Mormon Mitt Romney goes to church — with reporters!

Mitt Romney’s surprising decision to allow reporters to follow him into church Sunday drew a slew of major mainstream media coverage.

The New York Times opened its story this way:

BOSTON — Mitt Romney read Scripture from his iPad as he juggled his 2-year-old grandson on his lap.

He made sure to accept a small piece of white bread and cup of water, representing the flesh and blood of Jesus, from a member of the clergy who looked like he was about to accidentally pass him by.

And with a knowing nod, he encouraged his wife, Ann, to leave the pew and join the women’s choir in a rendition of “Because I Have Been Given Much.” (She did.)

On one level, it was a typical Sunday morning for Mr. Romney, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee and a devoted churchgoer. But on another level, his Sunday observance was an extraordinary  moment for a candidate who zealously protects his privacy and rarely talks about his Mormon faith.

Now, at this point, I should acknowledge that I am not GetReligion’s resident expert on Mormonism. In my secular religion writing career, I did a feature on a day in the life of Mormon missionaries and covered a sermon by retired Atlanta Braves star Dale Murphy at a Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In more recent times, I toured the Mormon world headquarters in Salt Lake City. But like most Americans, I have much to learn concerning the intricacies of the Mormon faith.

I mention my background only as an explanation of the elementary-level questions that came to my mind as I read the Times report. Among those questions: Why the sacrament of water instead of grape juice or wine? Maybe I’m the only person with that question, but I wish the story had addressed it. Also, I wish the pool report had been more specific on exactly what Scripture(s) Romney read on his iPad? Was the Scripture(s) from the Bible or the Book of Mormon or both?

The report did offer some specifics on the candidate’s wife, Ann Romney, joining the church women’s choir in a rendition of “Because I Have Been Given Much”:

At one point, volunteers were invited to join the women’s choir in song. Mr. Romney glanced at his wife, and gently and wordlessly suggested she do so. Mrs. Romney and her daughter-in-law both stood, walked to the front pulpit and along with about 40 others — nearly all the women in the congregation — began singing “Because I Have Been Given Much,” a popular Mormon hymn about using one’s blessings to help other people. The lyrics include this line: “I shall divide my gifts from thee with every brother that I see, who has the need of help from me.”

All in all, the Old Gray Lady offered a fairly straightforward account of Romney’s time at church. The sourcing on the decision to bring reporters (“his advisers said”) was extremely vague, but that seems, rightly or wrongly, to be the nature of most attribution in campaign stories.

The Washington Post inserted Romney’s Sunday church experience into a lengthy investigative report on the candidate’s years as a church leader in Boston:

On the presidential campaign trail, Romney has sealed off his experience as a Mormon prelate, only rarely and vaguely mentioning his church leadership. On Sunday, Romney, who often goes to Mormon services when on the road, read scriptures from an iPad, received the sacrament of white bread and water and sang hymns with his family as he attended church near his lake house in New Hampshire. And for the first time since becoming a presidential candidate, he invited the media to watch, indicating that he was willing to put aside reservations about the political consequences of his faith and start allowing some access to that private space.

(Romney, by the way, is not the only person of faith taking his iPad to church these days.)

For those more familiar with the Mormon faith than I am, I’d be interested in your reaction to the Post story: Was it fair to Romney? Did it accurately portray the typical inner workings of the church? How, if at all, might the story have been improved?

The Associated Press, meanwhile, used Romney allowing reporters into his church as a peg to explore the candidate’s decision to open up “a little” about his religion. Godbeat pro Rachel Zoll’s story impressed me as a quintessential piece of concise but quality journalism by AP — filled with revealing details about Romney’s faith background and expert analysis by qualified sources.

CNN, on the other hand, took a more sensational approach, delving into polygamy and asking “if powerful church leaders could somehow control a Mormon president.”

From the CNN transcript:

GARY TUCHMAN, CNN: The Southern Baptist Convention calls the church a cult. Many Americans say they don’t even consider Mormons Christians. An article in the online magazine “Slate” brands the religion’s founder Joseph Smith a con man. In fact, he was Elder Russell Ballard’s great, great uncle.

My question: Does the Southern Baptist Convention really call the Mormon church a cult? Yes, a Texas pastor made headlines last year for labeling Mormons a cult. Yes, Southern Baptists obviously have major theological differences with Mormons. But did the convention as a whole endorse the “cult” terminology? CNN might want to consider a little more nuanced reporting on the subject. To its credit, the CNN report did include interviews with Romney and Elder M. Russell Ballard, a member of the church’s Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.

