Knowing a beat inside and out

FaustJames Faust, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints since 1978, died on Friday. He also served in the high-ranking position of second counselor to President Gordon Hinckley since 1995.

Salt Lake Tribune reporter Peggy Fletcher Stack has been all over the story.

From the very first article on the death, her reporting shows an understanding of Mormon history and church life. Here she explains that Faust was not only an active church leader but a public servant as well:

In 1945, Faust re-entered the U. and earned his bachelor’s and law degrees. The Fausts eventually had five children. Within a few years after setting up his law practice, Faust was drawn into Utah politics.

When Utah became a state in 1896, Mormons needed to establish a two-party system, so church leaders divided the obedient Latter-day Saints equally between the Democrats and the Republicans.

The Fausts became Democrats, said Jim Faust, and have remained so to this day.

Isn’t that fascinating? That the church divided members into political parties? Anyway, Faust was a Democratic state legislator from 1949 to 1951 and helped update Utah liquor laws in the 1950s, she says. Just think: they’ve been updated! He also joined the church’s Public Affairs Committee, where he worked on liquor laws, abortion and fixed-odds gambling.

Fletcher Stack has followed up the story day after day. She explained how the vacancy in the church’s three-man governing team might be filled and gave some interesting historical precedent. She added some details and quotes to his obituary. She interviewed Hinckley about his feelings over Faust’s death. And she explained the lengthy and deep friendship the two men shared. She also wrote a separate story about his Democratic Party activism:

Faust, who had once been a Democratic state legislator, continued to serve as a kind of behind-the-scenes consultant, even after joining the LDS First Presidency in 1995.

“Every once in a while, President Faust would quietly make calls, urging people to run, mostly to help the state have a healthy balance of political parties,” said [Todd Taylor, a Democratic Party executive] on Friday.

“He would talk to any potential candidates who were concerned that their LDS Church callings would conflict with public service. He assured them they could do both,” Taylor said.

After all, Faust did.

He was a Democratic state legislator from 1949 to 1951, while he was an LDS bishop. In the mid-1950s he chaired the party in Utah and helped manage a campaign of Sen Frank Moss, D-Utah. He looked to two other prominent Latter-day Saint Democrats — N. Eldon Tanner and Hugh B. Brown — as mentors. . . .

He went on to say that the LDS Church would prefer to have members in both parties.

“Both locally and nationally, the interests of the church and its members are best served when we have two good men or women running on each ticket, and then no matter who is elected, we win,” Faust told [his biographer, James P.] Bell.

UtahDemsFletcher Stack has to be one of the more prolific religion reporters out there. Since Friday she has also written two stories other than the ones linked to here.

One in particular is worth reading. She reports on an LDS nurse who says Mormon doctrine does not contradict the use of embryonic stem cells. For people who are confused about how both Republican and Democratic LDS members can support embryonic stem-cell research and have less than hard core views against abortion, Fletcher Stack has this helpful summary of views:

Mormons, however, have a slightly different understanding of the connection between bodies and souls that could open the door for stem-cell research without compromising their ethics, said Rick Jepson on Thursday at the annual Sunstone Symposium, an independent forum for Mormon thought that continues today at the Sheraton Hotel in downtown Salt Lake City. . . .

And he has LDS Church statements — or the absence of statements — to back him up.

To Mormons, individual human souls existed before this life and will continue after. They are uncreated, eternal beings. Brigham Young said life begins when a mother feels life move in her womb. Those fetuses that die before birth can return again for a second try in a new body, Young taught. LDS leader J. Reuben Clark suggested that the spirit doesn’t enter the body officially until birth but checks the body’s progress all during pregnancy.

It’s easy for outsiders to look at Utah’s overwhelmingly Republican electorate and think that Mormons are monolithic in their political views. But reporters need to understand some of the nuances of Mormon thought and history to find that things aren’t always as they seem. Stories like Fletcher Stack’s help readers understand the political views of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Sen. Orrin Hatch and Presidential contender Mitt Romney. Which is a lot more than most political coverage of these leaders.

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  • HiveRadical

    I appreciate this article and what it accents. I’m LDS. In Utah. And a republican. But I have a good number of good friends, in and out of my faith, in both parties. Some of these are among the smartest and most moral people I know. I don’t agree with them on many points, but very often their perspectives sharpen, and at times, actually change mine–I hope always for the better.

