Stuck in a skewed news template

mittromneyAs the early coverage of the Mitt Romney address continues, I would like to ask a basic question: Are most mainstream reporters assuming that the Christians — Catholic, Orthodox, evangelical and mainline — who do not consider Mormonism “to be Christian” are those who know little or nothing about the details of Mormon doctrine or those who actually know quite a bit and disagree with it?

Updated material:

The New York Times has the text here and its Mitt Romney “topics” page is here.

• Streaming video of the speech is here; the campaign’s copy of the text is here.

• A Washington Post “what worked and what didn’t” blog item is already posted here.

• The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life has poll data on some of these issues here and its Romney and religion page is here, as part of its Religion & Politics library.

Now back to the text of the original post:

Please note that I phrased this question in a way that avoids the question of whether someone plans to vote for or against Romney in his quest to become president. It’s pretty clear that these doctrinal clashes and, in some cases, prejudices are going to affect many voters. Meanwhile, there are signs that it will not affect others, including many who, again, do not consider Mormonism a stream of Catholic, Orthodox or Protestant Christianity as defined in creeds that almost all Christians accept, at least in terms of their content.

There are plenty of conservative, traditional Christians out there who plan to vote for Romney. There are many who have identical views of Mormonism who will not vote for him. There are Christians — Catholic, Orthodox, evangelical, mainline — who reject Mormonism’s claims who know quite a bit about Mormonism, including people who have studied it for decades. There are others who know Mormonism inside out and see it as a unique thing, something that can most accurately be called “Mormon Christianity.”

Confused? Yes, the mainline press coverage is confused — it is making the situation much too simple.

Take the following Mark Silva piece in the Chicago Tribune. There are passages in this report that are simply terrible. Here is the first key paragraph:

The fact that Romney, a Mormon, is coming to Texas on Thursday to articulate his vision of “faith in America” is a measure of just how much sway evangelical Christians still hold in presidential voting, particularly the Republican Party’s naming of a nominee.

Yes, evangelical voters are powerful. Yet this wording, once again, suggests that only evangelical Protestants reject the claims that Mormonism can be considered a form of traditional or creedal Christianity. Yes, “traditional” is a loaded term. But you can’t cover this story without facing the essential differences in these groups over basic issues about the nature of God.

More on that in a minute. The Tribune report throws in another explosive term:

Now, almost a half-century after a Catholic named John F. Kennedy traveled to Texas to confront a fundamentalist audience with his explanation that he was not the church’s nominee but rather a Catholic running for president, another millionaire from Massachusetts will stand here to confront public misconceptions of his faith that could stand between him and his party’s nomination.

JFK, of course, spoke to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association — a group that certainly included people who would claim the term “fundamentalist,” but many others who would have rejected it. Anyone who thinks that all of those ministers in Houston — even Southern Baptists and independent Baptists — were “fundamentalists” simply does not know anything about Houston or Texas in general.

Once again, this whole approach is skewed. This is not a simple clash between Mormons and “fundamentalists.” The MSM loves that story line, but it is just too simplistic.

It is hard to jam all of this complexity into wire-service length reports. I know that.

Faith In America 4However, it is possible to deal with some of the basics. Take, for example, the report in today’s Washington Post by Jacqueline L. Salmon, which ran with the headline “Romney Aims to Prove His Christianity.” It includes this passage, which will cause debate in many quarters, but has to be considered a solid attempt at a summary:

Like all Christians, Mormons worship Jesus Christ as the son of God who atoned for their sins by dying on the cross, and they study the Bible as the word of God.

But, unlike traditional Christians, Mormons also revere the Book of Mormon equally with the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. They believe that Jesus visited the Americas after he was crucified and that he will return and reign from the United States and Jerusalem. They believe that the dead can be baptized, that God was once a man and that a human can become like a god. And, they say, God speaks through living apostles and prophets, such as Gordon B. Hinckley, president of the Mormon Church.

Mormons believe the faith’s founder, Joseph Smith Jr., a Palmyra farmer, was guided by an angel to a set of ancient records etched on golden plates. Those records, which include an account of Jesus Christ’s appearance in the Americas after his crucifixion, are in the Book of Mormon.

For many traditional Christians, such ideas are heresy.

Yes, many traditional Christians — Catholic, Orthodox, evangelical and mainline — consider many of those points to be heresy. This will cause some of them to reject Romney, but not all.

The nation’s largest non-Catholic flock is the giant Southern Baptist Convention, and it is wading into this whirlpool with a series of articles stating its stance on Mormon doctrine. You can feel the tension in the very first part of this series and there is no way around this tension when doctrine and conservative politics collide. Hang on. It is going to be a real challenge for reporters to cover the many camps in this debate with fairness, accuracy and balance.

