The Mitt countdown continues

joseph smithSo even though I’m normally complaining about how journalists only notice religion when it involves politics, I’m giving myself up to the political machine this week and discussing more stories about Romney and his Mormonism. Coverage has been all over the map. Contrast, for instance, this headline from The Boston Globe:

Pressed, Romney to speak on his Mormonism

with this one from the Los Angeles Times:

Mormonism not focus of Romney speech

So now that that’s clear, let’s move on to the attempts by some news outlets to explain Mormonism. By far the worst entry I’ve seen comes from WCCO in Minneapolis. Apparently reporter Ben Tracy has a running feature called “Good Question,” in which he explains where headaches come from and how much the president is paid. This week’s good question was ‘What do Mormons believe?’ He somehow managed to be unfair to or misrepresent both Mormons and the vast majority of traditional Christians at the same time. Also, he used all of one source — an ordinary member of the church:

“We call ourselves Mormons too,” said Dick Halverson, a member of the Mormon church in Oakdale, Minn.

He said he’s heard the accusations that his faith is a cult and not Christian.

“A 13 million-member cult worldwide?” he asked. “Jesus Christ is the cornerstone of our faith. So when we as Latter Day Saints hear that, it’s astonishing to us.”

However, Mormons also believe in Joseph Smith, a young American man they say was visited by God in 1820.

Latter-day Saints believe that Joseph Smith (pictured) was the first modern prophet. They believe he restored the Christian church, which, according to Smith, was lost soon after the death of Jesus’ Apostles. To say they “also believe in” him makes it seem like they approach Smith and Christ in the same fashion, which isn’t accurate. To be fair, Tracy goes on to explain Smith and his role in greater detail. But this was my favorite part:

“If you really want to offend your good Mormon friend, tell ’em they’re not a real Christian,” said Halverson.

Like other Christian faiths, Mormons believe Christ will re-establish a kingdom on earth. However, they believe it will be here in the United States.

There are so many problems with that last paragraph, I don’t even know where to begin. Halverson himself acknowledges that not everyone agrees that Mormons are Christian — so why would Tracy begin the next sentence by saying, “Like other Christian faiths” as if the issue were settled? Also, I think faiths is not the best word to use there. Finally, should someone tell Tracy that “other Christians” aren’t all premillennialists or postmillennialists, such as, I don’t know, the Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholics, Lutherans and Anglicans?

Another story I found interesting is the Associated Press’ short — as in 200 words — piece headlined “Mormon Teachings Upset Some Christians.” You would think a story with a headline like that might explain which teachings upset which Christians and why. Instead, it’s just a brief summary (using Romney as a hook) of a few Mormon teachings that differ from traditional Christianity, such as:

Mormons believe that authentic Christianity vanished a century after Jesus and was restored only through Joseph Smith, whom Mormons consider a prophet.

Smith revised — and in his view corrected — large sections of the Bible in the 19th century, an act of heresy in the eyes of Protestant and Roman Catholic leaders. The Mormon scriptures include the Old and New Testaments, but also include books containing Smith’s revelations.

Latter-day Saints counter that they are badly misunderstood and insist their church is indeed Christian.

It’s not that there’s anything wrong with this snippet so much as there is so much missing. A story about Mormon teachings upsetting some Christians simply can’t be 200 words long, particularly in light of how poorly the issue has been covered up to now.

Speaking of glaring omissions, I’m absolutely shocked that more local reporters aren’t talking to Mormons about how they feel about Romney’s religion speech. The one I did find, by The Salt Lake Tribune‘s Peggy Fletcher Stack, was super interesting:

For months, political pundits and journalists have been urging Mitt Romney to give a speech about his Mormon faith, but a few fellow Latter-day Saints aren’t sure it’s such a good idea.

They worry about whether the speech, scheduled for Thursday at the George Bush Presidential Library in Texas, will help or hurt Romney’s political chances and, equally important, whether it will help or hurt Mormonism’s image. They say they don’t want their sacred doctrines analyzed and possibly pilloried any more than usual by evangelical Christians or media commenters.

She speaks with professors and interested observers who recommend various approaches — reassuring voters that any religious differences are not dangerous or telling them that Mormonism is just one form of Christianity. Some Mormons are against the speech entirely, she writes:

“I don’t think there’s a way to give this speech that wouldn’t end up hurting Romney more than it helps him,” J. Nelson-Seawright of Evanston, Ill., wrote on the Mormon blog,

“A lot of Americans (particularly politically conservative evangelical Protestants) fear actual, real-life Mormon beliefs,” he wrote. “If Romney allays their fears, it will have to be by distancing himself from those beliefs.”