Finally, for those who savored tmatt’s scoop the other day on “Mitt Romney, consumer of sinful ice cream,” this just in: Religion beat specialist Peggy Fletcher Stack of the Salt Lake Tribune reports that Mormons, like Mitt, can indulge in caffeine ice cream. Enjoy!

Salt Lake Temple image via Shutterstock

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About Bobby Ross Jr.

Bobby Ross Jr. is an award-winning reporter and editor with a quarter-century of professional experience. A former religion editor for The Oklahoman and religion writer for The Associated Press, Ross serves as chief correspondent for the The Christian Chronicle. He has reported from 47 states and 11 countries and was honored as the Religion Newswriters Association's 2013 Magazine Reporter of the Year.

  • tmatt

    Yes, the SBC calls the LDS a doctrinal — not sociological — cult.

    http://www.tmatt.net/2002/02/13/latter-day-saints-and-that-c-word/

    It doesn’t help when CNN and others let the word simply stand alone like this.

  • Pingback: Mormon Mitt Romney goes to church — with reporters! | Christians for Mitt

  • James

    Did they just get old reports about concerns about JFK’s Catholicism and do a “find and replace” in MS Word from “Kennedy” to “Romney”, “Catholic” to “Mormon”, and “Pope” to “Prophet?” The similarity of the reporting to the old hand-wringing over JFK’s faith was overwhelming.

    • Bobby Ross Jr.

      Any specific similarities, James?

  • JWB

    The detail about “white bread” almost seems snarky (b/c of how “whitebread” Romney is in the slang/pejorative sense), but I’m not sure how one would have briefly-but-accurately explained why the Mormon sacrament is bread and water rather than bread and wine w/o coming off as Because-Mormons-Are-Totally-Weird. http://thecaucus.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/08/19/a-glimpse-into-mitt-romneys-mormon-faith/?src=twr has the rawer original reporting from the pool reporter (who coincidentally or not is himself or herself a Mormon) who actually went into the church with the Romneys, so you can see what level of additional explanation was left on the cutting-room floor.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/getreligion/ Mark

    There’s one interesting detail I would like to know, though I don’t know whether it’s here nor there in relation to what Bobby wrote. Did the Romney campaign allow multiple reporters to attend services — or just one? Because the pool report that all of the details in this story appear to have been cribbed from was written by McKay Coppins, who is covering Romney for Buzzfeed and happens to be an active Mormon.

    http://thecaucus.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/08/19/a-glimpse-into-mitt-romneys-mormon-faith/

  • Will

    The use of water is mandated in the Doctrines and Covenants. (No doubt LDS will correct me if I am wrong.) Purportedly, Joseph was on the way to buy wine for the service when the Lord appeared and told him “Do not buy wine from your enemies.”

    In other words, it is done because Mormons do it.

    • Liz Busby

      Actually, that section of the D&C specifies that they should use “wine of their own making,” not water. The switch to water happened sometime after the Word of Wisdom (D&C section 89), the Mormon health code, banning alcohol of any kind, began to be more strictly enforced.

      Yes, this info is a little nitpicky and not even every Mormon on the street could explain it to you. But I think the article could have succinctly explained the use of water with “not wine because Mormons do not drink alcohol,” which is simplified but accurate.

  • Mike Hickerson

    Who did Romney accept the bread and water from? “A member of the clergy”? My understanding is that the LDS church doesn’t have clergy – or, more properly, all baptized male members are considered priests. This is very different understanding of “clergy” than most Americans would assume, and I think the NYT missed a chance to explain Mormonism here.

    • Marie

      I am LDS and I found this confusing as well. The sacrament (the term Mormons use for the Eucharist – a word I didn’t even know until I began reading Get Religion) is usually blessed by Priests (roughly 16-18 years old) and passed by Deacons (roughly 12 or 13 years old). That is the sort of thing I thing a reported would have noticed. Maybe the congregation was short on youth and some of the adults filled in but chances are there were some minors in the mix. It seemed strange that all the reporter commented on was “A member of the clergy,” which as you point out is not a term used at all in the LDS church and if it were would be different in context to readers of the article. I am left wondering how old this person was and if by calling the individual “a member of the clergy” the journalist is referencing the fact that LDS young men are ordained to the Priesthood or if a personal lens is showing: handling the bread and water = must be clergy. I realize that the purpose of the article is not all the ways Mormons are different but it seems like a perfect opportunity to paint a picture of the church meeting and clarify what the average reader might see as unusual.

