Pod people: Name that religion

It’s no secret that GOP leading candidate Mitt Romney is Mormon, and reporters appear so enamored with his faith that they forget to cover the other candidates’ religious affiliations.

In GetReligion’s latest podcast I spoke with Todd Wilken about the candidates’ faith and why were aren’t seeing much mention of it. In an earlier post about how none of the leaders in the GOP field are mainline Protestants many of you jumped in the comments to talk about mainline Protestantism and the faith of the GOP candidates.

Some of you were concerned that I didn’t get to other candidates like Gary Johnson, Herman Cain and Ron Paul. It’s hard to column everyone, but from what I have read, Gary Johnson is Lutheran (though I’m unclear which church he attends), Herman Cain attends Antioch Baptist Church North in Atlanta, and Ron Paul has described himself as an evangelical.

Rick Perry, who some say might enter the race, is a United Methodist member who attends a church with Southern Baptist connections. If you have more links for those or other candidates about their faith, please share them.

All of this started with Doyle McManus’ column in the Los Angeles Times that noted the candidates’ religious affiliations and voter behavior.

There’s still a “God gap” in American politics between the religiously observant (who tend to vote Republican) and the less observant (who tend to vote Democratic), but it now crosses denominational lines. “If I know whether you say grace before meals every day, I can probably predict how you vote,” said Notre Dame political scientist David E. Campbell. (About 44% of Americans say grace, and most of them vote Republican.)

That also helps explain why so many Republican candidates come from conservative religious backgrounds — whether Mormon, Catholic or evangelical — instead of the more liberal traditional GOP denominations, which now stand outside the party’s conservative mainstream.

As I note in the podcast, someone in the Presbyterian Church of American may find himself more in line with a Mormon politically than he does with someone in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

In the podcast, we also talked about the story of a mother and child with cerebral palsy who were removed from a worship service “for being a distraction.” The story left out many details, like what kind of church it was, whether the TV station contacted the head pastor, and whether the woman was attending another church before. These kinds of stories highlight the struggles many church might face, but we need more info to fill in the blanks.

Hopefully we’ll see more religion and politics coverage in the coming months as candidates commit to the race and more stories on how churches handle people with disabilities.

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No mainline Protestants in GOP field?

Despite my best intentions to avoid the Internet last week, news of Sarah Palin’s bus tour and her Star of David pendant still somehow seeped into my vacation. Speculation over the 2012 presidential candidates takes up much of the media’s excitement as you can imagine reporters preparing to either flock to Palin’s campaign or write the campaign obits.

Even in the “who’s running for president” speculation, there seems to be fewer religion and politics stories than there were in 2008. Over the past few years, I’ve helped run the politics blog at Christianity Today, where we’ve been tracking news, trends, surveys, etc., and I have seen less religion coverage than during the previous election. You’ll see some exceptions, like this weekend’s coverage of Ralph Reed’s conference, but other stories seem to take priority over religion.

Few reporters have noted religion in the Republican field other than Mitt Romney’s Mormon faith. Just before Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels said he would not run for president, I wrote a column on how he would be the only leading candidate who is a mainline Protestant. Doyle McManus of the Los Angeles Times has a new column out noting that (with Daniels out of the race), we probably will not see any mainline Protestants running for the Republican nomination.

But among the leading candidates for this year’s Republican presidential nomination, not one is a member of the Protestant denominations that for so long have dominated American political culture.

Two of the potential candidates are Mormons (former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr.); one is a member of an interdenominational evangelical church (former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty); two others are Catholics (former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Sen. Rick Santorum). Rep. Michele Bachmann, who says she’s considering the race, worships at an evangelical Lutheran church; if elected, she’d be the first Lutheran president.

But no matter who wins from this list, it won’t be an Episcopalian, a Presbyterian or a Methodist.

McManus notes that the dearth of mainline Protestants generally reflects the news we covered last year that no mainline Protestants serve on the Supreme Court anymore. “On election day, conservative Protestants have more in common with conservative Catholics than with liberal Presbyterians,” McManus writes. The whole column, which notes some trends that few reporters have acknowledged, is worth a read.

Perhaps religion and politics coverage will ramp up as reporters consider candidates’ church attendance, religious advisers, etc., but I see at least two reasons for the change in coverage: Reporters didn’t seem to see “values voters” as significant after 2008 the same way they did in 2004 and there’s the confusion over whether the tea party (the hot new group to cover) includes those “values voters.” Maybe it will just take reporters a few months to get over the “OMG a Mormon is running” idea before they can move on to more ground-breaking coverage.

Image: Remember that Newsweek cover on Palin as the leader of the religious right? Yeah, that was funny.

