Politico hangs a story on a thread

So the Politico recently published another lengthy story on Mitt Romney. Now that’s hardly an atypical event for Politico, but this one was a little different.

Let me summarize it for you: Mormon, Mormon, Mormon, Mormon, Mormon, Mormon, Mormon, Mormon.

Just the other day, I looked at Jodi Kantor’s New York Times profile of Romney’s faith, which had some pretty significant problems factual and otherwise, but was mostly a good faith effort. I’m less inclined to give this Politico piece by Edward-Isaac Dovere the benefit of the doubt given its less-than-auspicious beginning:

Mitt Romney wants voters to see him as the man to save the economy and right the country, the redeeming American hero riding in on the proverbial white horse.

Just not that White Horse.

That’s the one in the old Mormon prophecy attributed to Joseph Smith, which predicts that after the banks fail and when the Constitution is nearing collapse, Mormons flush with wealth — the White Horse, in the prophecy’s metaphor — will rise and lead America back to greatness.

Ah, the old White Horse prophecy. As someone raised in the Mormon church, I was only vaguely aware that it existed — until a few years ago when it started being dredged up the first time Romney ran. Among Mormons it’s discussed only as a curiosity, and the rare times it is brought up it’s always with the understanding that it’s essentially folklore of disputed origin and not church doctrine.

You’d think the reporter would know better than to use this, of all things, to connect Romney’s secular presidential run to his private faith. Oh wait, he does. Skip ahead a couple of grafs:

The White Horse prophecy itself was discounted by the church almost a hundred years ago but Mormon political figures like Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and even Romney himself still get asked about it from time to time. And even though it’s long been discredited by the church, there are pieces of the prophecy that echo with important themes of mainstream Mormonism today: church members believe the Framers were divinely inspired, and Mormons have a special role to play in preserving the Constitution and the nation as a whole.

Now wouldn’t the fact that Mormons believe the founding of America is divinely inspired make the same point as the writer is reaching for — trying to connect Romney’s political motivations to his private religion — by invoking the White Horse prophecy? It’s also less sensational and its an agreed upon doctrine.

Making matters worse, the entire framing of the the Politico article is the same lazy device Kantor fell back on in her Times profile:

Now that Romney’s essentially secured the Republican nomination, the media attention to his religious beliefs has already kicked off a sort of national Mormonism 101. Deep into his second run for president, Romney’s Mormonism remains one of his great mysteries — and obstacles — in many voters’ minds. The Senate has more Mormons than Episcopalians or Lutherans, but polls consistently show that Romney’s religion has remained a factor.

“Many voters minds”? OK, can we hear from some of those voters who claim to have a problem with Mormonism?

“Polls consistently show”? Polls show a lot of things about Mormonism, and if you’re gong to rely on the really dismal science of public opinion polls, it would be nice if you could actually tell us something specific about what they say, rather than just lazily reinforcing this narrative that people have a problem with Mormons. A narrative that, by the way, is contradicted by the next sentence where it’s pointed out that Mormons are overrepresented in the Senate. (Yes, I know that the Senate isn’t exactly proportional representation and Western demographics skew things, but I think the point still stands.)

It gets worse:

And with religion flaring up in the 2012 race recently amid revelations about proposed ads linking President Barack Obama to his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright —some Democrats have lashed back with suggestions that discussing Romney’s religion is now fair game, too.

One, if you’re going to invoke the recent revelations that an independent GOP superPAC considered a proposal to run ads about Jeremiah Wright, you should clarify that this had no connection to the Romney campaign which disavowed such a line of attack.

Two, “some Democrats have lashed back”? Which Democrats? To their credit, the Obama campaign has said they are explicitly going to steer clear of Romney’s religion.

If there are any prominent Democrats that have said Romney’s religion is fair game, that’s news to me. Maybe I missed this, but name names if that’s the case. Considering two Democratic Senators are Mormon, things could get awkward.