  • Charni

    I’m sitting here thinking, what sort of reporters do you people have? Do they ever do research? Is the only research they do on the anti mormon sites or something? If I were a reporter, I would have gone to the official websites of the church and read up as much as I could to prepare me for what I might be faced with when I attended the service. The church has nothing to hide. Go check out their site. You could start up your own church with all the information the church has allowed the general public to access, if you wanted to! Such is the transparency of the church, which sadly, reporters and others have too many blinkers on to take advantage of and to make them more knowledgeable, which is really what we expect reporters to be. Go to http://www.lds.org or http://www.mormon.org You’ll find enough information there to give you a head start on knowing what Romney’s religion is all about. Go search with an open mind and you may just be pleasantly surprised. We are normal, every day folk, who try to be the best that we can possibly be wherever we find ourselves.

  • Jettboy

    Of all the things that bothers me, I keep going back to the “Romney invites reporters” to attend church. Then there is the reporters weren’t asked to attend the rest of the LDS Church services like Sunday School and Priesthood meeting (where the real rubber hits the road theologically and socially) and so don’t attend. Now I can understand reporters only going because they are not invited as a courtesy; a surprising action for them. However, all a reporter has to do is follow Romney into an LDS Church any time they want unannounced and attend the whole thing taking notes along the way on an ipad or something. Why they don’t do that, when they are so keen on exploring every other Mormon related facet, is beyond me. I think it would for once be refreshing. This coming from someone who has been very critical of media coverage of Mormonism as sensationalism.

  • Bobby Ross Jr.

    Thanks to those who provided the link the pool report. It does answer my question concerning the iPad:

    It’s true that there are a number of apps that contain a complete compilation of Mormon scripture, including the New and Old Testaments, Book of Mormon, Doctrine & Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price. But your pooler wasn’t close enough to see what he was looking at.

  • Jettboy

    To continue:
    “Also, I wish the pool report had been more specific on exactly what Scripture(s) Romney read on his iPad? Was the Scripture(s) from the Bible or the Book of Mormon or both?”
    Depends on the talk (sermons) that were given or if he was paying attention to them. It could have been The Bible, The Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants, Pearl of Great Price, or even LDS General Authority talks all at the same time. Then again, it could have been something from LDS.org to pass the time. I didn’t get the sense that the reporter knew, but just guessed.

    “Why the sacrament of water instead of grape juice or wine?
    I would say that Liz Busby gave an excellent explanation. I would like to add it would be nice for a reporter to actually read D&C 89 for themselves ( https://www.lds.org/scriptures/dc-testament/dc/89?lang=eng ). Its short and pretty much to the point, although there has been some adaptions over the years to its application such as any alcoholic drinks are forbidden including mild drinks, and drugs.

    “Was it fair to Romney?”
    Only up until they continue to harp on him opening up to his religious devotion. If you know Mormons to any degree, they will talk your head off about their religion if you ask person to person. In public, and especially as a candidate for office, they rarely talk about their faith. Romney isn’t any different from other Mormon politicians in that respect; something reporters haven’t sought to examine. Reporters just assume Mormons use religion in politics the same way other religious people do. In fact, mild religion in the Mormon corridor may boost the chances of getting elected, but you become the Mormon candidate and you will lose and not because of non-Mormons.

    “Did it accurately portray the typical inner workings of the church?”
    As a brief look yes, but as seen from the questions here it didn’t explain anything. It didn’t explain the structure of the meeting, what the Sacrament (Communion) prayers and practice consists of in context, the talks as more than passing references, and of course what would be done in Sunday School and Priesthood for men and Relief Society for women. It was like coming in at the punch line of a joke that you know was funny, but could never tell yourself. As a Mormon I only knew because I could fill in the blanks from personal experience, and if I had to fill it in I wondered how difficult it would be for those who didn’t understand. Double if this were a discussion about the LDS Temple.

    “How, if at all, might the story have been improved?”
    Giving definitions and explaining more of the structure. The “clergy” is a good example. Mormons do have clergy, but they are not called that, are part time unpaid, and come from the general membership rather than any schooling.

    Bobby Ross Jr., if you are still doing reporting, I would like to offer you or any other reporter a suggestion similar to A Day in the Life of a Mormon Missionary. Could you go to an actual Mormon church service (all three hours) and write a report on that? Make sure its NOT the first Sunday of the month because you don’t really get a feel for worship service during testimony day only. For once I would like to see someone write about typical Mormonism, because missionaries are not typical even if they are numerous.

