Mitt Romney addresses “people of different faiths”

Here we go again.

If you are interested in religion news (as opposed to pure politics), and you are willing to look at Mitt Romney’s Liberty University commencement speech from the point of view of the audience, then it’s pretty clear which paragraph deserves the most attention. Here it is:

People of different faiths, like yours and mine, sometimes wonder where we can meet in common purpose, when there are so many differences in creed and theology. Surely the answer is that we can meet in service, in shared moral convictions about our nation stemming from a common worldview. The best case for this is always the example of Christian men and women working and witnessing to carry God’s love into every life. …

Focus on that first sentence. Romney tells the audience — packed with evangelical, Pentecostal and even fundamentalist Protestants — that he knows that they are believers in “different faiths.” Not different churches, different denominations or different movements. He also says that he knows they are divided by doctrinal differences that are so basic that they are, literally, creedal. They are divided, in other words, by theology.

Romney then goes on to say, however, that they are united by “shared moral convictions” and a “common worldview.” Basically, he asks for civic tolerance on behalf of a common cultural cause.

Divided by creed and theology. Got it.

United by “worldview,” one of the vague, but hot, buzz words of recent decades in evangelical life. Got it, sort of.

This brings us to the top of The New York Times report on this event:

LYNCHBURG, Va. – Mitt Romney traveled to Liberty University, the spiritual heart of the conservative movement, on Saturday, seeking to quell concerns about him among evangelical voters by offering a forceful defense of faith and Christian values in public life.

At a graduation speech at the college, founded by the evangelical leader Jerry Falwell, Mr. Romney made the case that he is bound theologically and politically to the same belief and value system as Christian conservatives, though he never explicitly mentioned his Mormon faith.

Now wait a minute. Yes on the whole vague “values” thing, but did Romney say that he was united to these Protestant conservatives in a common “belief … system,” a term that most of his listeners would have associated with doctrines and theology?

No, he didn’t. In fact, he said he was a believer in a different faith. He then asked these listeners to accept him as an ally on matters of culture and morality — a coalition-building formula that would have sounded very familiar on a campus built by the Rev. Jerry Falwell, founder of the interfaith, not ecumenical, group called the Moral Majority (which always included Mormons, from day one).

A few lines later, the Times repeats a common, and related, error in news coverage of this topic.

It was Mr. Romney’s most extensive and direct discussion of religion since his 2007 speech about his own faith and was intended to help him reassure conservatives, some of whom do not accept Mormonism as a Christian religion.

Note that, in this case, “conservatives” stands alone. In the context, however, it would appear that this means conservative Protestants, once again implying that they are the only Trinitarian Christians who do not accept Mormonism as fully Christian. Tell that to the Vatican, to Constantinople, the Lutherans, the United Methodists, etc., etc. In fact, has any Trinitarian Christian body accepted the validity of Mormon scriptures, doctrines and rites? I seem to remember that one or two Episcopal Church dioceses have done so, but I cannot find the reference.

Later on in the story, the Times repeats this same flawed formula:

Mormons consider themselves Christians, as noted in the church’s formal name, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but evangelicals do not consider the Mormon scripture to be Christian.

Here is my question for GetReligion readers: What is the alleged content of this statement that journalists keep making, the statement that evangelical Christians — apparently alone — do not accept Mormons as Christians (as opposed to other Trinitarian Christian groups)? I think the point is that many evangelicals may carry their doctrinal grudges into voting booths, the only territory that matters to far too many journalists.

You can see this same problem in many other stories about the Liberty University address. Take the USA Today story, for example, which noted:

Mormonism has been a controversial topic among some evangelicals.

Right. Some evangelicals. That’s all.

How about The Washington Post?

Romney’s Mormon faith is a sensitive subject on campus at Liberty, where each class opens with biblical devotionals and the curriculum refers to Mormonism as conflicting with the school’s Christian theology.

Right. The issue is simply Liberty University’s approach to Christian theology. That’s the problem.

Here’s the irony. It seems, when one reads the full text of Romney’s speech, that the candidate knew more about the hurdles he faced in that public address than the journalists sent to cover it. Thus, he admitted that they were believers in different faiths, divided by theology and creed, but that they could — with civic tolerance — be united in worldview, “values” and a common cause.

Romney would need to give the same speech at Catholic University, Wheaton College, Baylor University, Calvin College and in numerous other settings, because he would need to make the same essential point. How many journalists understand that?

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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.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    On the whole I think Romney does not want to talk about his Mormon Faith. That is because, I believe, he is convinced that is all he would wind up being asked about most of the time. He does not want to be in the position of being expected to be an apologist for Mormon teachings.
    To ask him or expect of him to go beyond where he stands on all the many public issues being debated is to make a “de facto” religious test (unconstitutional) for living in the White House.