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Newsweek, the musical

So, uh, this happened. Newsweek has a story on Mormons headlined “Mormons Rock! They’ve conquered Broadway, talk radio, the U.S. Senate-and they may win the White House. Why Mitt Romney and 6 million Mormons have the secret to success.” And as the headline might indicate, it’s a favorable article about Mormonism. We may look at the article in the days to come. I do have to point out this second paragraph about former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney’s candidacy and announcement for the presidential nomination:

But there was one challenge–a challenge that could alienate the kind of Republicans who vote in early primary states such as Iowa and South Carolina–that Romney didn’t address: his Mormon faith.

Um, when was this written? 2006? Remember that really big speech Romney gave about … his Mormon faith? I remember it. I remember covering it in December of 2007.

But check out this cover. Whoa. It’s always so interesting to me how the media can do such a good job of protecting some groups from caricature and advance gross stereotypes of others at the same time. This is, near as I can tell, a parody of the poster for the Broadway musical hit “The Book of Mormon.” I haven’t seen that musical yet, although it has been remarkably well received by arts critics. One of our readers did his own critique of some of these reviews.

Back to the cover and the paragraph excerpted above. The irony of the whole package is killing me. The “Book of Mormon,” which, again is apparently a very good musical from the creators of South Park, is an entirely New York phenomenon. It mocks general religious belief using Mormon characters. It’s made by media elites (media elites whom I generally like, admittedly) and enjoyed by a class of people who go to Broadway musical. So somehow that’s not Romney’s problem — even when it means his head gets photoshopped on a poster from the musical. No, his problem is those backward Iowans and South Carolinians, you dig? I mean, I don’t think most Americans even have any idea what the musical is — not a good sign for magazine sales based on a cover parody of the musical.

What would be the equivalent of other candidates being so caricatured? It kind of reminds me of that New Yorker cover. It featured the Obamas as Osama-loving, flag burning Muslims. The point was to make fun of President Obama’s opponents and paint them in a bad light, but it was criticized by both the Obama campaign and opponents.

But what do you think about this cover? And would it make you more likely to purchase the magazine or continue to ignore it?

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The single Mormon and the city

Thankfully, it’s been a long time since I’ve been single. But I hear things about what it’s like being a single twentysomething in a religious community within a big city. In Los Angeles, Christians don’t feel pressure to marry — at least not from the church.

That definitely is not the case within the Mormon community living just outside our nation’s capital.

Michelle Boorstein has a fascinating story about this in The Washington Post. There were a lot of things I liked about this story.

To start, the story is about something novel: A church in Crystal City, which the reader learns has so many Mormons it’s known as “Little Provo,” that is exclusively for single Mormons in their 20s, 30s and 40s — i.e. those looking to hit the meat market.

Next, Boorstein does a great job of explaining why finding a spouse is so important for members of the Church of Jesus Christ Latter-day Saints. Why it is a religious imperative, in fact.

In a faith that calls getting married “graduating with honors” and believes that after death you live with your family forever, finding a spouse is central to being a Mormon. . . .

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, as Mormons are formally known, teaches that all people have an afterlife, but one must be married, or “sealed,” to reach its highest parts. While Mormons believe it’s possible to be sealed in one’s afterlife, unmarried people are barred from key leadership positions in the church and often worship in separate singles congregations.

Just last month, a top Mormon official urged young people not to delay marriage or “waste time in idle pursuits” at a biannual churchwide meeting.

Then Boorstein discusses why Crystal City has such a high Mormon population — deep dating pool or proximity to nation’s capital and public service? — and some inter-communal criticisms of the pressure for Mormons to marry. And of course, she quotes a few single Mormons along the way.

While reading, I didn’t find myself wondering what was missing while reading this story. Instead, I felt like something had been revealed to me. I imagine this story was not so enlightening to someone within the Mormon community; maybe they would even notice some details that weren’t exactly right. But in general this story did what all good newspaper stories should do: It informed.

There was, however, one line that could be developed into its own story:

The chapel’s young professionals brag about marrying later than their Utah cohorts and being more independent, but also worry about being co-opted by Washington’s ambitious, individualistic culture.

That is an interesting potential phenomenon. It reminds me of incidence of infertility in the Jewish community that are tied to Jews staying in school longer and starting families later. (Here’s one source on that.) Bearing children, like marriage for Mormons, is a religious must. So how does one balance ambition and religious obligation? And how much more difficult is it for more career-focused Mormons?

Overall, though, this is a great story and one that doesn’t scrimp on newshole. It’s worth reading the whole thing.

IMAGE: Via Weddings-Paradise.com

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Elizabeth Smart’s ‘street preacher’ abductor

The 9-year story of Elizabeth Smart’s abduction appeared to come to a close this week as her captor was sentenced to life in prison. Smart, now 23, was 14 when she was kidnapped from her bedroom in her family’s home almost a decade ago.

