But I read it in The New York Times!

I know, I know. It’s an opinion piece.

Nevertheless, I am very, very afraid that, at some point in the future, I am going to see people quoting the following and then adding the crucial kicker — “according to an article in The New York Times.”

Here we go.

If you are holding a cup of coffee, please set it aside, far from your keyboard. The headline on this essay by David S. Reynolds is blunt: “Why Evangelicals Don’t Like Mormons.”

Uh. Actually, I have known some evangelicals who rather like Mormons, consider them close friends and even colleagues, while remaining aware that — in terms of doctrine — their faiths cannot be reconciled. Believe it or not, the National Association of Evangelicals board met in Salt Lake City last spring. That’s in Utah. Years of formal and informal dialogue continued. Bread was broken. These things happen.

But moving on. Back to the lede in this Gray Lady essay:

According to a CNN exit poll of South Carolina Republican primary voters, Newt Gingrich, a thrice-married Catholic, won twice as much support from evangelical Protestants as Mitt Romney, a Protestant. And among voters for whom religion meant “a great deal,” 46 percent voted for Mr. Gingrich and only 10 percent for Mr. Romney.

That sound you just heard was the explosion of thousands of minds in church-history departments from sea to shining sea.

Let’s back up for a moment.

In my reporting days in Colorado, covering most of the 1980s, I spent many hours meeting with press representatives of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, talking about the kinds of language issues that keep coming up here at GetReligion. One of the crucial topics was whether a believer needed to be “Trinitarian” in order to be called “Christian.” There is, for example, the matter of Oneness Pentecostals, whose rejection of the Trinity does not seem to cause them to lose their “Christian” label in public media.

In all of my meetings, I never heard a Mormon leader simply state that they considered themselves another branch of, well, Protestantism. I never heard that word claimed. In light of the harsh realities of daily journalism, when a few words have to go a long way, they often suggested that “Mormon Christians” could be accurately contrasted with “Trinitarian Christians.” And so forth and so on.

Please note that I am not trying to settle this hot-button issue in public and journalistic language, primarily because I am not sure that it can be settled that easily.

My point is that it is ridiculous — even in an editorial column — to simply state that Mitt Romney is a Protestant. I think that this publication’s elite readers are supposed to assume that Romney is a Protestant because he is not a Catholic. Then again, many mainstream journalists seem convinced that Catholic Rick Santorum is a evangelical Protestant.

This use of the term “Protestant” is central to this Times piece. It is also, as usual, assumed that doctrinal conflicts linked to Mormon beliefs are caused by some uniquely evangelical bias — as opposed to the Vatican’s stand on this issue, or the concerns of all but a few liberal Protestants.

Evangelicals, you see, are the problem.

This is the second evangelical-heavy state Mr. Romney has lost. With a third, Florida, next on the list, it’s important to consider the often antagonistic skepticism that many evangelicals have of Mr. Romney’s brand of Protestantism: Mormonism.

For many evangelicals, that faith — a “false religion,” as the Baptist pastor Robert Jeffress called it — raises serious doubts about Mr. Romney’s suitability for office. But such concerns ultimately say more about the insecurities of the establishment denominations than about Mormonism itself.

Many evangelicals assert that Mormonism denies the divinity of Christ and is therefore not a branch of Christianity. But the Mormon belief is that Jesus was the first-born child of God and a woman, and that humans can aspire to share his spiritual essence in the afterlife.

So, so much to say. So many crucial doctrinal points ignored. The essay goes on to note the fact that marketplace of American religion has produced more than its share of alternative religions, in addition to Mormonism. Any short list would include the Christian Scientists and the Jehovah’s Witnesses. The assumption of the Times copy desk, once again, is that all of them can fit neatly under this “Protestant” umbrella.

Says who? Well, says this writer in The New York Times.

Once again, this is not a news piece. I know that. I know that we are not supposed to hold editorial columns to the same journalistic standards as pieces in the news pages. Wait, does that include matters of fact and definitions?

Do readers understand these kinds of editorial differences? What happens when the “Mitt Romney, a Protestant” reference — which at the very least deserves debate, no matter where it appears — is quoted elsewhere? And what about the other sins of commission and omission included in this piece?

Yes, this is not news. But in this day and age, the wall between editorial comment and news seems to be falling. What happens when editorial writers make fact statements of this kind? Who is responsible for accuracy in this case?

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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.getreligion.org Mollie

    Wasn’t it Daniel Patrick Moynihan who said you’re entitled to your own opinion, but not your own facts? That seems to apply to opinion pieces such as this.