  • Eric G.

    LDS theology can be confusing to the outsider, and too many journalists who occasionally write on church matters often rely on dubious non-LDS sources to explain what we believe, or they take various beliefs out of context. But Peggy Fletcher Stack knows the church inside-out, and I’m not sure I’ve ever seen her get any details about the church wrong. And although she’s not Mormon, she seems to respect LDS beliefs and those she covers. She does her homework, and it shows.

  • Willard S.

    Peggy Fletcher Stack is a Mormon (or was at one time). She was the Editor of Sunstone Magazine for about 10 years. Her Mormon view is considered by many to be fairly liberal (I personally place her in the Sterling M. McMurrin world view). While I do not share her world view, most (not all) of the time I believe that she is objective and fair.

  • JLFuller

    I enjoy respecatble discussion on LDS Church views and how they are similar or dissimilar from others as long they are free from insults, distortions and misinformation. It can be enlightening. Such is this story. I found President
    Faust’s political leanings something that I didn’t know before. As a lifelong Republican, I find it unsetteling. But then I have very strong views on abortion, the destruction of the family and questionabale democratic snuggling up to the far left. So, on a whole, the writer has provided something new for me to chew on. I can only think that President Faust would have been a blue dog democrat if in fact he was a real modern democrat at all.

  • Eric G.

    Correction: When I identified Peggy Fletcher Stack as non-LDS, I was thinking of historian Jan Shipps, a historian who has specialized in LDS issues. (Shipps is United Methodist, I believe.) I have no knowledge one way or the other about Fletcher Stack’s personal religious beliefs, although I do think she covers the church very well.

  • Rathje

    Another thing reporters tend to get wrong about Utah is that we really aren’t just evangelicals with a polygamous history.

    The reporters can probably be forgiven in this, because frankly, many Utah Mormons mistakenly see themselves this way.

    But the Mormons are simply a lot more ambiguous on issues like evolution, abortion, embryonic stem cell research, and the divide of Church and State than the Christian Right.

    Prayer in schools? Not half as many people in Utah care as people in Arkansas. Same thing with evolution. Unlike many in the Christian Right, we don’t rely on public schools to do our parents’ jobs for them. We’ve got a widespread religious schooling system. Most Utah parents feel they can rest assured that, whatever is being taught in high school, correct doctrine is being taught in Seminary.

    Abortion? Unlike the Christian Right (whatever that term means), the LDS Church allows for abortions in limited circumstances (danger to mother’s health and rape). Furthermore, if you listen carefully to sermons that Church leaders have given on the subject, you’ll find that they often avoid the strict and legalistic argument of “abortion = murder” that seems to define the rest of the pro-life movement. Apostle Dallin H. Oaks, for example, recently framed the entire issue as purely a matter of personal accountability and respect for the sacredness of the procreative process, rather than a question of murder. And he’s a former lawyer! The legalistic argument, while espoused by many lay Mormons, is rather absent from current Church doctrine.

    On embryonic stem cell research, this lack of legalistic nit picking shows. Since we view it more as a respect for procreation and personal accountability, a lot of us have a hard time getting incredibly worked up over the stem cell issue. We’re all over the place on this subject.

    Furthermore, we really aren’t as gung-ho to subvert the US government to religious agendas as many conservative Christians are. Unlike the Protestants, we’ve never really viewed government as being in our pocket. Therefore, government has always been a potential threat to us, however distant that threat may be at times.

    Take Bush’s faith-based initiative. Bush’s people offered the program to the LDS leadership, and they politely turned him down. When you accept the government’s money, you accept that the government will have a say in how you spend it. We’re still too wary of the USA to get in bed with it like that.

    Protestants are often able to simply assume that any subverting of the state to the church will tend to favor them, since they would have the dominant say in the results.

    Mormons make no such assumption. Many of us want to be a part of the “moral majority.” But we still retain a small suspicion in the back of our minds that as soon as the “moral majority” is finished with gays, immigrants, and abortion clinics, they’ll be coming after us.

    Whether we openly acknowledge it or not, the term “Christian Nation” means something a little less positive to us than it does to the Southern Baptist Convention.