I can’t, however, say the same about the press corps which seems to have no problem making attacks on Romney’s religion. (Thanks for edifying us Martin Bashir and Charles Blow! I look forward to more concern trolling about how Republican extremists are poisoning the discourse.) In any event, the hits keep on coming:

Yet Romney, for the most part, has steered clear of answering detailed questions about his religious beliefs—referring to “people of different faiths, like yours and mine” in his commencement address to the evangelical Liberty University is about as far as he’s gone in the 2012 campaign.

If you’re keeping score, at this point I’ve had issues with everyone of the article’s first seven paragraphs. To what extent has Romney has “steered clear of answering detailed questions about his religious beliefs”? The better question is what politician doesn’t? And is there a double standard at work here because Romney’s Mormon? If anyone asked Catholic Nancy Pelosi to explain transubstantiation at a news conference would there be some sort of outcry if she dismissed the question as irrelevant to her job?

Let’s not forget that Romney gave a detailed speech about his religion that political reporters endlessly dissected just four years ago. And now we descend into the realm of self-parody. On to paragraph numero ocho:

That leaves journalists and other observers searching for clues, and the attention already going to Mormon views of the Constitution, which has percolated up from the blogs to the New York Times, provides a window into how this can play out on the campaign trail.

Because Mitt Romney won’t talk about the granular details of his religion, it’s his own fault that the media is going to go on writing ill-advised and wildly speculative pieces about obscure bits of Mormon folklore. After all, “blogs” and the New York Times – Charles Blow’s employer! — demand answers. And this alleged hunger for information about Mormonism — which is not an obscure subject this day and age — “provides a window into how this can play out on the campaign trail”?

Huh. As a voter in a swing state, I await my elite media marching orders! Now that we properly understand what’s at stake, who wants to read 34 more paragraphs on the White Horse prophecy? Especially when it’s, again, frustratingly non-specific:

It is well-known to many church members, and continues to be an active topic of conversation among Mormons today. That sense echoes through the speeches of Mormon leaders and the beliefs of rank-and-file church members, including top LDS leaders in the church and politics. Among them: Romney’s father, who said at the outset of his own presidential run that he believed in the special role Mormons had to play in preserving the Constitution.

Now about that last part involving George Romney, it is true that Mormons revere America and its founding documents as divinely inspired. Toward the end of the piece we get a better sense of what this means for Mormons with some sort-of helpful quotes:

“That’s a folklore — we’ve heard it, and I think everybody’s heard it. It’s been out there for many years,” said Robert McKim, a Republican Wyoming state representative and a Mormon. “The next question some people ask me, ‘Well, you think Mitt Romney’s that person?’ I say, ‘I don’t have no idea about that.’ I really don’t worry about it, because I believe we have prophets at the head of the church, and I think if that time comes, they’ll tell us. It’s a passing comment that you don’t speculate on, because you have no way to prove or disprove it.”

David Campbell, a Mormon himself and professor at Notre Dame who has studied his fellow church members’ views on the prophecy, as well as the intersection of the church and politics, said McKim’s far from alone.

“If you asked a more general question, ‘Do you believe that one day the Constitution will hang by a thread and it will be a Mormon who saves it?’ we know from data that I’ve collected that many Mormons actually do endorse that idea, but they would not necessarily know that that came from something known as the White Horse prophecy,” Campbell said. “They just know that there’s going to be a time of Constitutional crisis maybe, and it will be a member of the LDS faith who will come and save things.”

We’re finally getting at something worthwhile here.

How Mormons view their role in preserving American political traditions and freedom in a more general sense is a very deep and rich angle to explore, and does have some theological connection. But every time Dovere scratches the surface of this more general question, the piece seems to lead everything back to the White Horse Prophecy. Now if you’re going to do a story on how Mormons view their political role in America I would be hard pressed to say the White Horse Prophecy is insignificant enough so as not to merit a mention, and Dovere provides a few good historical examples and quotes showing why that’s the case. But it’s a small and controversial part of a bigger story. Using it almost exclusively as the lens to view Mormons in a political context, is inevitably going make things seem a bit warped. The Politico piece’s undue focus on the White Horse Prophecy only gets in the way of what could have been a better and more interesting story.