Second photo: A Romney campaign photo of him working on the text of the speech.

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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.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/00368463715994694203 FrGregACCA

    Dec. 6, 2007 10:23 AM EST

    At 10:30 AM EST, Romney speech live here:

    Mitt Romney

    From the looks of the site, it appears that the speech will remain up after it is given.

  • Shawn

    I am a Christian, and watched Romney’s speech this morning. I have to admit; it moved me and pushed me from indecision to decision to support Romney. We need a uniter as a President, and I understand the need to not have a religious test for what I believe Christianity is. So what if Mormons define Christianity differently? I saw something in Romney today I would like in a President: the ability to embrace the larger tent.

  • http://web.mac.com/deacsnook/iweb/site cyranoRox

    Orthodox Christians do not accept the Augustinian/ Anselmian doctrine of Atonement. Rather, we understand the Incarnation as uniting human and divine nature, the Crucificion as a heroic deed of Christ’s, and the Resurrection as conquest of death.
    Also, i am surprised to see Southern Baptists described as non-Protestant.

  • http://blog.muchmorethanwords.com/?p=12 gfe

    I definitely differ with Romney on many, many issues and don’t plan to vote for him. But I thought his speech was absolutely brilliant. He delivered it superbly, touched all the right bases, testified unequivocally of his faith, showed high respect for people of other faiths and stated his views very clearly on the role of religion in the public square. I’m not sure how that speech would play in a general election, although I’d be surprised if it doesn’t give him a huge boost in the coming weeks in the GOP contest.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Rox:

    Duh!

    A typo… I will fix that. Thanks.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    It is sad that so much of the media political coverage crosses over into areas that have nothing to do with public policy issues. They constantly point out arcane theological or doctrinal differences between Mormons and other Christians. So what???
    As far as I can see some quarters of the MSM are doing everything possible to divide and cause friction between various expressions of Christianity. Frankly, I think the column here of Salmon’s is typical of how the media slyly drags in arcane theological or doctrinal data that has no place in public political discourse. In the public square what relevance is the Mormon teachings on some gold plates?
    It is no more relevant than how a Catholic or Orthodox regards the doctrine of the “True Presence” as compared to how a Baptist understands the commemoration of the Last Supper. And that last sentence of hers is a cute “kicker” implying that, of course, whether someone is a religious “heretic” by someone else’s definition is somehow a legitimate basis for making a choice on who to vote for.
    Especially after watching Romney deliver his speech (and after watching him as our governor for 4 years) I predict the liberal MSM media will do everything possible to destroy him as the biggest threat to a liberal Democrat getting back into the White House.

  • http://jivanta-dharmashaiva.blogspot.com/ NewTrollObserver

    I believe the Mitt Romney-for-President site has a truncated version of the speech. A full version can be found here.

  • Stephen A.

    This was a tremendous speech and I was very moved by it.

    Romney’s delivery was impeccable and the content was exactly what his audience – evangelical Christians – likely wanted to hear from him. Frankly, I bet conservatives of all faiths will be suitably impressed by it, because of his understanding of our Founding Principles and his denounciation of the Secular Progressive cult. He used a lot of “key words” that will resonate well with the GOP base, as well as beyond it.

    In all the hubub about Mormonism and reliving the JFK speech about Catholicism, I wonder if anyone remembers that Kennedy spoke at the Mormon Tabernacle in Salt Lake City in September, 1963.

    There, he said, in part:

    Of all the stories of American pioneers and settlers, none is more inspiring than the Mormon trail. The qualities of the founders of this community are the qualities that we seek in America, the qualities which we like to feel this country has, courage, patience, faith, self-reliance, perseverance, and, above all, an unflagging determination to see the right prevail. …

    I know that many of you in this State and other States sometimes wonder where we are going and why the United States should be so involved in so many affairs, in so many countries all around the globe. If our task on occasion seems hopeless, if we despair of ever working our will on the other 94 percent of the world population, then let us remember that the Mormons of a century ago were a persecuted and prosecuted minority, harried from place to place, the victims of violence and occasionally murder, while today, in the short space of 100 years, their faith and works are known and respected the world around, and their voices heard in the highest councils of this country.

    As the Mormons succeeded, so America can succeed, if we will not give up or turn back. ”

    Text: http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/index.php?pid=9437

    I find it interesting that just after today’s speech, none other than the liberal MSNBC commentator Chris Matthews said this speech may very well be the start of Mitt’s rise to the presidency. Matthews was very impressed, as were his guests. CNN featured a very skeptical Bill Bennett opining that he didn’t really get into Mormon doctrine. I wonder which campaign he’s working for (which CNN failed to disclose?)