“I also want you to know that I have a wonderful life now, that no matter what you do you will never affect me again,” Smart told Mitchell during the trial. “You took away nine months of my life that can never be replaced. “In this life or the next, you will be held responsible for your actions and I hope you’re ready for that when the time comes.”

Reporters uncovered several religion angles over the years, from her abductor’s self-appointment as prophet, his hymn singing in the trial to Smart’s faith and her recent Mormon mission.

The Associated Press report on the sentence briefly touches on the religion angles but fails to explain them. Sure, this is a basic courts story where reporters don’t need to go in depth into the already uncovered religion angles, but the story uses religion as a hook without giving the reader just a few details to fill them in.

The AP’s headline, for instance, says “Former street preacher gets life in Smart case.” The story never explains Brian David Mitchell’s former street preaching life or how he used religion in the trial. The story does touch on faith briefly, mentioning the hymns he would sing during the trial to disrupt the trial.

On Wednesday, her father spoke to the man who kidnapped his daughter
“Exploitation of religion is not a defense,” Ed Smart said. “You put Elizabeth through nine months of psychological hell.”

The facts of the case have never been in dispute, but defense attorneys have said Mitchell’s actions were tainted by mental illness and long-held delusional beliefs that he had been commanded by God to fulfill important prophecies.

Smart, who described her captor as vulgar and self-serving, testified that she believed Mitchell was driven by his desire for sex, drugs and alcohol, not by any sincere religious beliefs.

“Nine months of living with him and seeing him proclaim that he was God’s servant and called to do God’s work and everything he did to me and my family is something that I know that God would not tell somebody to do,” Smart said during the trial.

After that final quote from Smart in the paragraph above, it’s odd that the story doesn’t mention Smart’s faith or that she just returned from a mission.

Reuters does a slightly better job of connecting the dots between Smart’s father’s comments about exploiting religion and how Mitchell said God delivered Smart to him.

Those remarks were a reference to a contention by defense attorneys during the trial that Mitchell believed he was acting under a commandment from God when he kidnapped Smart from her Salt Lake City home, and should be found not guilty by reason of insanity.

“Regardless of what your defense has proposed, you put Elizabeth through nine months of psychological hell,” Ed Smart said. “I hope at some time in your life you find what you have done is wrong.”

The embedded video of the press conference demonstrates a somewhat awkward exchanged with the reporters who were trying to get an emotional reaction out of Smart. Smart comes off poised and prepared, not giving tearful or triumphant responses, probably not what reporters wanted.

In the few minutes I watched, I noticed that none of the reporters brought up her faith. Perhaps her emotions would remain the same, but it would be interesting to see if she offered a more spontaneous reaction. Then again, she offers similar seemingly-prepared responses in an interview with the Salt Lake Tribune about her mission.

Few stories mentioned Smart’s faith, and although the mention wasn’t necessary, it definitely seems to be a big part of the BYU senior’s life. These stories are the conclusion to a long court case, and court reports don’t often go into every single detail. Still, you would think reporters might include a little more explanation of the religion angles if they mention them in passing.

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Losing Huntsman’s religion?

Remember when people used to take a break between campaigns? There would be an election and then some time off before the next campaign? What happened to that? I miss that. I hope it’s just because I live in Washington, D.C., but it’s hard to get a break from politics. So it’s with a bit of dread that I highlight some of the early religion coverage of the 2012 crop of GOP nominee wannabes.

Melinda Henneberger has a profile of Jon Huntsman for Time. Headlined “Jon Huntsman: The Would Be Republican Presidential Candidate Democrats Most Fear,” it included a discussion of religion that is getting some notice among Mormons and other interested observers.

Let’s let KSL.com take it from there:

Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. said it’s “tough to define” whether he’s still a member of the LDS Church and described himself as spiritual rather than religious in a lengthy profile in Time magazine posted Thursday about the would-be GOP presidential candidate. …

When asked about whether he still belongs to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Huntsman was so cryptic the author wrote that she knew even less after questioning him:

“‘I’m a very spiritual person,’ as opposed to a religious one, he says, ‘and proud of my Mormon roots.’ Roots? That makes it sound as if you’re not a member anymore. Are you? ‘That’s tough to define,’ he says. ‘There are varying degrees. I come from a long line of saloon keepers and proselytizers, and I draw from both sides.’”

What’s great about the KSL.com piece is that it doesn’t end with these revelations. It uses them as a hook to discuss how the comments might play among evangelicals, the irreligious and Mormons. Scholars were quoted about regional variances in religious treatment. It even included some history:

It’s not the first time Huntsman has been vague about his religious beliefs.

Last year, a Fortune magazine interview that appeared on CNNMoney.com, called Huntsman’s Mormon “soft,” unlike his more devout family. His father, Jon Huntsman Sr., is an Area Seventy and his grandfather was the late Apostle David B. Haight in the LDS Church.

