Gordon Hinckley. Mormons also believe the Book of Mormon is the word of God while the Bible is “the word of God as far as it is translated correctly.”

There, that wasn’t so hard, was it?

People may debate how to phrase some of the issues mentioned in that short list, but this story at least mentions some of the points of disagreement that exist out there in pews of all kinds.

Romney will not, I predict, commit apostasy and fling aside his Mormon convictions. He also doesn’t need to stand up and do a doctrinal seminar in which he details each and every point of disagreement — and there are many — between Mormonism and, oh, the Nicene Creed or the Westminster Catechism. But he does need to do a good speech defending religious tolerance and, when he gives that speech, let’s hope that reporters at the Times do not have misconceptions of their own about what he did or didn’t say.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Jeff Sharlet

    You make a good point about the use and abuse of “misconceptions,” Terry. That’s the press assumption — not just the NYT, but pretty much the whole deal — that religion is essentially personal, private, and not to be criticized. (That religion which the press will criticize, such as militant Islam, it will often excommunicate from the category of “religion”).

    But there is something particularly Mormon about this story, since A) I don’t think the Times would have wondered if there are voters who would refuse to vote for a Jew because of “misconceptions” (aka, anti-Semitism); B) I’m not sure if you’d be raising this story if it was about, say, Mike Huckabee, and the “misconceptions” of some liberals who see his religion as weird, angry, and intolerant.

    And on the matter of tolerance: Since when does tolerance mean the belief that all religions are equal before God? Seriously, am I missing something? That sounds like a Chuck Colson caricature of tolerance. Tolerance, as John Locke advocated it, had to do with agreeing not to kill those whom you just KNOW are wrong. That is, tolerance isn’t about namby-pamby harmony and everyone’s-all-the-same; tolerance, the basis for American democracy, is about everyone’s different, and a lot of us have sharp elbows, and let’s mix it up politically, not violently.

    What’s wrong with that? If the NYT understood tolerance, it wouldn’t be fretting about Romney and “misconceptions.”

  • tmatt


    In church-state studies, the line is drawn between these two kinds of tolerance. The US system is based on religious toleration, but has never pushed or mandated theological toleration. Thus, the old saying that we are supposed to be willing to die to defend the liberties of other Americans with whom we disagree, even if the disagreements are for eternity.

    Oh, and when the Times screws of misconceptions of Huckabee’s faith, I am sure we will discuss it here.

  • tmatt

    Oh, and you are missing something. I mean, you read my post and failed to notice BOTH concepts of tolerance. You wrote as if I had only included one.

  • evagrius

    If one reads the entire article, one will find that the NYT does lists some of what it considers to be “misperceptions”, essentially that Mormons still practice polygamy, that it is a cult, and that followers take orders from church leaders regarding political views.
    Those are misperceptions, in my opinion.
    The NYT did not list all of the nuances of Mormon theology. That would take the article far afield from its intention.
    What Romney has to deal with are precisely those misperceptions the NYT listed- is there still polygamy, is it really just a cult, and would he be obliged to follow the dictates of his Church’s leaders, ( the same question Kennedy had to face)?

  • Chris Bolinger

    Terry, you are highlighting the key word: “misconceptions”. That word came from Romney’s advisers, not the NY Times. The fact that the author didn’t challenge the word probably betrays the author’s ignorance. Can I bring up my trio again? :-)

    I have heard that, in politics, if you’re not on offense, then you’re on defense. Looks like Romney’s advisers are going on offense by using the term “misconceptions” to put theologically conservative Christians on the defensive. Some such Christians want politicians to (1) support their political and social views and (2) share their theological convictions. That’s asking a lot from today’s polticians!

  • Rathje

    God has physical sex with Mary?

    Where did the reporter pull that one from?

    I was born and raised in the Mormon church. Lived almost 20 years of my life in Utah – Mormon heartland (including my entire adolescence). Attended church almost every Sunday of my life. Served a two year mission at age 19. Served as a personal secretary for my Bishop for two years. I’ve taught religious classes on Sunday to toddlers, 6 year olds, 13 year olds and adults. I’m currently in the presidency for the adult men’s organization in our congregation. I’ve read the Book of Mormon and other Mormon scripture (including the Bible) over a dozen times formally. I’ve tuned in to every single General Conference (the venue where new doctrine is announced – if any) since age 8.

    And I’ve NEVER heard so much as a hint that God had physical sex with Mary. We take the Bible’s explanation that it had to do with the “Holy Spirit” and appears to have been some sort of supernatural event – just like most other Christians (who actually take the Bible seriously).

    Now, I’ll admit that I’m not as well-versed in outdated statements by long dead prophets and apostles as maybe I ought to be. So it’s possible some guy in the 1800s or the turn of the century suggested this. But I haven’t heard of him.

    I’m pretty sure “sex with Mary” is not a widely held belief in the Mormon faith.

  • Adam Greenwood

    “it’s often not “misconceptions” but correct perceptions motivating opposition to the LDS church. The idea that “as man is, God once was, as God is, man may become.” The rejection of scripture alone and of faith alone. The notion that God (and Mrs. God) have physical bodies and that God literally had sex with Mary to create Jesus.”

    Misconceptions is right. Each and every one of these beliefs has the status of a folk doctrine in the contemporary church (with the exception of God having a physical body). Most of them–like that thing about Mary sex–aren’t even very common. Would someone who “got religion” beat up a post-Vatican II Catholic for pre-Vatican II Catholicism? Would someone who “got religion” beat up a Catholic pol because of Medjugorg?