    Of couse, the real problem for a lot of GOP voters (especially in NH) is Mitt’s flip-flopping on nearly every major issue, not his religion, necessarily.

  • http://web.mac.com/deacsnook/iweb/site cyranoRox

    Thanks, tmatt.
    Also, people seem to get hives when the h-word, heresy, comes up. Since it means a false claim about the teaching of the Church [eg, 'the Church approves of dating angels'] , not just a teaching the Church disagrees with [eg, 'angels are descended from primates and silicates'] it shouldn’t upset people. It’s a kind of identity theft issue.

  • Stephen A.

    Maybe he relied on this or not, but Mitt also could have read verbatim the last three “Articles of Faith” of his Church, and I bet people would have been satisfied with it:

    11. We claim the privilege of worshiping Almighty God according to the dictates of our own conscience, and allow all men the same privilege, let them worship how, where, or what they may.

    12. We believe in being subject to kings, presidents, rulers, and magistrates, in obeying, honoring, and sustaining the law.

    13. We believe in being honest, true, chaste, benevolent, virtuous, and in doing good to all men; indeed, we may say that we follow the admonition of Paul—We believe all things, we hope all things, we have endured many things, and hope to be able to endure all things. If there is anything virtuous, lovely, or of good report or praiseworthy, we seek after these things.

    http://www.mormon.org/mormonorg/eng/basic-beliefs/membership-in-the-church/articles-of-faith

    These points outline:
    1. Tolerance of all other faiths
    2. Separation of Church and State
    3. Share basic values with other Christians.

    Actually, these points, almost as-is, would have been an excellent inclusion in an otherwise excellent speech. It’s almost a shame he didn’t include these points. But he obviously covered the same ground.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/00368463715994694203 FrGregACCA

    Stephen A (8):

    And Kennedy still lost in Utah. This points to the real issue here: the relationship between the LDS Church and the Republican Party. Utah is, and has always been, essentially a one party state.

    Which is partially why few raise the question of Harry Reid’s Mormonism.

    Or, to put it another way, had Kennedy been a Republican, the issue of his Roman Catholicism would likely have not been nearly as acute in 1960.

  • http://buddhateach.blogspot.com James

    tmatt, your link to the streaming video only has the first half of the speech – is anyone aware of a streaming video of the speech online anywhere else?

    (thanks for the C-Span RealPlayer link, Troll… this public computer, and others I’m sure, can’t handle RealPlayer)

  • http://buddhateach.blogspot.com James

    Answered my own question – audio of the speech can be found at the NPR website, here.

  • Jerry

    In spite of Deacon John M. Bresnahan’s assumption that the MSM is out to get Romney, I thought the NY Times article was pretty good:
    http://www.nytimes.com/2007/12/07/us/politics/06cnd-romney.html

  • Joseph M. Smith

    It is not so much whether or how the LDS church is heresy as it is how people of apparent high intelligence can believe such a strange and undocumentable history (undocumentable, that is, outside of the Book of Mormon and related texts). We want a president who is intellectually honest and does not engage in bifurcation — holding religious beliefs aloof over here and thinking in realpolitik over there.

    By the way, despite my name, I am NOT a Mormon! I am a Baptist pastor!

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Pastor Smith–To secularists, agnostics, and atheists we Protestants, Catholics, and Orthodox are just as bizarre (and with not much more real proof) in our beliefs as you seem to think Mormons are. But that is not the issue. Issues of public policy should be the issue. A virgin birth–puleeze–are you nuts a secularist would say. How you orthodox Christians bifurcate your thinking shows how you–as you said– are “holding religious beliefs aloof over here and thinking in realpolitik over there.”

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Jerry–I agree –this article was better than most in the NY Times. However, when was the last time anyone mentioned Ted Kennedy used to be pro-life– until he got the itch to be president and needed to appease the national Democratic Party. It seems only those who finally realize fully that human lives are exterminated in an abortion and become pro-life are fingered by the media as “about facers” as this article did instead of calling it a growth in wisdom. But I live in Mass. and saw how Romney always came down more conservative on this issue than whichever liberal Dem he was debating with. And whenever they tag this seeming sudden change–only once have I seen the national media mention that, on the other hand, he won an award from Mass. pro-lifers for his work in a tough pro-abortion political environment here.
    Other spins in tha article were only mentioning Huckabee pulling ahead of Romney in Iowa, but NOT mentioning that there have been anti-Mormon-Romney telephone campaigns pushing Huckabee ahead.
    Also not mentioned were polls that repeatedly show there is less bigotry directed against a woman or Black becoming president than the bigotry a Mormon faces.
    Lacking some of this evidence in the story, the subtle spin becomes that Romney was only giving this speech as a political ploy without real reason for needing to give it.
    However, as I said, the article is not nearly as blatantly biased as some of the garbage the NY Times has published over the past few years.