Yet that would make his effort to run as a candidate of faith appear disingenuous, Nelson-Seawright said. If Romney implies that voters needn’t worry about his religion, they may decide he doesn’t have one. But if Romney presents himself as a genuine Mormon, he said, “then — no matter how nice or competent he is — speaking out on his faith will only convince his doubters that they’re right.”

And these are among the reasons LDS attorney Lowell Brown has long opposed any such presentation. Brown, of Southern California, worries that such a speech will set back the Mormon/Evangelical rapprochement about 30 years.

“Romney faces the challenge of Mormon ‘distinctives,’” said Brown, who has been blogging daily about the Romney campaign for the last 18 months on “There are so many things Mormons believe that virtually no one else believes. It takes a lot of explaining to get them into the right context,” he said. “To try to address those differences in a political, national campaign seems like a nightmare to me.”

Fletcher Stack’s story and her sources were really interesting. Yes, she’s in Salt Lake City, where the Latter-day Saints are headquartered, but you’ll note that none of her sources live there. That’s because Mormons live all over the place. Reporters might want to use the speech as a hook to speak with ordinary Mormons about how they’re dealing with the national interest in their religion.

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  • Jerry

    A story about Mormon teachings upsetting some Christians simply can’t be 200 words long, particularly in light of how poorly the issue has been covered up to now.

    I think I’ve noticed a trend here. There are many times when one or the other of you have wanted more details in a story. Sometimes it really is OK to give a quick overview of a controversial area. In spite of the title, the piece was a short note about Romney, not about Mormonism. As such, the issue of his religion in the eyes of some voters is relevant. The details of the differences are not relevant to the story’s main point.

  • rrk1phd

    As evinced in our Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and Bill of Rights, our country’s founders envisioned a great nation of opportunity, wherein one’s life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness are not contingent upon concurring with the predominant ideology. In our modern day, Martin Luther King, Jr. further challenged the myopia of the hegemony, when he dreamed of a day wherein all Americans would forsake their petty prejudices, so that all men might judge one another according to his character. Our Constitution wisely does not specify any particular religious affiliation as a qualification for the Presidency, and only stipulates:
    “No person except a natural born citizen, or a citizen of the United States, at the time of the adoption of this Constitution, shall be eligible to the office of President; neither shall any person be eligible to that office who shall not have attained to the age of thirty five years, and been fourteen Years a resident within the United States.”
    In précis, the fundamental writs of our nation exhibit an abhorrence of arbitrary and capricious requisite qualifications in order to participate in the American political process. Ostensibly, the builders of our great nation wished to imbue its people with these ideals.
    Our freedom of worship was not born out of our nation’s liberty, but our nation’s liberty is a deliberate consequence of our need to worship freely. Our forefathers hazarded scarcely charted seas to come to this blessed land in which they, and their posterity, could freely practice their beliefs without political oppression or social persecution. The colonization of the Americas was no less an exodus than the flight of the Children of Israel, led by the hand of God in search of a promised land–a land free from the tyranny of state imposed religion or socially enforced ideology. From the remembrance of the crimes of past repression, our forefathers founded and fought for a nation that would ensure that its people would not merely have a privilege, but have the right to worship that Almighty Being in accordance to the dictates of their own conscience, in whatever form that may be. Undeniably, our unwritten national credo remains to this day, ‘I may not share your beliefs, but I willingly give my life to protect your right to believe as you will.’
    Our nation is a light upon a hill, a beacon for liberty that invites all nations to share in similar blessings. Mormonism believes that it was the hand of a vibrant and living Christ that guided our forefathers to this land. The Lord inspired our founding fathers to ‘form a more perfect union.’ Mormonism continues the predication of this land through its pioneering spirit of hope, and embracing the principles of a righteous democracy.
    Mormonism is a New World religion, which sprouted from the same soil that our nation’s founders cherished. It openly shares with the world a message of hope, camaraderie, and rectitude. It also advocates an orderly personal autonomy and lawful accountability. Mormonism testifies that Christ’s love extends to all humanity and His divinity is over the whole Earth, in all ages, times, and seasons. Although Mormonism seeks to embody all that is virtuous and good about Christianity, it is not ideologically rooted in the traditions and dogma that permeate Old World religions. Instead, it boldly proclaims that the Heavens are open and that God continues to speak with his children! The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints stands as a witness that the resurrected Christ indeed lives! He lives in our day, He compassionately knows our condition, and He is vigorously engaged in our redemption.
    I believe that if Mitt Romney truly believes his religion, then we have nothing to fear, because I believe that his religion embodies the same values that our nation’s forefathers hoped would be instilled in this great country.