    What I get is that you personally don’t like Morm beliefs. Fine. Why this makes Romney or the Times mistaken is beyond me.

    P.S. I’m trying to be scrupulously fair here, so I’ll say that the second clause you cite, “as God is, man may become” is still part of Mormonism.

  • Jeff Sharlet

    Terry — I missed the distinction. Apologies.

    That said, can you explain a bit more? A google search doesn’t reveal anything helpful about the nuances of “theological tolerance,” as you’re using it. Which sounds more like “theological equivalence.” Why smear such a good word and concept with that shallow notion?

  • Nick Dupree

    In a story about Romney on NPR, I heard a top evangelical (was it Dobson?) say that Mormons aren’t Christians. To which I did a real double-take. HUH? They seem Christian to me (but I’m Jewish what do I know?)

    Could the press please clarify why evangelicals think Mormons aren’t Christian? TMatt only hinted at what the core issue may be; what is it really?

  • Tom Stanton

    Misconceptions is right. Each and every one of these beliefs has the status of a folk doctrine in the contemporary church (with the exception of God having a physical body)

    Mis-conceived, mis-informed, mis-construed – these come to same issue that has plagued religious discussions in the media as long as my 31 years have allowed me to read them.

    Should religious journalism limit itself to official doctrinal statements from a central theological authority? Or is there room for “pop theology” at the parish (ward, church, local) level? Who ought to be the authority for a journalist trying to write something meaningful about a religious entity?
    Seriously – it doesn’t matter what you email, say, or publish about religious groups. There will always be someone who’ll claim, “Well I’m _____, but I don’t believe _____, my pastor teaches _____ not _____, and I don’t know any thinking person who really believes that anymore.”

    Who gets to decide what is a folk-doctrine?

  • Paul Barnes

    Nick, it depends on how the person defines what a Christian is. Theologically, some may be able to argue that Mormons are not Christians.

    The Catholic Church does not consider Mormon baptize valid because of their views on the nature of the Trinity.

  • Martha

    Mmmm. On the one hand, I’d like to see Romney get hammered over what he did or did not do as Governor; that is, on his political record as an indication of what kind of a fist he’d make of the big job if he got it.

    On the other hand, I’m half-suspicious Romney would pull the usual guff about ‘I’m personally opposed to _______ but I certainly wouldn’t impose my beliefs on _________’ which is probably fair enough, except it comes off sounding like “I’d sell my granny for votes, principles? what are those?”

    I’d be happier if he came out with “Yeah, I’m a Mormon. So what? You wanna make something of it?” and then maybe the papers could get on with some real reporting such as what policies has he? I mean, I’ve heard up, down and sideways “Is America willing to elect a Mormon President?” but as for discussion of what he might actually *do* if ever he made it to the White House, he could be running on a platform of free milk shakes with every pair of new shoes bought before 6 p.m. on alternate Saturdays – but only if they’re maroon – for all I’ve heard to the contrary.

  • Rathje


    Pretty simple. We believe God has a physical perfected body and we believe the same of Jesus Christ. Mainline Christians often feel that this limits God since they cannot conceive of a God who is at once infinite and physically “in one place.” We also believe that God the Father, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Ghost, while all members of “the Godhead,” are distinct and separate beings. We interpret the scriptures in the Bible on oneness in the Godhead to refer solely to “oneness of purpose.”

    Furthermore, we believe that all humanity are “spirit sons and daughters” of God the Father. This includes Jesus Christ himself. This gives Christ the status of “our older brother.” Incidentally, we also believe that Lucifer is also our spirit brother.

    However, we see Christ as the ONLY one who is both spiritually and physically “begotten” of God. Maybe this is were the dubious notions about God having sex with Mary come from. But I’ve never heard anyone go there.

    This is a radically different interpretation of the New Testament than mainline Christianity. The mainliners feel that our take on God anthropomorphizes deity and doesn’t give Him proper respect. Mormons would disagree with that.

    We also believe that, as spirit sons and daughters of God, our divine destiny is to progress eternally, even as God progresses eternally. We take the injunction from Christ to become “as he is” quite literally.

    Furthermore, we believe that portions of the Bible’s original intent got lost in translation. We have additional books of scripture and not just the Bible.

    This makes our religion unique enough among religions that worship Christ (or through Christ if you prefer) that some suggest that we differ from 21st century Christianity almost as much as New Testament Christianity differed from Judaism at 5 AD.

    Personally, I don’t care if we get the coveted “Christian” label or not. We reverence Christ as deity. That’s enough for me.

  • evagrius

    I find this very very interesting in light of the recent “blogger” debacle regarding John Edwards concerning remarks about Mary.

    A little research on the Internet will provide information on the subject as far as Mormons are concerned;

    This is probably the most “objective” view on the subject.

    I’m not particularly interested or intrigued by Mormonism. Its theology doesn’t interest me.

    However, accuracy about other religions is necessary before one makes a statement about them.

    Poor Mary, she’s had to put up with a lot lately.

  • Rathje


    I don’t blame the Catholics really. Mormons don’t accept Catholic baptisms as valid either (or anyone else’s for that matter). So it’s only fair as far as I’m concerned.


    LDS doctrine evolves very slowly over time. If you stick to what is included in the Book of Mormon, you’re looking at the heart of Mormon belief. Slightly further afield, but still firmly “doctrinal” are the Pearl of Great Price and Doctrine and Covenants. These books are also held as scripture, but not everything in them is as emphasized as the Book of Mormon.