  • Stan

    I think you are missing the point of Reynolds’ using the term Protestant. He is not saying that Romney is a Protestant. He is saying that rather than vote for a Mormon, a large majority of Protestants preferred to vote for a Roman Catholic, traditionally seen as opposed to Protestantism.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Trying to figure out Mormonism and its being (or not being) a type of Protestantism is a daunting task. One should read histories of the Evangelical-Protestant revival movement called the Second Great Awakening (radiating out of upstate NY (sometimes called the Burned Over District). Apparently Joseph Smith was a wayward product of that movement in the 19th Century.
    On the other hand I don’t think it is elitists in the media or elsewhere who willy-nilly consider Mormons Protestant. I think that the vast majority of average Catholics (and many others) just consider the Mormon Church as part of this country’s Protestant religious landscape and put virtually no research into discovering otherwise.

  • http://www.ecben.net Will

    Unfortunately, the concept that American religion all fits into the “Catholic, Protestant, Jew” triad is too ingrained.

  • http://www.ecben.net Will

    Stan, Reynolds writes “Mitt Romney, a Protestant”. How is this not saying that Romney is a Protestant?

  • Chris Jones

    American religion all fits into the “Catholic, Protestant, Jew” triad

    Mostly true, perhaps; but that would make Eastern Orthodox folks (like TMatt) into sort of exotic Protestants. I don’t recall, on the relatively rare occasions when Orthodox are discussed in the news media, that journalists have tried to force the Orthodox into one of those three boxes.

    Maybe because Orthodox are vaguely “foreign” they escape the Catholic-Protestant-Jew trichotomy.

  • Mike

    Even opinion pieces are supposed to be logical. In this case, you can’t draw the conclusion that more evangelicals voted for Gingrich than Romney because they don’t like Mormons. Maybe they preferred Gingrich because they thought he was the more conservative or better candidate — and their respective faiths had little or nothing to do with their decision. Simple voting patterns prove nothing.

  • Stan

    Yes, Will, Reynolds does (mistakenly) identify Romney as a Protestant, but his point is that a large portion of the Evangelical voters chose to vote for a member of the Roman Catholic Church, traditionally seen as the antithesis to Protestantism, rather than vote for a Mormon.

  • Jeff the Baptist

    “Mostly true, perhaps; but that would make Eastern Orthodox folks (like TMatt) into sort of exotic Protestants.”

    More likely exotic Catholics. Of course from the Orthodox perspective it’s the Protestants that are exotic Catholics.

  • Chris Jones

    from the Orthodox perspective it’s the Protestants that are exotic Catholics

    Or vice versa: as a prominent Orthodox theologian, Alexei Khomiakov, once wrote: “The Pope was the first Protestant.”

  • CarlH

    Of course, there are certainly a lot of Mormon minds exploding as well in the assertion that Mormonism is a brand of “Protestantism” (viewing themselves as “Restorationists”–a broader term than many, including Mormons, realize) rather than “Protestants.”

    But again, I think someone is protesting a little too much here about this not being exclusively an Evangelical “problem.” The article is trying to address the facts on the ground in the South Carolina GOP primary, not the definition of the word “Protestant” (although that is clearly a journalistic problem with the piece and deserving of criticism), or the fact that other Christians in addition to “Evangelicals” have serious theological problems with Mormonism. The “problem” is that more “Evangelicals” are going out of their way not to vote for Mitt Romney than voters from other Christian denominations. I suppose one might argue that those facts are the result of “Evangelical” voters perceiving a greater threat to the Republic from Romney’s heretical Christian theology than do voters from the rest of orthodox Christianity (and there might even be a decent article or two that could be written on that), but you can’t really argue with the premise of the article–especially in light of a certain recent meeting of “Evangelical” leaders to rouse those whose fidelity to truth might be flagging (even if most of the folks in the South Carolina pews appear not to have followed the specific candidate recommendation announced).

  • http://cleansingfiredor.com/ Thinkling

    Minor point: “I that this publication’s elite readers are supposed to assume that Romney…” Verb missing, perhaps “think” or take”.

  • http://cleansingfiredor.com/ Thinkling

    …this publication’s elite readers are supposed to assume that Romney is a Protestant because he is not a Catholic. Then again, many mainstream journalists seem convinced that Catholic Rick Santorum is a evangelical Protestant.

    Amazing. Next we know someone will be convinced that journalists should be journalists, and that readers are supposed to assume that paid editorial writers are logical and coherent. Oh wait…

    I don’t have much to comment other than a billion or so people in the world are starving and yet someone is paying this guy good money to have this published. This is just bad.

  • Martha

    “But the Mormon belief is that Jesus was the first-born child of God and a woman, and that humans can aspire to share his spiritual essence in the afterlife.”

    That sentence makes me want to curl up into a ball and cry. Just… is it de trop to mention Arianism in this context? The Arians too respected and venerated Jesus, the Arians too accepted Jesus as Son of God, just not in the same way as others did.

    I don’t think that line is fair to Mormon theology; of all the reasons Mormons might claim to be Christians (but not Trinitarians), that’s a horribly weak construction on the part of the journalist.