Predictably, MSNBC — Martin Bashir’s employer! — is already hyperventilating over Dovere’s story and playing up the nakedly political angle in a way that’s not flattering or particularly fair to Romney:

“Because he hasn’t talked much about his faith, people have gone online,” [MSNBC's Tamron] Hall notes of Romney, and they have found things like the “White Horse” prophecy, which have concerned many.

Again, it seems much more likely that we’re talking about this because the media want to talk about it, not because there’s widespread interest in an obscure 19th century story Romney’s church explicitly disavows. But if you really are curious about it, the Mormon organization Foundation for Apologetic Information and Research (FAIR) has a good paper that explains the White Horse Prophecy and its context from an LDS perspective. You can download it here (pdf).

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  • CarlH

    Thank you, Mark. Sadly, I think your third sentence pretty much describes way too much of what is being served up–in heaping portions, no less, of late–as journalism in the face of Mitt Romney’s candidacy.

    BTW, here’s a corrected link to the FAIR paper you referenced.

  • http://followingreligion.blogspot.com Cost Dickerson

    Good piece, I could hardly finish the article when I came across it last night. Mormons are confusing, so let’s post a piece that takes half of their doctrines for granted and only look at the much more confusing, much less accepted by even Mormons parts of it! It’s going to be a tough election for me if this is how we’re going to talk about Mormons until November.

  • mark

    Thanks, Carl. That link should be fixed now.

  • sari

    Nice analysis, Mark. So sad that the media feel compelled to sensationalism rather than educational news.

  • http://fkclinic.blogspot.com Nancy Reyes

    JFK was blasted for a lot of things in 1960, but I don’t remember reporters throwing the “prophecy of Fatima”, about the peaceful fall of communism if enough people prayed, in his face.

    That prophecy turned out to be true…or maybe a self fulfilling prophecy since John Paul II believed in it and decided to openly oppose communism on an intellectual level instead of trying to cooperate with it…

    Similarly, this prophecy could turn out to be true if enough people believe in it… So maybe the scoffers should worry…

  • Ann

    OK, can we hear from some of those voters who claim to have a problem with Mormonism?

    There are a large number of individuals at the Christian Post expressing considerable problem with Mormonism in the comment section. Some said they would not vote at all.

    http://www.christianpost.com/news/mormon-moment-forcing-christians-to-learn-about-mormonism-75793/

  • http://!)! Passing By

    Nancy Reyes,

    I remember the Kennedy election of 1960, and the discussions among of his Catholicism among my Baptist relatives. It’s arguable that the later advent of 24 hour news and the internet (“new media”) would make things different for him today. He was, after all, the fair-haired media boy: rich, handsome, war hero, got the girls.

    Regarding evangelicals and Gov. Romney: I keep going back to that Dallas preacher (I’ll find the reference later, if you like) who considers the Mormon Church to be a cult, but will, in the end, vote for Romney. That is a theme repeated again and again. Someone needs to send the memo around the newsrooms again: the electorate is generally bright enough to know the difference between the presidency and the clerical state.

  • Lonni

    What fascinates me most about the White Horse prophecy is the cavalier way Mormons dismiss it as “an obscure 19th Century story Romneys church specifically disallows” and yet the fact of the matter, as revealed in this article, explicitly states ” there are pieces of the prophecy that echo with important themes of mainstream Mormonism today: church members believe the Framers were divinely inspired, and Mormons have a special role to play in preserving the Constitution and the nation as a whole.” So which is it? The last part of that phrase fits what is called the White Horse Prophecy so even though the Mormon belief system allows for it’s prophecy without tagging it, doesn’t change the fact that they believe in a prophecy that has been, at one time, called the “White Horse prophecy”.