    Statements from Mormon prophets and apostles are trickier. We have a rule that the statements of living prophets trump the statements of dead ones. But this requires that you be well-versed in both the continuing statements of living prophets and familiar with all the statements of the dead ones. A heavy order for most scholars and theologians.

    Further complicating the picture is what Mormons call “prophetic voice.” Namely – was Brigham Young really speaking for God when he said that, or was he just shooting off his own opinion? It’s a delicate art figuring out which it is in some cases.

    Trying to define Mormon Doctrine in the essentials isn’t too difficult. It’s when you try to get comprehensive in all details that you start pulling your hair out.

  • tmatt

    A short answer — it’s Scripps column night — to many questions.

    The cult word: There are many meanings of that word. One theological definition hinges on the nature of God. So, you might say, Jews could consider Christians a cult due to the Trinitarian concept of God (a heresy).

    Thus, some Christians use the cult word with Mormons, due to the clashing doctrines on the nature of God, the nature of Jesus, the evolution to godhood of good Mormons, etc. Please Google “exaltation” on the GetReligion site and see all the previous posts and, especially, the threads featuring discussion of that doctrine by Mormons (some with different beliefs from each other).

    One of the Mormon12 disciples once told me that he thought it might be best to use the phrase “Mormon Christians” to describe themselves, since they are consider themselves Christians, yet know that the clash with Catholics, Orthodox, Anglicans, Methodists, Presbyterians, Baptists and everyone else on many key, creedal doctrines. They call Jesus “savior,” but there are important differences between the Jesus of their faith and the Jesus of ancient Christianity (as opposed to the newer Mormon reveliation).

    FINALLY, to the purpose of the post!

    The “misconceptions” language is in a paraphrase. We do not know whether the word is from Romney’s people or not. Even if it is, the Times endorsed that position without a balancing position from anyone else. The USA Today piece offered both sides of the argument.

  • tmatt

    On the physical sex with Mary question….

    If God has a physical body and so does the wife of God (a figure rarely discussed in public Mormon statements), what is the nature of their unions? Also, what is the relationship between the historical figure of Mary and the wife or wives of the God of this creation? Does anyone know?

  • Don Neuendorf

    Wow, this may work out unexpectedly well for Romney. If the press chases its tail over Mormon doctrine as much as we all are, nobody will pay much attention to his politics.

    In fact, Romney may have an easier time being an adherent of a religion that the MSM considers “quaint” or peculiar than if he were a faithful Roman Catholic!

  • Jeffrey Weiss

    Terry, here’s where you are missing the boat, sez I: If there is strong evidence that a significant number of American voters would cast their vote based on exaltation, or would if they knew about it, I’m not aware of it. (Plz note the weasel-word “significant” in that sentence.) Much of what most Americans know about LDS is either wrong or seems weird enough to be scary — as all unknowns are to many people. The job of journalism here goes in two directions: Explain LDS to non-Mormons. And hold Mitt’s feet to the fire and get him to explain public policy implications of his beliefs.
    As for whether LDS is Christian — I’ll dip my toe in that one. LSD theology is populated by familiar names. But they are very different “folks” than you’ll find in the Jewish or Christian scripture — different in nature and in personal history. Compare it to Islam. Mary appears in the Quran a lot more than she does in the NT, for instance. But is she the same Mary found in the NT? The role of continuing revelation is a major difference, too.

    But who gets to define what it is to be Christian? Ay, there’s the rub…1:-{)>

    So finally: That there are large differences is not a misconception. Whether there are large differences with important political or policy implications — which is where secular journalist should be focusing? We’ll see.
    And in an act of shameless self promotion, here’s the story I did last month addressing some of these very issues.

  • Rusty

    If God has a physical body and so does the wife of God (a figure rarely discussed in public Mormon statements), what is the nature of their unions?

    They are our heavenly parents. Any declaration beyond that is speculation (if they have sex, who does the cooking, who gets to drive the BMW, etc.). Our belief is that we are gods-in-embryo, that our relationships with our children are similar to His relationship with us (and what we learn from raising children helps us to become like Him). I think the reason we de-emphasize Heavenly Mother is because we know practically nothing about her.

  • Fr. Greg

    Terry, for more on “Heavenly Mother” see article on same in the “Encyclopedia of Mormonism”. It is published by McMillan, but virtually all the editors and contributors are connected with BYU. You may also be interested in reading about the Temple ceremonies. I ask again: is Romney temple-worthy? Is Reid? Since the LDS Church is almost exclusively lay run (or more accurately, all temple-worthy males are ordained to the “Melchizadek priesthood”), another relevant question: what positions have they held in the LDS Church?

    As a Christian priest in the more conventional sense, I am reluctant to put my political inclinations in print. However, while I would vote for Harry Reid, I will not vote for Romney. That may simply be partisan bias. However, taking that out of the equation (I voted for Allen Keyes in the Republican Primary in 2000, and this year, if the Democratic nomination looks like it is wrapped up, I may well vote in the GOP primary, for Brownback), I still would have concerns about Romney. First, there is his flip-flopping on the issues. Second, my perception is that he is more tied into the Mormon establishment in Utah and SE Idaho than is Reid, and I suspect that if he were elected President, we would see a “Mormon Mafia” in the White House. He apparently already has been using his Mormon connections in his fundraising efforts.

    Then there is this story from a TV station in southern Idaho:

    With this quote:

    “What I expect people to do is say, there’s differences between faiths, theology is different, but we don’t judge a candidate based on the theology of the religion they grew up in,’ said Romney.”