  • JWB

    Note how the “member of the clergy” characterization is not in the pool report, which talks about the sacrament being distributed by “young men” plural and a “boy” (the one who almost missed Romney) singular. The pool reporter (and maybe this is where a Mormon background cuts both ways in terms of how much you explain or don’t explain various things that might seem peculiar to an outsider) didn’t note that they were presumably based on their function and apparent age “deacons,” and this is how it’s customarily done (although there might have been some subsequent discussion between the pool reporter and whoever wrote up the NYT story to “clarify” things which may or may not have led to net clarification. But again there’s sort of a macro question of if you actually and accurately report seeing stuff which is par for the course in terms of what you would expect to see at a typical Mormon service, how much background is desirable to add for the non-Mormon reader in what sort of context given how many total column-inches there are to work with? The pool report had a lot more color and detail and presumably different users of it decided which details they wanted to use versus discard.

    I would assume that while the reporters closely covering the campaign are of course legally free to go anywhere the candidate goes that is open to the general public (male reporters could follow him into a public men’s room, for example), they have reached various sorts of understandings about what they are and aren’t going to do and they gain various benefits in terms of access to the candidate and a certain level of trust that make it worth their while to honor those understandings.

    • Bobby Ross Jr.

      I also wonder if the Secret Service puts a monkey wrench into the ability of any reporter to just enter the service. Is there some kind of screening process for “visitors” who show up on that day? I don’t know. But I am curious.

  • cvg

    I like how they included the part about bouncing the 2 year old on his knee. My wife is still surprised at the number of active young children present during Mormon sacrament services. It is definitely not a still calm childless silence found in other similar services. Depending on the Ward’s composition this can really be a surprise for people – for good or bad. I do think it was a nice way to show the degree to family is fundamentally intertwined with the faith.

    The way the reporter framed the Relief Society’s (all women over 18) song was also a handy way to portray the Church culture’s increasingly unique gender role separation. It came off a bit stark as there was no easy way to balance this out with some positive aspects of this distinction. It would have been too convenient if during the announcements, the Elder’s quorum was offering babysitting sitting duties for a Ward activity…

    I can’t figure out why they made a distinction about “white” bread. It usually depends on what the Teacher’s (13-14 year olds who prep the sacrament) eat at home.

  • Will

    I might think they were trying to influence readers with the pejorative connotations of “whitebread”. But that would be PARANOID.

  • Darren Blair

    Here goes –

    Water vs. Wine:
    Doctrine & Covenants 27 – http://www.lds.org/scriptures/dc-testament/dc/27?lang=eng – holds that it doesn’t matter the specific form of the tokens offered during communion; what’s most important is the intent behind offering them. Originally this was put in place to safeguard the church from hostile non-members, who could have easily poisoned any wine that the church purchased from them. However, over the years it’s actually been something of a boon to the membership at large, as it makes it a lot easier for members to meet under any circumstance. For example, there are stories of soldiers in the field using the crackers from their rations as the bread, and I recall hearing a story about sailors at sea using potato peels.

    Reporters:
    If a reporter was to come in and just be low-key about it (that is, they don’t make a spectacle out of themselves), I don’t think that anyone would say too much other than generic greetings. Most congregations are open to visitors, and so – as noted above – a reporter could easily just walk right on in.

    Children:
    Children remain with their parents during sacrament meeting, as per church policy. A “mother’s lounge” is almost always provided for mothers who need to change or nurse their infants, and there are typically foyer areas with couches and chairs where parents can potentially take unruly children. Once the church breaks for Sunday School, however, children who are old enough go to age-appropriate classes.

    Sacrament:
    As noted above, boys as young as 12 are ordained with some degree of priesthood authority and so can participate in the communion process. In fact, in most congregations, the under-18s will usually be the ones to handle everything; in this fashion, they can get some experience in for when they get older. Generally, if an adult is helping with the sacrament, it means that there aren’t enough younger fellows there that day; however, special circumstances may encourage it, such as if an entire extended family is present and the minister (re: bishop) wishes to make note of this.

    Bread:
    Again, the tokens of the communion don’t matter anywheres near as much as the intent. Therefore, a lot of congregations just use store-bought bread; it freezes easily for long-term storage in the church’s kitchen, and a few seconds in the microwave are usually sufficient to bring the individual slices right back. I can see how this might be a bit of a culture shock for someone used to wine & wafers, but I typically find that those people who obsess over the matter tend to miss the greater purpose behind everything.

  • http://catherineguiles.com Cathy G.

    Did anyone else watch the “Rock Center” episode about Mormonism this week? I thought it was fairly good.


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