  • http://rub-a-dub.blogspot.com Mattk

    Interesting. I thought the “spiritual heart of the [modern American] conservative movement” was located at: 215 Lexington Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10016

  • Harris

    Perhaps the source for the notion that Evangelicals hesitate when it comes to Mormons arises first in polling data from 2007-2008. Not that I have it here, but I’m guessing that it shows some reluctance. Of course, Mormons have also been singled out in a number of books on cults (here is an online version of these sorts of arguments)– this might also be a reason. A further indication of the distance between Evangelicals and Mormons can be seen in the repeated reactions to Richard Mouw’s fairly sympathetic treatment of them (this from evangelical Anglicans).

    Is it a mistake to think Evangelicals are alone in their difference? Nominally, but clearly when some one like Dr. Mouw reaches out (more of a centrist approach) and gets pushed back vigorously, we can safely say that Evangelicals have a particular dislike. At least theologically — the political calculation by all lights will be different.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    HARRIS:

    So you basically agree that what journalists are trying to say is that they think evangelicals (and Pentecostals and fundamentalists) are more likely to ACT on their beliefs in the ballot box, as I said?

    If journalists wrote that, and cited relevant poll data, I would not object at all. They isn’t what they are writing, however. Instead, they keep saying that evangelicals — as opposed to Trinitarians in general — have these objections to Mormon beliefs.

  • Julia

    Mitt Romney traveled to Liberty University, the spiritual heart of the conservative movement,

    MattK, that line jumped out at me as well.

    Funny that journalists and political commentators on the Left often lump all conservatives as Evangelicals and/or social conservatives.

    Speaking of a

    heart of the conservative movement

    , there is a big dispute going on in Missouri about Rush Limbaugh being enrolled at the state house as a Famous Missourian. The comments to the St Louis Post Dispatch story are full of readers complaining that Limbaugh is a hypocrite because he doesn’t live by the Christian principals he preaches – because of his four marriages and ill addiction. Other commenters repeatedly try to point out that if people would actually listen to him they would learn that he never talks about his Christian principals and has acknowledged that he is actually a hedonist.

    http://www.stltoday.com/news/local/govt-and-politics/political-fix/limbaugh-inducted-into-hall-of-famous-missourians/article_9851f6f0-9dee-11e1-9074-001a4bcf6878.html

    I’d like to see some statistics on what percent of conservative voters are actually Evangelicals. I don’t think they are over 50%.

    Here’s what I could find:

    George W. Bush’s electoral success owed much to his overwhelming support from white evangelical voters, who comprise 23% of the vote. In 2000 he received 68% of the white evangelical vote; in 2004 that percentage rose to 78%.[42]

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christian_right

    From this site I got the total votes in 2000.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_presidential_election,_2000

    23% of the total vote in 2000 was 101,455,899 x .23 = 23,334,856 white Evangelicals voted.

    In 2000 Bush received 68% of the white Evangelical vote = 15,901,702.

    Dividing the white Evangelical votes for Bush by his total votes = approx. 31%. He got 78% in 2004 which would be about about 34%.

    For the sake of argument here, a vote for Bush equals a vote for the conservative movement, white Evangelicals are about 1/3 of the conservative movement. Ergo, 2/3 of the time when journalists assume a conservative is a white Evangelical who is to the right on social issues they are wrong.

    I’m open to corrections to my math, but you get my point.

  • Julia

    Romney would need to give the same speech at Catholic University, Wheaton College, Baylor University, Calvin College and in numerous other settings, because he would need to make the same essential point. How many journalists understand that?

    Journalists are assuming that “conservative” equals “white Evangelicals” like those at Liberty College. No need to get into other kinds of practicing Christians, even though Evangelicals are only about 1/3 of conservatives.

    Another reason may be that Evangelicals are viewed as a solid bloc, whereas Catholics, Presbyterians, Baptists and the like are all over the place come November.

  • John M.

    “Different faiths” but “shared worldview”? That’s just a muddle. I’ll bet he’s using “faiths” as a sub for “denominations” there. My second guess is that he’s talking about a political “worldview” rather than, you know, a worldview. if it’s not either of those then its just a muddle.

    -John

  • Jettboy

    John M., you took the words right out of my mouth. I was going to say the exact same thing. Tmatt, I don’t think you know what Romney means as a Mormon by “different faiths” and “worldview.” It would actually be more probable that he means what John M. said than what Evangelicals understand by those terms. If he did mean what you imply he means Tmatt, I assure you most Mormons would NOT be happy with him.

  • http://www.ecben.net Will

    As I have written before, this is a fight we lost long ago, as I discovered when I objected to the NYT calling Catholics, Protestants and Jews “three faiths”, and the answering editorial cog could not see a problem.

  • Chris

    Well as Tip O’Neill said:

    All religion is politics

  • bob

    Virtually all journalists would write about the same about Muslims. “Hey, Jesus is in the Koran, right?” The understanding that the word “Jesus” appearing in print means anything more than the words “peanut butter” is lost on them. It must mean as little to a religious group as it does to the journalist. It simply shocks journalists that two groups that use *that word* have any differences that go beyond bigotry or cultural associations.


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