    A shot at Obama’s family connections with Islam, an attempt to distance himself from Mormonism, both, or neither?

  • evagrius

    Love the soft shoe routines so far. Great footwork. Hope no one slips on the shifting sands.

  • Will

    But what about the huge mass of self-styled-mainline “Christians” who know next to nothing about what are supposed to be their own doctrines, let alone the LDS’? The kind whose idea is that Jesus came to tell us to be nice to each other, and that this somehow frightened the establishment so much that they killed Him horribly for it?
    I would wager that if you gave a word association test to a random sample of subjects, nine out of ten, if not more, would answer “polygamy” to “Mormon” — and that most of the same group would be unable to tell eternal progression from justification by faith or the Pearl of Great Price from the Athanasian Creed.

    “That the Church believe Christ to be in any real sense God, or that the Eternal Word was supposed to be associated in any way with the work of Creation; that Christ was held to be at the same time Man in anyreal sense of the word; that the doctrine of the Trinity could be considered to have any relation to fact or any bearing on psychological truth; that the Church considered Pride to be sinful, or indeed took notice of any sin beyond the more disreputable sins of the flesh: — all these things were looked upon as astonishing and revolutionary novelties, imported into the Faith by the feverish imagination of a playwright.” — Dorothy Sayers on the reception of “The Zeal of Thy House”.

    if the people I grew up among are so full of “misconceptions” about “their” own religion, why would you expect them to have accurate ideas about someone else’s, especially if the press doesn’t “get” the importance of theology?

    As Screwtape said, it is a matter of “encouraging hatred between those who say ‘Mass’ and those who say ‘Holy Communion’, when none of them could explain the difference between, say, Hooker’s doctrines and those of Aquinas in terms that would hold water for five minutes.”

    As for the “cult” label, I find it impossible to even argue with those who still insist on pretending that the epithet has any denotational content.

  • Will

    The “sex with Mary” brouhouhas was hashed over years ago , in the glory days of the Compuserve Religion Forum. After being referred to a citation from the Journal of [Brigham Young's] Discourses, Toby Nixon (LDS Hayes executive and quondam Libertarian congressional candidate) conceded that it pointed to “penile penetration” as a possiblility.

    Also note that the JD is NOT scripture (and neither is the “King Follett Discourse”, which also keeps getting kicked around.)

  • Rathje

    Jeffrey and Will,

    I think it’s true that most mainstreet Americans haven’t got a clue what the real theological differences between mainline Christianity and Mormonism actually are.

    I would wager the ignorance is possibly more prevalent among mainline Christians than among Mormons simply because Mormons, as a minority with a history of horrible treatment in America, tend to have a bit of a persecution complex and tend to be more sensitive to these differences.

    But there’s certainly ignorance of the theological nuances to be had among the laity.

    But that’s not really the point. The clerical elites in mainline Christianity are often well aware of the differences. It is THEY who often give the laity their marching orders and present a packaged and prepared image of the Mormon faith to their followers.

    There’s a good reason for this. We Mormons are aggressively proselyting – not just heathens in Asia or wherever else – but believing, “saved” Christians. Mormonism holds that all religions are, to some degree or another, either apostate or misguided or simply unauthorized by God. Therefore the quest for converts is a part of the religion’s core premise and constitutes its lifeblood.

    Mainline ministers are understandably worried about this – especially when the Mormon faith seems to be gaining ground. They often feel it their duty, as a shepherd of the flock, to innoculate their members against the “barbarians at the gate.” Such innoculation can take a variety of forms, from boiled-down soundbites that may or may not capture the essence of Mormonism, to outright lies and hate speech.

    What journalists are missing, I think, is that this need to innoculate the membership against an aggressivly expanding religion does NOT necessarily translate into a political grudge against any Mormon who shows his or her face on Capitol Hill.

    Evangelical objectives vis a vis Mormonism are simply different in Church than they are in the voting booth.

    The New York Times and others are all waiting with baited breath for the Christian Right to show its true colors as a bunch of close-minded holy bigots. They think they’ve found the perfect lighting-rod with Romney.

    But so far, the Christian Right is disappointing them. The reaction from the right has been surprisingly muted. In fact, the worst of the attacks have actually come from the left.

    This is because the journalists don’t understand the religious objectives behind the ongoing grudge match between Mormons and Evangelicals. Objectives that are more about expanding and protecting (respectively) the base of believers than they are about political agendas.

    The left wing, by contrast, has much greater reason to fear the Mormons – because their differences with the LDS faith are not religious, but political.

    I’m going to go out on a limb here and make a prediction. Mormons and Evangelicals aren’t going to become friends any time soon. There won’t be any official reconcilliation in the foreseeable future. Rebukes and recriminations will continue to fly. Mormon parents in the deep South will continue to keep a low profile for fear their kids will be ostracized in the community.

    But the most violent backlash against “future President Romney” will come from the left, not the right. The Christian Right, quite frankly isn’t sure whether Romney is a political problem or not. But the Left is already pretty decided on the matter.

  • evagrius

    Yes. The soft shoe is definitely soft, sands shifting ever so slightly.

  • Martha

    Maybe Romney shouldn’t be so quick to disassociate himself from polygamy – he’d have a golden opportunity to gain the votes of the polyamorists out there (the next big struggle for sexual equality and liberation, now we have women’s and gay, I have been told) plus it would prove he’s not a hidebound conservative but is open to alternative life choices ;-)

    I agree with Don and Fr. Greg – all this hashing over the finer points of Mormon doctrine and what the great unwashed may or may not know regarding them lets Romney off the hook re: his politics – you know, the thing he’s engaged in as a career and the reason he’s running for office? The stuff the voters are supposed to be judging him on, not whether he is (1) a Mormon (2) a faithful one?