    I suppose I shouldn’t be too surprised, though, given that there seems to be an attempt to have what were previously called “heresies” re-labelled as “variant Christianities”.

  • Kris D

    The Catholic/Protestant/Jew triad has been in use for a long time. My father’s brother was raised LDS & was shot down over Germany in 1943. My grandmother received a condolence note from a German Protestant chaplain, as that was all that dog tags at that time could indicate (Catholic/Protestant/Jew). My aunt (his sister) has always been slightly miffed that his gravemarker is a cross. Now he could have a gravemarker with the angel Moroni. Sometimes it feels as though the American public has not progressed as far as their knowledge of any religion, or any differences in religion. Journalists in this culture reflect that.

  • Barbara C.

    From a Religious Studies perspective, Christianity is usually divided into Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant. Protestants obviously were named due to their “protesting” the Catholic church (and later each other) and almost all Protestant denominations (including non-Trinitarian ones such as Mormonism, Jehovah’s Witness, and Pentecostalism) can be traced back through Protestant roots. And many Protestants are more likely to attack Catholicism and completely ignore Eastern Orthodoxy, even though Eastern Orthodoxy has way more similar beliefs to Catholicism than most Protestant denominations.

    I think the larger question is whether Mormonism falls under Christianity at all. For instance, the Muslims acknowledge Jesus as a prophet and from what I understand he is discussed in the Koran, but they are obviously not Christians. If it is really Christian, than it is just a another flavor of Protestantism. If not, than it is an entity unto itself.

  • http://www.biblebeltblogger.com Frank Lockwood

    I think the Mormon Church would reject the notion that they’re a product of the Protestant Reformation, instead teaching that they’re the result of a Gospel Restoration.

    The point — Mormonism doesn’t trace its roots to or through the Catholic Church or the Protestant church.

  • Mark Baddeley

    There is a tension here. IIRC other articles by GetReligion have questioned the new fad of ‘fact checking’. If it’s the case that journalists shouldn’t be ‘fact checking’ the claims of people in the public square, but they should ‘fact check’ the assertions made in editorials, there is room for a degree of grey as to when one ends and the other begins.

    I’m not saying this example isn’t a howler, unless the writer genuinely does have a conviction that Mormons are Protestants that has some kind of ground (and even in that unlikely event the view is, well, exotic to say the least). Just that this might make good grounds for a future conversation – the difference between ‘accuracy’ and ‘fact checking’, especially in the realm of religion reporting where the labels and the ‘facts’ are often part of the controversies.

  • Cicero

    Actually, Mormons tend to be rather insistent that they are not Protestant.

    The current Mormon prophet has a story he loves to tell about when he was in basic training during WWII. Sunday came and the Drill Sergeant order them to assemble. He then told all the Catholics to fall out and go off to a certain camp for services and not come back until 2pm. Then he called all the Jews to fall out and go to another camp until 2pm (yeah, they forced the Jews to worship on Sunday instead of Saturday). Then he said “All the rest of you Protestants go off to camp X and don’t come back till 2 o-clock.”

    The Sergeant was confused why there were a bunch of men still standing at attention. “What heck are you?”

    “We’re Mormons!”

    “Well… go find some place and don’t come back till 2 o-clock.”

  • DL

    I think this is one more example of complete ignorance of theological differences by American Elites who look down upon all people of faith. Mormons are not Fundamentalist Christians who arrived there by a different theology. As a Latter-day Saint, I appreciate the difference and would not have it any other way.

  • Harold

    Every Protestant tradition I know of, ie of Western Christians who broke from Rome –Lutheran, Calvinist, Anabaptist, Anglican– is Trinitarian and holds to sola scriptura and sola gratia. In no way does this fit Mormons. Or, btw, Jehovah’s Witnesses or Christian Scientists.

    I find it disingenuous of Mormons to demand inclusion in the Christian fold along with other Christians, since it was the apostasy, aka total disappearance, of the Gospel which required Joseph Smith’s Restoration. An honest Mormon would admit that it is the rest of the “Christians” who are not as advertised and that only the LDS is rightly called Christian.

  • Chris

    I really want to believe that this is a thoughtful opinion piece about the interface of politics and religious differences. But given my personal experience of hearing conservative Christian opposition to Romney based much more in politics (“not conservative enough “) than religion, its hard for me not to think this is more about Democratic opposition to a leading Republican candidate and the desire for dissention within the enemy’s camp.

    I know, over reading and paranoid.

  • Chris

    This is the second evangelical-heavy state Mr. Romney has lost

    So if Iowa is an “evangelical – heavy” state what will the author say about Maine or Oregon?

  • Jettboy

    If we Mormons have to be called Protestants to be considered Christians, then I’m all for it. It might not be accurate, but its more accurate than saying Mormons aren’t Christians. I’ll take what I can get to counter-balance those who refuse to acknowledge I worship the Divine Lord Jesus Christ.