  • mark

    Lonni,

    I’m not Mormon and I dismiss it as “an obscure 19th Century story Romney’s church specifically disavows” because that’s what it is. The church doesn’t teach it and I’d bet a non-trivial percentage of Mormons have never even heard of it. I pretty specifically addressed the point you’re raising:

    How Mormons view their role in preserving American political traditions and freedom in a more general sense is a very deep and rich angle to explore, and does have some theological connection. But every time Dovere scratches the surface of this more general question, the piece seems to lead everything back to the White Horse Prophecy. Now if you’re going to do a story on how Mormons view their political role in America I would be hard pressed to say the White Horse Prophecy is insignificant enough so as not to merit a mention, and Dovere provides a few good historical examples and quotes showing why that’s the case. But it’s a small and controversial part of a bigger story. Using it almost exclusively as the lens to view Mormons in a political context, is inevitably going make things seem a bit warped.

    And:

    Now wouldn’t the fact that Mormons believe the founding of America is divinely inspired make the same point as the writer is reaching for — trying to connect Romney’s political motivations to his private religion — by invoking the White Horse prophecy? It’s also less sensational and its an agreed upon doctrine.

    There’s a big difference between broadly believing that “church members believe the Framers were divinely inspired, and Mormons have a special role to play in preserving the Constitution and the nation as a whole” and believing a specific prophecy that there will come a time when a specific Mormon person will in effect single handedly save the republic in the midst of a crisis.

    Further, Mormon theology may be murky in what constitutes revelation, but in this case church leaders have specifically gone out of their way to say the White Horse Prophecy is not something the church and its adherents are to believe.

    Mark

  • Mike

    Lonnie,

    The Politico article was poorly written, and implied that Mormons believe something which is not actually part of our belief system. Yes, Mormons believe the Constitution was divinely inspired. Yes, Mormons believe we must adhere to the laws of our country and protect and defend the freedoms we enjoy. But, no, there is nothing doctrinally that states that Mormons will “save” the nation or, more specifically, the Constitution. We can believe that we have a divine duty to protect our nation, and the freedoms associated with it, without believing in an alleged prophecy that says an individual or group of individuals will take some specific action in a time of crisis to save the nation from disaster. The two are completely different things.

  • Maureen

    So is this why they had that bizarre dressage hit piece?

    (Man, did the horse people laugh to find out that all horse people are apparently supposed to be “rich” and their horses “exotic.”)

  • Dave

    It would be interesting to see how Mormon sacralization of the Constitution plays out in practice. The Constitution has been amended about ten times since the rise of the LDS. Did Mormons tend to take positions against amendment based on the sacred nature of the text as received at that point in time?

  • Julia

    Nancy Reyes:

    The Fatima promises or prophecies is the first thing I thought of, too.

    Then, that weird prophecy involving an olive tree or something that is supposed to mean that Benedict will be the last Pope. Might be from Nostredamus or the History Channel (same thing, sometimes).

    Here it is: the prophecies of St Malachy.

    http://www.theworkofgod.org/Pope/saint_malachy_prophecies.htm

    The prophecies of Saint Malachy end like this:

    In the persecution of the Holy Roman Church, there will reign Peter the Roman, who will feed his flock among many tribulations after which the seven hilled city will be destroyed and the dreadful Judge will judge the people.

  • http://www.ecben.net Will

    I can see any way to make Benedict fit Gloria Olivae. He is not an Olivetan (or even a monk), he is not from an olive country, and there are no olive leaves in his arms.

    Of course, we might all look silly after he makes peace between India and Pakistan. But then, Malachy does not specifically say there will be no more popes between Gloria Olivae and Petrus Romanus.

  • Jettboy

    My guess is that no one even knows what the “White Horse Prophecy” is other than the snippet that is talked about over and over and over again. Not that there is any religious or historical value in it for Mormons, but its actually a complicated pastiche of ideas. The purpose of it is pretty much the same as claimed for the Book of Revelation in the Bible; a foretelling of the last days up to the return of the Savior. In fact, if you really read the whole thing it becomes much more probable that the “White Horse” is Jesus Christ than some Mormon politician.

    http://acadac.net/old-website/refs/whp.html

    I found it fascinating as a kid, but ultimately rejected it for its improbability and lack of recognizable line of authority.


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