    “He apparently already has been using his Mormon connections in his fundraising efforts.”

    Well, I wouldn’t be too concerned about that. Every politician is going to use their connections to best advantage; if Mitt thinks he can soak wealthy Mormons to pay for his campaign, how is that different from Hilary mobilising women’s groups or Edwards appealing to the Baptists by playing on his ‘son of a deacon’ background?

  • Tim Graham

    Terry, you have a very good point on the difference between misconceptions and real conceptions.

    I suspect that religion questions will plague Romney worse now that he is a social conservative. As a social liberal, Romney could lull liberals into the comfort that his faith wouldn’t mess with their sexual convictions.

    As a social conservative, all the concerns about “theocracy” are going to bother liberals (I’m betting especially the idea that Romney might be swayed by Hinckley’s voice of God, for example.)

    For social conservatives, the Mormon theology is already a problem, and exactly as you describe. I’ve heard socially conservative friends of mine say they would support Giuliani over Romney because Romney’s faith makes him odd and unpredictable.

  • Str1977

    I am with Evagrius and others on this.

    The things mentioned in the NYT are indeed misconceptions, just as they were in case of JFK and the Catholic Church. (So I am not sure how quick the NYT would classify these as misconceptions in regard to the Catholic Church …)

    The paper dodged the theological issues, which might have something to do with its “all religion is equally true (i.e. equally false)” ideology, but also with the fact that it’s not actually relevant regarding any election. At least it should not be relevant.

    As far as the two notions of “tolerance” goes, it isn’t worded very clear in the article. However, tolerance is emphatically not this: it has nothing to do with equality in front of anyone. Tolerance
    is not to kill or harrass those with whom you disagree. One can have a state religion without becoming intolerant, even though in this case the state does not treat the different religions equally.

    The “God had sex with Mary” angle in regard to Mormonism is just the same as with Christianity, as both religions believe in the Virgin Birth. The difference is, that Mormons believe all humans to be first spirit beings conceived by God and born by his wife as spirits that are born as humans (through human parents) to obtain a body.


    Christians do not consider Mormons non-Christian because the Mormon view “limits” or “anthropomorphizes” the Deity (after all, we do believe that God became man) but because believing in three separate divine beings is not believing in one God but in three gods. And if these gods once were as man is now, it is actually not gods at all.

  • Dan Berger

    This is completely off-topic… but could we please learn the difference between “baited” and “bated” (without the “i”)?

    Everytime I hear of folks waiting “with baited breath” I have the image of someone who has just eaten a couple of cans of sardines, hanging around the ol’ fishin’ hole with his mouth open.

  • tmatt

    Terry, here’s where you are missing the boat, sez I: If there is strong evidence that a significant number of American voters would cast their vote based on exaltation, or would if they knew about it, I’m not aware of it.


    Sorry, Jeffrey, but the boat floats.

    If the conservative Christians — some, some, some of the voters — are located in South Carolina, then this is an issue.

    And if one is named James Dobson, it’s an issue.

    But my point remains — the clashed are not “misconceptions” and the polygamy issue is not the one that will hold up. That’s a straw man.

  • tmatt

    Another comment: Note that no one is commenting on the USA Today piece and the Shipps list. I think that is interesting.

    The key question for most traditional Christians are linked to the doctrine of God. When the political wars really rage, the left will start the theocracy riff.

  • Dave

    “I think the reason we de-emphasize Heavenly Mother is because we know practically nothing about her.”

    Rusty, the main reason is not because we don’t know much about her, it’s because she is so loved and holy that Father doesn’t want her name and calling dragged around in the mud as much as He and His Son are by the world.

  • Dave

    “God literally had sex with Mary to create Jesus”

    That is not part of our doctrine nor to be profess to know exactly how the baby Jesus was conceived other than what is said in the Bible.

  • Michael

    Note that no one is commenting on the USA Today piece and the Shipps list. I think that is interesting.

    Of course, in her lede, the writer also calls the problems “misconceptions” and never suggests they are anything more profound or deeper. As this series of posts suggests, one person’s theological difference is another person’s misconception.

    It actually raises an interesting question. If the target of the disagreement believes that differences are just misconceptions and prejudices, does that make it so? If the people with the disagreement believes the difference are profound, does it make it so? And how does a reporter parse out misconceptions and profound disagreements if no one can agree on what the problem is.

  • Michael

    messed up the tagging. Drats.

  • Chris Bolinger

    Michael, as a Marketing professional, a significant part of my job is positioning. Good positioning requires a good understanding of your prospective customers and their requirements, your product’s key differentiators, competitive product strengths and weaknesses, and competitive positioning. Successful politicians tend to have advisers that are adept at positioning. The press needs to recognize this reality and not take anything from a politician or a political adviser at face value.

  • Michael

    The press needs to recognize this reality and not take anything from a politician or a political adviser at face value.

    Oh trust me, as a journalist I realize I am constantly being spun. But it’s not just politicians who spin stories in a direction they want. Pretty much everyone who serves as a spokesman on an issue likely has an underlying motivation and metamessage.

    That’s what makes sorting things out so difficult. No one admits to being a bigot, for instance, so how do you sort out “profound differences” and bigotry? And how do we determine whether disagreement are being minimized as “prejudices” when there are deeper disagreements?