    Utah may be a solidly red state, but the political alliance works for much different reasons than it does in just about any other state in the Union.

  • Tracy Hall Jr

    Good article. I think it’s cool that the long-ago stridently anti-Mormon Salt Lake Tribune now has the best religion reporter in the state. I’ve never been able to fault Peggy Fletcher Stack’s reporting on my religion.

    Today Peggy has a slightly atypical piece about speculation in the Mormon community on who might succeed Pres. Faust. I thought it was funny, but others were not amused.

    James E. Faust was one of my personal heroes, despite the “dark secret” that he was a Democrat. Although I generally find Republicans more in accord with my political views than Democrats, Republicans have such absurd dominance in this state that I vote for any local Democrat who isn’t a convicted felon. My U.S. Representative, Democrat Jim Matheson, who survived a Republican gerrymander, is doing a fine job.

  • Osvaldo Mandias

    And he has LDS Church statements – or the absence of statements – to back him up.

    He doesn’t have anything to back him up. The LDS Church doesn’t take a position on when life begins and, as the saying goes, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Pro-choice Mormons dishonestly try to convert the ‘we don’t know’ of the Apostles into an affirmative statement that the embryo is not human. This Mormon strongly opposes public funding of embryonic stem-cell research while recognizing that it is not obligatory on my co-religionists to believe the same, so much the worse for them.

  • Rathje

    “We don’t know” means we don’t know.

    So I guess you make up your own mind on the matter right?

    The LDS Church just doesn’t seem to have a current position that “abortion = murder.” As much as bystanders may want to imply such a stance, I’m just not seeing it. I don’t think you can usefully lump the LDS position together with the rest of the pro-life movement. But reporters usually do anyway.

  • Stephen A.

    Interesting article. It’s good to hear from people of ANY Faith that their religion is being presented fairly by someone in the print media.

    I was kind of surprised by this part of the story:

    “Both locally and nationally, the interests of the church and its members are best served when we have two good men or women, running on each ticket, and then no matter who is elected, we win.” (my bolding)

    I’m sure someone will take that to mean that the Mormons are “fixing” elections so that whoever wins, the Church wins and keeps “control.” I don’t jump to that conclusion, but that’s a pretty interesting statement to make.

  • Alma

    While it’s popular folklore that the LDS Church divided the Mormons equally into Republicans and Democrats, it isn’t good history. While Utahans were seeking statehood there were two parties in the territory: The People’s Party (Mormons) and the Liberal Party made up mostly of non-Mormons. Congress expected Utah to abandon these provincial parties in favor of the national party system. In doing so, most Mormons moved almost automatically into the Democratic Party because the Republicans had been driving anti-Mormon legislation since the civil war (Edmunds and Edmunds-Tucker Acts). This created an incredible imbalance in favor of the Democrats. As a result, LDS Church leaders encouraged people to vote Republican. Church members who were known to have strong Democratic convictions were not asked to switch parties, but those whose commitment was not particularly strong were encouraged to change. It was a little too successful and Utah has been predominantly Republican ever since. Interestingly, Robert Tayler, a Democrat who was the primary counsel seeking to unseat Reed Smoot claimed that the division along party lines occurred naturally just as it did in other states that went from Democrat to Republican:

    The majority of the people in Utah gradually came to the conclusion, from campaign to campaign, that they were more benefited by protection and the other principles of the Republican party than otherwise, and gradually many Mormon people, and Gentiles too, changed to Republicanism, as might be naturally expected under the circumstances. I, as a Democrat, must admit that they had good reason to so believe. In the campaign of 1896 the silver issue carried Utah to the Democratic column, just as it did many other States, but on the whole Utah has shown the same change in politics —generally, as the gradual conversion to Republicanism, and exceptionally, as the silver issue of 1896—as has many other States in the Union. The change has affected Gentiles as well as Mormons; in fact, and as might be expected. Gentiles have fluctuated more than Mormons in political constancy. Utah is now a Republican State, and its conversion is no more remarkable than that of many other States; in fact, not so remarkable as that of Missouri.”(see Protest in the Matter of Reed Smoot Volume III page 614.)