  • Tom

    Deacon Bresnahan’s right. The MSM coverage of Mormon religion has been about all the weird (to most) parts of Mormonism – the underclothing, history of polygamy, etc. None of that necessarily has to do with governance. There may very well be questions that touch on actual issues of governance: LDS’ theological view of the USA, for example, might actually have relevance. What most voters ought to want to know is: does Mormonism have a political teaching? Is it one we can accept? (for instance, there are certain brands of Islam whose teaching on jihad would fudnamentally conflict with the American constitutional order. Does Mormonism have anything similar? Would Romney see those as normative?) Save the Christological debates for another venue.

    And, by the way, as a member of the Augustinian Anti-Defamation League, I want to raise a note of protest over Rox’s claim of the continuity of Augustine and Anselm on atonement.

  • http://www.msu.edu/~chasech5 Christopher W. Chase

    FrGregACCA wrote:

    And Kennedy still lost in Utah. This points to the real issue here: the relationship between the LDS Church and the Republican Party. Utah is, and has always been, essentially a one party state.”

    I’m afraid I have to respectfully but vehemently disagree there. The two most highly regarded post-Smith theologians–the only two to be declared “Defenders Of The Faith” were both powerful Democrats–B.H. Roberts and Hugh Nibley.

    Early Mormon members and would-be members of Congress were just as, if not more Democratic than Republican. FDR and the New Deal got more support from Utah than any other intermountain Western state–especially because the New Deal dovetailed so well with the Mormon Church’s internal Welfare program and emphasis on Public Works. 70% of Utahans voted for FDR in 1932. In the mid-to-late 1800′s it was the Republican Party that villifed Utah’s ambitions for statehood, and it was pressure from Republicans that pushed President Buchanan to commit “Buchanan’s Blunder.” The current association of much of the LDS community with support of the GOP platform was actually the result of the active engagement and courting of the LDS Church in the post-1960′s rise of Republican political religion.

    Even a cursory survey of the Mormon members of the current Congress reveals many Democrats and some GOP’ers who are not endorsing Romney.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Chase:

    Perhaps there is another factor. Can you draw a line at Roe? Is that a moment of great change for the LDS, as well as for the Bible Belt Democrats?

    In other words, are the current, modern LDS Democrats kind of like the endangered Blue Dog Democrats of Texas?

  • http://www.msu.edu/~chasech5 Christopher W. Chase

    I must say in general I enjoyed Gov. Romney’s speech, even though it did seem more than a little pandering at times–certainly much more than either JFK’s speech or Mario Cuomo’s 1984 speech at Notre Dame. What has bothered me the most is the stream of endless comments (on CNN and elsewhere) upset that Romney did not directly lecture on Mormon theology. Apart from the fact that many newsoutlet commentators (as on NPR’s “Talk of The Nation” and PRI’s “Here And Now”) have flagrantly misunderstood both the history of the LDS Church and Gov. Romney’s role as a “Bishop” in the LDS Church, media commentators seem unwilling to at least assess Gov. Romney’s claim that for him to expound at length on LDS theology would constitute “a religious test for public office”–exactly what the Founders prohibited!

    My politics are very much at odds with Gov. Romney, but as a devotee of a minority religious tradition with an interest in politics, I unabashedly take his side in this case. If those right-wing Protestant evangelicals (and others, as GR points out) are so obsessed with so-called “strict-constructionist” views of the Constitution in their judges, then they should start by strictly abiding by Article VI, Section 3 as a matter of moral principle, rather than howling about ‘religious freedom’ and Christian persecution only when it suits their political purposes. Or, as Gov. Romney put it, “each religion has its own unique doctrines and history. These are not bases for criticism but rather a test of our tolerance. Religious tolerance would be a shallow principle indeed if it were reserved only for faiths with which we agree.”

    Very well stated, Gov. Romney.

  • http://www.msu.edu/~chasech5 Christopher W. Chase

    Tmatt wrote:

    Perhaps there is another factor. Can you draw a line at Roe? Is that a moment of great change for the LDS, as well as for the Bible Belt Democrats? In other words, are the current, modern LDS Democrats kind of like the endangered Blue Dog Democrats of Texas?