  • deacon jim

    there is no religious requirement for being president of the usa. however, my quarrel with romney and mormonism, in general, is in trying to portray themselves as christians. they simply are NOT christians, they are MORMONS, a different religion, not a different version of christianity. they are not a cult of christianity, either. so i’d just like for them to stop being disingenuous with the american people and tell the truth about their religion. it’s okay to be a mormon and to run for president of the usa. just like it’s okay to be jewish, muslim, buddhist, hindu, or whatever and run for president. can you imagine hindus telling us that they are just another version of islam?

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  • Joel

    i’d just like for them to stop being disingenuous with the american people and tell the truth about their religion

    Well, THEY believe they’re Christians, so for them to “admit” to not being would itself be disingenuous. Their definition of what constitutes a Christian is such that they fit within it. It would be silly to demand that they change that definition to place themselves outside it.

    As for the actual coverage…

    I was really disappointed in the WCCO article. It’s embarrassingly simplistic. This sentence, I thought, was a glaring example:
    However, Mormons also believe in Joseph Smith, a young American man they say was visited by God in 1820.

    Of couurse they “believe in” him. I don’t think there’s any doubt about his existence. It woiuld have been better to specify WHAT they believe about him, which the article did only very superficially. It also mentions the Book of Mormon, but leaves out the continuing revelation and the role of the current prophet, arguably more important to voters. There are plenty of nits to pick with this coverage, but that’s an especially obvious one.

  • Dave2

    rrk1phd, if your reasoning is any good, then voters should ignore the fact that a candidate belongs to Scientology or the Church of Satan or the Nation of Islam. But that’s an unacceptable result. Surely it’s sometimes okay for voters to take into account the religious beliefs of a candidate, because sometimes religious beliefs indicate something about a person’s character. It follows that there’s something wrong with your reasoning.

    Or perhaps I’ve misunderstood you?

  • Dave2

    Deacon Jim, the dispute over whether Mormons are Christians looks like a mere matter of stipulation, a mere product of harmless vagueness. Both sides are (or often are) familiar with all the facts of the case. It’s just that one side has one set of standards for applying the term ‘Christian’, and the other side has another set of standards. And it’s not like the term ‘Christian’ is precise enough to settle the question of whose standards are correct. On the contrary, the term is vague enough is accommodate both sets of standards. So the dispute is not over the facts. It’s just terminological.

    It’s like arguing over when a pile of rocks becomes a heap, or over when a man counts as bald, except that instead of having a single vague comes-in-degrees standard, the term ‘Christian’ has a variety of standards at work.

    Or if you think the term has precise conditions of application, then give details. And then classify these tough cases: Socinians, Arians, Joseph Priestly, Thomas Jefferson, Jehovah’s Witnesses.

  • Dave2

    Oops: I meant ‘Priestley’

  • SouthCoast

    “Smith revised — and in his view corrected — large sections of the Bible in the 19th century, an act of heresy in the eyes of Protestant and Roman Catholic leaders. ”

    I think the issue is not so much that this “revision” is seen by Protestants and Catholics as an act of heresy as that it is seen as an act of fiction. That being said, however, I still continue to view Romney as a potentially viable Presidential candidate, and one for whom I might be persuaded to vote.

  • Joel

    Smith revised — and in his view corrected — large sections of the Bible in the 19th century, an act of heresy in the eyes of Protestant and Roman Catholic leaders.

    Although I think this is a reference to the BoM, there’s also Joseph Smith’s own translation of the Bible, which is kind of a historical curiosity that the reporter probably wasn’t aware of. Smith didn’t just revise (or correct) large swaths of the Bible; he actually revised (or corrected) the whole thing. For reasons I’m not clear on, Mormons use the King James rather than Smith’s Inspired Version. Nevertheless, it’s out there, and none of the news articles seem to have noticed it.