  • Eli

    Another brilliant post Mollie. Totally agree that it is *so* important to really know one’s beat. How else could reporters know which issues are to be highlighted or how to best be sensitive to and reflect the various nuances of those who have belief structures such as the Mormons? Good solid stuff – again.

  • Rick Jepson

    Osvaldo Mandias,

    At the symposium, we spent an hour discussing stem cell research in light of the wide variety of public statements by church authorities, the implications of LDS scripture passages, official church statements, and church practices (such as naming, sealing, proxy work, etc).

    We also discussed the biology of human embronic development and the significant stage wherein the “primitive streak” develops. This widely-noted stage marks the first time in which a lump of cells has a front/back right/left. It is also the point at which it is no longer possible for the embryo to split into two identical twins or, more bizarrely, for fraternal twins to bump into each other and fuse into a single embryo with mixed DNA (a “human-human chimera).

    My stated conclusion is that since Church has emphatically not made a stand on the matter, we are left to figure it out and make the best available choice. I specifically said, “I do not know when the spirit enters the body. but I do believe that it cannot possible be before this point”–referring to the 2-week mark and the formation of the primitive streak.

    While you’ve condemmed this stand, and have every right to, I wonder why you suppose that the LDS Church has made zero effort to discourage Orrin Hatch, Harry Reid, Bob Bennett, and others from actively pursuing enhanced stem cell funding.

    I am also looking for someone to write a well-thought-out, well-researched, and well-backed-up position piece against stem cell research to be published in the next issue of Sunstone Magazine. If you are interested, please e-mail me at jepsonrick “at” hotmail “dot” com.



  • Duhwayne

    Rick, in 2001 five Mormons in the U.S. Senate were the fulcrum that broke open a Republican block against passage of stem cell research legislation. (See Testimony in support of research from two of them was persuasive because they could be pro research while anti-abortion.

    The church’s non-position on when life begins has a theological basis. In the Book of Mormon the spiritual Jesus appears to someone the night before he was born to Mary. To reconcile this with the Baptist’s leap in utero, one has to allow for the possibility of a soul to pay visits during gestation. When Church leaders say “we don’t know,” they mean “abortion is not murder per se.” Mormons are routinely disfellowshipped for having or encouraging an abortion (do evangelicals the same?), but the best they can do is “abortion is like murder.” Malum prohibitum, non malum in se as they say in the law business.

    Conservative Mormon candidates look double jointed some times when their evangelical colleagues can’t bend. Mitt Romney’s taking abuse for insincerity while in fact his moral view on the nature of abortion. It’s ironic that the candidate with arguably the strongest record for personal integrity among front running Republicans is getting painted as disingenuous. The problem for Romney is that no one wants to hear him say how this can be.

    Romney should NOT attempt a Kennedy speech. Candid coverage such as the leaked footage with the “radio dj” will show how his Mormonism fits with his leadership better and avoid invitations to comparison that no one could match.

  • Duhwayne

    Rick, I just re-read your post and understand that what I added wasn’t responsive to you in the way that my opener suggests. Please disregard that bit.

    In response to Steven A and the question about what was meant by the saying that it’s better to have good candidates on both sides of the aisle, the most relevant passage in Mormon scriptures puts a premium on personal character for candidates:

    “8 I, the Lord God, make you free, therefore ye are free indeed; and the law also maketh you free.
    9 Nevertheless, when the wicked rule the people mourn.
    10 Wherefore, honest men and wise men should be sought for diligently, and good men and wise men ye should observe to uphold; otherwise whatsoever is less than these cometh of evil.”

    Not a question of how to stack as many Mormons in office as possible. For Mormons and others without a prayer of dominating a political party, choosing sides is a matter of picking the more comfortable of ill-fitting suits. You can support both sides of the aisle if you realize that you’re trying to pick the “better” candidate. (That said, in 2004 86% of Mormons voted for Bush…)

    My grandfather was a Democratic candidate for Utah governor and an intimate friend of Pres. Faust. Pres. Faust was a pragmatic centrist Democrat similar to many of his generation. I can say based on my experience with him that he’s sincere when he says having good people on both sides gives a win-win for everyone. Imagine a choice between competent centrists with character–sounds like a winner to me in this gridlocked, bipolar political environment of today…