    Interesting question. Based on my historical understanding, the issues are larger than Roe, but Roe would be a good example of the kind of shift I’m talking about. If we take Robert Wuthnow’s analysis of the shrinking of political denominationalism and the rise of “cross-denominational special-purpose groups” as the hallmark change in institutional religious practice from the 1950′s to the 1960′s, then this afforded LDS practitioners a tremendous opportunity to build issue-based bridges with other Christians who had common political cause. And since more of the special-purpose groups happened to be on the conservative side of the spectrum, it lent itself to a grassroots effort of LDS people to get involved in larger political issues. And there was some active institutional courting from the GOP as well.

    I’m sure Roe had something to do with it, but I’m thinking in larger terms. I’ll use an example: LDS Church members were just as concerned about the fractures of late 1960′s U.S. society as many others. If one factors in the LDS fundamental assumption that the U.S. is a Sacred Biblical Landscape…a new Post-Millennial Zion, then fears and anxieties about social fissues and tensions take on a whole new urgency, just as they would from a Hal Lindsay-ish, pre-millennialist perspective of 1970′s Protestant fundamentalists–just in a slightly different way. They dovetail well, even if they are not the same.

    I think reports of the demise of Democratic LDS politicians are greatly exaggerated–the *social gospel* of the LDS Church is simply too strong and too ingrained to allow a complete wholesale conversion to the GOP.

    I hope I’m being clear. It’s a bit late for me :) Great coverage of these issues at GR, by the way. When I want to throw my coffee at the NPR show host, I just remember I can be more productive about it here at GR.

  • Olivia Monroe

    I thought Romney’s speech was terrible in that he never once said what Mormons actually believe. He skirted around the issue and tried to make himself look like a Christian to gain the evangelical vote, period. He is one of the slickest, most deceitful politicians I’ve ever seen. His Mormon beliefs aside, I don’t trust him for a minute. He was pro-life, then pro-choice, then pro-life again and coincidently these “convictions” change just before he is running for office and needs to win votes.

    Whether any politician admits it or not, their faith or lack therof very much influences how they make decisions. Romney was not honest about his faith and what he truly believes. Funny that the press think that it’s fine to constantly badger Mike Huckabee about his specific beliefs but NO ONE will ask Mitt Romney about his Mormon mission work in France or if he wears Mormon magic underwear. It’s such a double standard.

    No matter how Mormons try to dress it up, it is NOT Christianity. They don’t believe in the Trinity, they believe Jesus and Lucifer were spiritual brothers and that humans can become gods on earth. I want a president who humbles himself to God in prayer, not a president who thinks he can become a god.

  • Stephen A.

    Christopher Chase (21) touched on the fact that Romney was “pandering” in his speech, and to that I say, Yup. He was, in a sense.

    The speech was targeted (to use a marketing/political term) to the Christian Evangelicals, and more specifically, to those in Iowa.

    But those in the media who have said this, and gone on to note that he seemed to ignore or denigrate those with NO faith in God, missed some major points made by Romney. He included a LOT of other non-Christian religions in his speech, and made it clear that people have their own beliefs about God.

    While not mentioning atheists, I’m sure if asked by a reporter, he would surely include the right to not have a belief, as well. But his main mission here was to assuage the mistrust that the Evangelicals has for him, and I think his message: that we ALL share values, is a universal one and was right on target.

    As for Mr. Chase’s other comment about the Constitution, in Article VI, not requiring religious tests of candidates for office, I’d also agree. But there’s no Constitutional requirement that a president be articulate, or from one of the two major parties, or from a significant or “swing” state, either, but political tradition makes these things unspoken requirements.

    I’d also point out that he’s volunteering this information about his faith. He could have simply decided, at the beginning of the campaign, not to ever discuss religion, or even to not confirm his church membership as a Mormon. But he didn’t. The fact that he’s opening up on his own, albeit after numerous requests for information by the press (some would call it hounding) is his own choice, and not a violation of the Constitution, which – one must remember – restricts the GOVERNMENT, not the people, from forcing a religious test on candidates.

  • Dave2

    The Constitution’s prohibition on religious tests seems completely irrelevant to this controversy. I don’t know why people keep bringing it up,

  • http://web.mac.com/deacsnook/iweb/site cyranoRox

    I was not defaming Anselm, I was referring to his doctrine of the supposed infinite offence of Man against God, which doctrine is rejected by the Orthodox. It has its roots in late Medieval Germanic [pagan] idea that the degree of an offence is proportional to the rank of the offended. This is the keystone of the Original Sin/Atonement/Justification doctrine. There are abundant OT and NT passsages and narratives showing that this is alien to Hebrew and Apostolic thought. As for dating angels [socially, not geologically] see Byron’s “Heaven and Earth”.