  • Jeffrey Weiss

    Dunno, Terry. You’ve made a point on this blog of not over-weighting the power of putative “Christian leaders.” Dobson? What if Warren says Mitt’s his guy? (Unlikely, I think, given Warren’s aversion to partisan politics, but who knows?)It’s a big electorate. I don’t doubt that there’s a sliver who would be moved by Dobson — or by exaltation. But in a real election, with real other candidates in the mix, how much difference will the arcana of Mormon theology make? In SC or anyplace? Say he does well in Iowa and New Hampshire, not as well in SCarolina? If California moves up closer to the front, then what? Too many balls in the air.

    Besides, does even Dobson really care about exaltation compared with abortion, gay marriage, other actual policy issues, if he thinks that Mitt is the most likely winner who Dobson can agree with? I dunno. But I bet we find out.

  • tmatt


    There are plenty of evangelicals who will note for Romney, despite sincere, strong and eternal theological differences.

    There are some who will plead with him to discuss the issues, in order to put them behind his campaign (I think that’s a long shot).

    There are other evangelicals who will oppose him for theological differences.

    My point is that the differences are real and logical and, frankly, quite obvious (as the comments above note). Hopefully, people will be able to divide theological differences from political differences. As you know, people on the left will oppose Romney for dogmatic religious and cultural reasons, too. And so it goes.

    The issue is how Romney will handle the mini-firestorm when it hits. As I keep saying, I hope he does a speech on religious tolerance that handles most the questions. I also hope the media coverage of the speech will actually talk to people on both sides of the dispute and quote them accurately.

    I am an idealist about things like that.

  • tmatt

    Besides, does even Dobson really care about exaltation compared with abortion, gay marriage, other actual policy issues, if he thinks that Mitt is the most likely winner who Dobson can agree with? I dunno. But I bet we find out.


    Which is my main point.

    I have suggested that Dobson is not as powerful as he thinks he is. But I have never said that his power is not real.

    And if Warren gets in the game, expect him to talk openly about what he thinks and deal with the doctrinal issue. There is no way to avoid that in the Southern Baptist context.

    Are there still many Southern Baptists in Dallas? ;-)

  • Marc V

    I’m curious as to how evangelical/Christian women react to Romney’s flip-flop on abortion, as well as the Mormon belief that women achieve a “level” in heaven based on who they marry. The only female gender issue the press has brought up regarding the Mormonism is polygamy, but these other issues could hurt Romney.

  • Eric

    … as well as the Mormon belief that women achieve a “level” in heaven based on who they marry.

    I would classify that as a serious misperception.

    But there might be some other Mormons somewhere who would more or less agree with that statement. And that’s one of the problems with trying to understand Mormon theology — the more you learn about about it, the more you realize how complex and nuanced, and often indefinite, it is.

    But to get back to the topic of this blog, I wonder how much the media needs to get into the theology anyway. Most other Christians don’t have a grasp on their own theology, and I doubt how many of them care, at least in terms of making a political decision, about the details of the Mormon trinity, nor its soteriology, nor its epistemology.

    What they may care about is the extent to which they believe that Romney will be “dictated to” by his church leaders. But the fact that there’s a very prominent Democrat who is also a faithful Mormon may defuse that concern to some extent.

  • Eric

    One other item of interest: Romney in his announcement yesterday emphasized his pro-life stance, including his position on stem-cell research. One item I haven’t seen mentioned recently in the media is that most of the Mormons in Congress, including some fairly conservative ones, have voted with the Democrats on stem-cell issues.

    And even on the abortion issue, the LDS church, although it can generally be considered as anti-abortion, has been criticized by right-to-life organizations for not being anti-abortion enough. Abortions are permitted for members, although under limited circumstances. (The same wouldn’t be true of Catholics, if I understand Catholic teaching right.) The church takes no position, as Romney has, that human life (or to be more precise, a human life that has rights of its own) begins at conception. I don’t know if he arrived at that view for political reasons or other reasons, but it wasn’t directly because of his church’s teaching.

  • Rathje

    “. . . as well as the Mormon belief that women achieve a “level” in heaven based on who they marry.”

    Yeah, that’s a misperception, but an understandable one.

    Mormons have a layered view of the Christian notion of “salvation.” Heaven consists of three degrees. The highest degree (technically termed “exhaltation”) is reserved only for those married in the temple.

    So the statement was true, but misleading.

    A man can’t get into the highest degree of heaven without a wife either. And neither can a woman without a husband.

    So yes, a woman’s status will be impacted by whether she’s married. But it applies equally to both sexes.

    If that seems unfair to both genders, realize that the LDS faith believes in the opportunity for marriage after death and routinely conducts post-humous temple marriage ceremonies for those long-dead. The idea being that everyone will have a shot.

    You can get into heaven as a single, just not the highest level.

  • Adam Greenwood

    I think TMatt is being disingenuous again.

    A blog that advocates “getting religion” rightly points out when the mainstream media gets things wrong about religion because of ignorance. TMatt et al. are conventional Christians so they’re in a good position to do that when it comes to mainstream Christianity. But where does someon like TMatt get off telling us that he knows more about Mormonism than the NYT or Mormons? He doesn’t. His list of “doctrines” turns out to be a list of views that don’t have much currency in the contemporary church, which turns out to be the on that Romney belongs too. This tends to validate the reference to “misperceptions” more than disprove it.

