One of GR’s regular commenters, Rathje, drew our attention to one of the most lively discussions about religion I’ve read in a great long while.
On May 14, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life sponsored a discussion — “Mormonism and Democratic Politics: Are They Compatible?” — at its biannual Faith Angle conference. Pew helpfully provided a transcript. With Mitt Romney’s candidacy and the number of journalistic inquiries into Mormonism multiplying faster than a mathlete lightening round, the topic couldn’t be more timely. In attendance are too many journalists to shout out here, but suffice to say those participating in the discussion included some heavy hitters on the Godbeat and the politics beat from major publications.
But the real star of the discussion is the featured speaker, Richard Bushman, Governeur Morris Professor of History emeritus, Columbia University and author of Rough Stone Rolling, a well-regarded biography of Joseph Smith.
As both an Ivy League historian and a practicing Mormon, Bushman has a knack for explaining even the most controversial aspects of the church in ways that are colorful and illuminating. One aspect of the church that journalists writing about Mormonism consistently struggle with is reconciling its 19th century history of radicalism (polygamy, violent skirmishes with the federal government, etc.) with the contemporary view that many outsiders have of a slightly insular and conservative institution. Here is Bushman’s take on the church’s historical evolution:
On the radical versus conservative question, Mormons actually love their radical roots. It’s like all these neo-cons that once were Marxist. (Laughter.) I think there is a feeling that somehow religion was more intense then. We were willing to give all, consecrate all of our property to the church. We were willing to give up respectability by practicing plural marriage. The plural marriage is sort of covered up by the church because it’s a public relations disaster, but in terms of Mormons themselves, they’re willing to honor those people as having done a lot.
So it’s sort of our glorious flaming youth when we did many daring things.
While obviously that perspective isn’t going to justify the practice of polygamy in any non-Mormon’s mind, for those paying close attention, Bushman is performing a great service in explaining how Mormons perceive themselves. I think one of the reasons Mormons are often unhappy with media coverage of the church is not that they necessarily get upset over the focus on Mormon controversies. Most Mormons are actually prepared to deal with that approach. It’s just that journalists either don’t understand or explain how Mormon believers reconcile the issues for themselves.
But part of the reason that journalists and outsiders don’t do a better job explaining how Mormons perceive themselves or their history is that the Mormon church is more than just a set of beliefs. For such a young church it has an entrenched culture. Because the the doctrine of the church encompasses a belief in active revelation for every member of the church from the Prophet to the lay people, the doctrine often changes to reflect the church’s culture, even in ways that seem contradictory. Again, Bushman provides an illuminating way of looking at Mormon doctrine:
Well, when you get those switches back and forth, you know that there is a contradiction or a polarity inside the culture. Someone has said that Mormon doctrine should best be described as a set of dilemmas — as contradictory goods posed against one another.
Bushman also goes on to explain how this is played out in the political arena with some concrete examples that are helpful. Here he discusses changing positions on birth control:
When I was first married and a little alert to such things — (laughter) — there was a lot of talk against contraception, and that all just faded. You never hear a word about it now. And that is also one of the things that moderates the reception of this kind of teaching authority. That is, there are times that something seems relevant, and then it sort of fades, and other things come to the fore. So there is sort of a give-and-take between the needs of the people, who are always talking to their bishops and stake presidents — look, I have a problem; what could be done about this? — and that seeps up to the higher levels of the church. Over time, these teachings change coloration.
But the discussion is also helpful in that you see a variety of journalists respond to Bushman and the give and take is also quite edifying. Here Newsweek‘s Ken Woodward makes an interesting comparison that helps explain the Mormon approach to doctrine:
WOODWARD: It seems you have a magisterium, but what you lack is that informal body of theologians or thinkers whose job is to reflect on the content of faith, and magisterial teachings. So there is no placenta like that — am I right — for these things to go through?
BUSHMAN: That is true. And you must add the fact that there is no professional clergy, which means no clergy trained theologically. No one seeks to situate every teaching of the church against a broader Christian tradition. The process has a kind of informality to it.
The whole discussion is heartening in that many of the journalists present ask thoughtful and perceptive questions, even though their knowledge of the faith varies wildly. (One exception might be when The Washington Post‘s Sally Quinn asks Bushman about a notorious memoir by an ex-BYU professor that is as critical of the church as the author’s motivations are suspect. But even that discussion is meaningful.)
The conversation about Mormonism is sprawling and touches on number of interesting subjects, from the relationship between Mormons and evangelicals to the differences in worldviews from political candidates that come from hierarchal churches vs. congregationalists. It’s a long transcript but well worth the time to read.
In fact, the discussion is so successful that it inadvertently highlights a real problem for journalists seeking to write about Mormonism. Sally Quinn notes there is a dearth of members of the church willing to speak about their religion frankly, either to journalists or in public forums:
We have a new website on The Washington Post/Newsweek called On Faith, and we have about 80 panelists from every different religion. The hardest group to find panelists for is Mormons. We have one Mormon, and that’s Mike Otterson, who is the spokesperson for the Mormon Church, and we keep saying, get us Mormons, get us Mormons, but nobody wants to do it. The only other problem we have is with Catholic priests. (Chuckles.)
We did get some guest voices when we had a question on Mormonism. We wanted Bill Marriott and Harry Reid, and they both turned us down, and then I called Mike and he got them to speak out. But Marriott’s PR person told him not to do it, that it would be dangerous for Mormons. Basically what he said was, I love my family, I care about my community — you know, all the things that you would want to hear from somebody, and yet there is this real reluctance. I think that’s one of the things that lead people to believe that there is a secrecy, when in fact what they finally wrote was lovely and very compelling.
For his part, Bushman suggests that journalists deal with this problem by checking out some of the better voices in the Mormon blogosphere. And that’s a good suggestion, but given his candid and compelling performance, it wouldn’t hurt for journalists interested in Mormonism to have Bushman on speed dial either.