    The posters on this site should stick to what they know or should change the name to “Get Our Religious View on Our Religion and On Others.”

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  • joshman

    concerning comments from housemdiv:

    This comes from a bunch of people sitting on the sidelines. I lived in Utah for 12 years and I know all about the LDS church…please.

    My wife is catholic so I am a catholic scholar. They created the bible to place fear and control over their people. Kings wrote the book and the church ruled when it was written.

    It is easy to bash on something that you know so little about.

    Cult: A religion or religious sect generally considered to be extremist or false, with its followers often living in an unconventional manner under the guidance of an authoritarian, charismatic leader.

    You could judge any religion in this manner. Who create the bible an who is to say it is correct? I would call the pope dull not charismatic so I guess Catholics are a cult…right? The catholic church did some pretty extreme stuff back in the day. Rape, torture, taking what they wish. If you didnt go to church and aggree with the church you were a witch and burned alive. A cult is a matter of opinion. We could define any religion in this manner.

    P.S. Mormons arent the only ones that believe christ will come again and there will be destruction before he does. If you don’t believe in it then why are so worried they will have all the food and you will need to beg.

  • tmatt


    I did tons of reading in the mid- to-late ’80s preparing for a day of interviews with two of the 12 leaders of the LDS church and covered scores of events, including a funeral of the prophet — featuring a sermon built on a key and quite literal reference to exaltation.

    I would never claim to be an expert — along the lines of Richard Ostling or Shipps, for example — but the doctrines that I have referenced are all very much alive in the Mormon Church. You also would need to deal with the views of ex-Mormons who are biased, clearly biased, but also know the material.

    The essential clash — note the Shipps reference in USA Today — is the clashing views of God, Jesus and the nature of the Trinity. If a faith includes multiple gods, in multiple levels of creation (and I know Mormons do not all agree on what these concepts mean), it is a new thing under a “Christian” umbrella.

    There are people who understand key tenets of LDS theology and who disagree with it, just as there are — needless to say — plenty of Mormons and others who disagree with key doctrines of ancient Christianity. These disagreements are not rooted in “misconceptions.” The people involved in these debates — on both sides — deserve respect and accurate coverage.

  • evagrius


    You may have read and studied and talked to a lot of people about Mormon theology and its complexities but I doubt you would call yourself an expert, would you?
    So…if you’re subject to what could be called “misperceptions”,( from what the responses of Mormons have been so far), then why should you
    denigrate the efforts of the NYT reporter, ( who may or may not have done anty research), concerning Romney. The “misperceptions” listed were rather limited, according to the article. Those may have been those the Romney campaign told the reporter or they may have been the reporter’s own insight, ( which I doubt).
    However, the misperceptions listed are what Romney considers important.
    What you, or others, may consider important are theological points, far too complex for a newspaper to convey in any adequate form.
    I’m impressed by the way this discussion has gone,

  • Spencer

    When he refers to “misconceptions” about the Mormon church, I seriously doubt that includes the “as man is God once was” doctrine. Although that particular doctrine may, indeed, have fly in the face of one’s “deep convictions”, and it may even be an important pillar in one’s opposition to the LDS church at large…

    …it doesn’t have jack squat to do with being president of the United States.

    I imagine he is concerned with “misconceptions” about Mormonism that could affect his term in office, such as to what degree he must be loyal to the church or his stance on social issues. His conception of the nature of God, however interesting, isn’t important in the race for a secular position, unless (and only in the case) it alters his views about public policy.

    Unless he’s running for the president of your local church… why would his (admittedly strange) notion about the nature of God alter your opinion of him as a potential candidate?

  • Ralph Whitaker

    Latter-day Saints don’t believe that God the Father literally had sex with Mary. We believe in the immaculate conception of Jesus and that Mary was the virgin mother. This is a common misconception found only in Anti-Mormon propaganda. It’s not part of the LDS faith. Please correct this in your website. Thank you.

  • Jeffrey Weiss

    So, um:

    Romney to give commencement speech at Pat Robertson’s university

    February 14, 2007

    VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. –Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney will speak at the commencement at Regent University, the school founded by religious broadcaster Pat Robertson.

    Romney will address the graduates on May 5.

    Robertson has not endorsed Romney, and Regent University does not endorse political candidates, Regent spokeswoman Sherri Stocks said.

    No mention in the wire story of exaltation or the three levels of Mormon heaven or how Mary was begotten with child. I suppose Robertson will weigh in on those any moment now…? heh.

  • Adam Greenwood

    So I want to apologize for my tone in my prior comments. I don’t like it when non-Mormons think they know Mormonism better than me (life-long orthodox Mormon, reader of most everything I can get my hands on by Church leaders and scholars) and my fellow Mormons. But frankly what I like or don’t like is beside the point. I’m not aware of any “I feel irritated” exception to the commandment to be charitable. I shouldn’t have reacted as if TMatt were acting in bad faith.

  • Chris Bolinger

    “…how do you sort out ‘profound differences’ and bigotry? And how do we determine whether disagreement are being minimized as ‘prejudices’ when there are deeper disagreements?”

    Michael, I’m not sure how to answer these good questions. In the business realm, I am best at discerning the positioning and tactics of my closest competitors and not as adept at doing so for products aimed at a different market. The more research I do on unfamiliar products, obviously, the better my interpretation of how those products are marketed. There are only so many tricks of the trade, and the more effective ones get used over and over. I suspect that there are similarities in dealing with religious issues in the political realm.

  • Will

    Ralph: you display ignorance yourself in your reference to “immaculate conception”, a common error made by those who do not understand CATHOLIC doctrine. The “Immaculate Conception” is the assertion that Mary was, by special divine intervention, born free or original sin. It does NOT mean “virgin birth”. There is no claim that her father was anyone other than St. Joachim.

    Joshman: As Ayn Rand would say, “Considered by whom? Blank-out.”

    Rathje, if you think that the hordes of self-styled-mainline Christians are a homogenous mass easily orchestrated by “marching orders” from “clerical elites” — or even that they have any idea who these purported “elites” are — you have no expereince of the norm in “mainlineprotestant” churches. This sounds like a mutatis mutandis version of the infamous “poor, uneducated and easy to command” line, or Hilary’s “vast rightwing conspiracy”– which, remember, she claimed got its own “marching orders” in daily faxes from the RNC.

    Wm. Linden
    Cat-herd President
    New Church, New York

  • Will

    What about “blood atonement”? Unlike polygamy, this seems to have actual relevance to capital punishment as practiced in Utah TODAY. Yet I do not remember ever seeing it mentioned in execution stories, let alone in Mormon-for-President ones.

    Does this itself constitute an indicator of how far the press gets Mormonism?

  • Rathje

    Fair enough Will. We’ve taken crap from “Evangelicals” and “Southern Baptists” (again, generalizing and labeling here) for so long, and so much of it has been so cartoonishly vicious that we’ve probably gained a skewed view of American religion. It’s easy to dehumanize the perceived adversary.

    My dad believes in “blood atonement” as an argument in favor of capital punishment. I do not. It is not an argument that has been emphasized much since Bruce R. McConkie (of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles) died. I have never heard a church authority mention it. But I couldn’t confidently proclaim the doctrine dead and buried yet. But it seems to be on its way out.

  • Will

    I still would have expected the pundits to bring it up as background to Utah’s firing-squad option. That they did not shows little depth in their appreciation (or whatever) of LDS theology.

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  • Trevor Wood

    I believe it is a misconception that Mormon beliefs are more bizarre to an independent observer than so-called “Mainline Christianity”. Oddly, the loudest critics of Mormonism themselves have some pretty bizarre beliefs. These include the rapture, 6-day creation, universal flood, Bible inerrancy, the existence of Satanic Ritual Abuse and the One World Government Conspiracy, racial segregation and a medieval-style literal hell of flames and torment replete with demons for everyone that disagrees with them.
    I find it hysterical when Evangelicals attack them for a perceived oppression of women and for witholding their priesthood from blacks!

    On a number of points I think Mormonism is actually more rational than many alternative versions of Christianity.

    Nature of God – If God and Jesus aren’t separate and don’t have bodies then what happened to Jesus’ resurrected body that his followers touched? Did he die again and hide the body? How come the Trinity was invented centuries after the Bible?

    Exaltation of Man – If God is all powerful then He can surely make us gods if He wants to? As a mere mortal I want my kids to grow up to be at least as good as me, if not better. Surely God has as much love for us that He would give us a shot at becoming like Him?

    Continuing revelation – If God spoke to people for centuries through prophets, why did he suddenly stop? If he could speak to Abraham, Paul and John then why wouldn’t he speak to us today? Is it any more far fetched to believe in Moses’ burning bush story than Joe Smith’s sacred grove?

    Faith shown through Works – Does God welcome into heaven everyone who makes a one-off declaration for Jesus regardless of how they live afterwards? Will the fact that they once accepted Jesus as their personal saviour guarantee a place in heaven for KKK murderer and Baptist minister Edgar Ray Killen, Ted Haggard, Jimmy Swaggart, Jim Bakker and David “Son of Sam” Berkowitz who was baptised a Baptist before he killed? Mormons say no – sola fides believers say yes.

    Multiple Heavens & Baptism for the Dead – Is Mahatma Ghandi really burning in hell with Buddha according to Calvinist predestination? What about all the good Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims and pagans that never had a chance to learn about Jesus? Surely they should get a chance to accept Him in the afterlife? What about the good atheists and those that were almost good enough – surely a tiered Mormon-style heaven seems more equitable?

    As an experiment call up your friendly neighbourhood Mormon missionaries and ask them to show you what the Bible says on these points – you’ll be as surprised as I was at how solid a case they make. No wonder other Christians fear them.

    Oh, that reminds me – check up on Mormon publishers Deseret Books’ range of titles bashing Baptists, Catholics, Jews, Muslims and Jehovah’s Witnesses – good luck, it doesn’t exist! What a refreshing, almost Christ-like change from the plague of nastiness that infests the “Your Faith Is Wrong” section of your friendly neighbourhood Protestant bookstore.

    As far as religious doctrine influencing holders of public office, this ought to be a tremendous plus for Mitt. The Mormon hardline on sin has proven much better at producing leaders with real integrity than say, Evangelical Christianity with its “permanent salvation” functioning like a teflon-coated get-out-of-hell-free card. How else can you explain televangelists or the KKK MkII being founded by a Methodist minister and functioning as a virtual extension of the Southern Baptists for decades (at one point 75% of the SBC were Klan members).

    On the subject of welfare – you really should check out how Mormons handle it – If Mitt could do this on a national scale it would seriously move America closer to realising LBJ’s vision of the Great Society.

    In my book the Mormons are insane but no more so than many of the the equivalently pious from any other branch of Christianity. But, when it comes down to it I would rather a kook from Gordon B Hinckley’s and Steven Covey’s church than one from than Pat Robertson’s or Jerry Falwell’s.