“I can’t say I am overly religious,” Huntsman is quoted as saying by Fortune. “I get satisfaction from many different types of religions and philosophies.”

This was a nicely reported piece by Lisa Riley Roche.

For more discussion of Huntsman’s Mormonism, you may be interested in The New Republic‘s just-posted piece by Matthew Bowman. The article gathers interesting cultural observations to make the case that there is a weird generational gap between Jon Huntsman and Mitt Romney. The article attempts to say that Romney-era Mormonism is very different from Huntsman-era Mormonism. I didn’t personally find it convincing — the more important generational differences probably took place outside the church rather than in it — but I still think it’s an interesting read for Huntsman watchers and Romney watchers. And many of his observations are on target.

(Image via Wikimedia Commons.)

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Ken Woodward colors our world

One of the reasons so many big stories in our mainstream press are “haunted” by religion ghosts is that many reporters are confused about what is and what is not “religious.”

Is religion a matter of doctrine? Yes.

Is religion a matter of culture? Yes.

Is religion a matter of rites, sacraments (even if they are not always identified as such) and practices? Yes.

Is religion a matter of personal choices and convictions? Yes, again.

I could go on and on.

So when believers commit terrible acts while singing hymns or chanting sacred slogans, their actions may in fact be rooted in their rejection of changes in their cultures that have affected them in terms of economics and the nuts and bolts of their religious lives. But that doesn’t mean that their motives are not essentially religious. It’s more than culture.

And the decline in the number of priests and nuns in the modern Catholic church? These changes may, in part, be rooted in the 1960s, birth-control pills and wider career options for women. But all of those cultural realities raise moral and religious questions, don’t they? So why are young women and men these days less likely to hear a divine call to give their lives in service to God and man? To give their lives to His Church? That’s a religious question and a cultural question.

Why am I writing this? In part because these issues come up all the time in this blog’s comments pages. And I am also writing this in response to a new essay by the veteran religion-beat scribe Kenneth Woodward, an articulate Catholic who is best known for his decades of work at Newsweek. It is a meditation drawn from an upcoming book. Here is the start of what he describes as the most personal part of the book, as published by First Things:

On the wall of my Newsweek office, I kept a large map, in a mosaic of colors, of the United States. When you are a writer working in New York City, you need something to remind you of what the rest of the country is like: This was mine. There are no place names on the map, only the boundaries of the states, and within them the spidery outlines of each county. It’s a relief map of sorts: Any county in which 25 percent or more of the citizens identify with a single religious denomination is shaded in a color representing that tradition. Counties where more than half the people are of one persuasion — more than half the map — are colored more deeply.

At a glance, the map yields a rough religious geography of America. Across the South, where it sometimes seems there are more Baptists than there are people, the counties are awash in deep red. Utah and Idaho are solidly grey: the Mormon Zion. There are swaths of Lutheran green in Minnesota and Wisconsin. Belt high from Delaware to central Kansas, especially in rural areas, the map shows streaks and potholes of blue where the Methodists and their nineteenth-century circuit riders planted churches. Catholic purple blankets the Northeast, the Great Lakes region, the Gulf Coast, and nearly all of California.

When colleagues stopped by my office they’d often stare over my head at the map. “Where are my people?” was the usual question. Some Episcopalians, thinking of all their co-religionists elected to Congress and the White House, assumed the nation’s capitol to be theirs. But the District of Columbia is heavily African-American and so it is dyed a deep Baptist red. According to the map, Episcopalians do dominate a half-dozen counties—all of them tribal reservations in North Dakota where the church made converts of the Native American inhabitants. Most Jewish colleagues thought New York City and its environs (home to half the nation’s Jews) was surely theirs to claim, but the whole metropolitan area is deep Catholic purple. Jews do own a plurality in one Florida county, Dade, which encompasses Miami.

For me, the map was a visual reminder that religion in America has never been just a matter of personal choice. It has also been about community and connection — to places, to people, and to what religiously convicted Americans have made of the places where they chose to live. Which is to say that religion, as a way of belonging as well as of believing and behaving, is always embedded — in institutions, yes, but also in the landscape. Habitations foster habits.

Now what jumps into your mind as you read that?

For me? Well, I think of news stories, many of them important, but very hard to cover.

IMAGE: To get closer to the map and others like it, click here.

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BYU fans love New Orleans (really)

With Brigham Young University still alive in March Madness, the news ripples continue to expand from the earlier coverage of the suspension of hoops star Brandon Davies for violating the school’s moral code. It isn’t surprising, in other words, that editors still have Mormon moral dilemmas on their minds.

On top of that, the Washington Post sports-section story about BYU fans setting up camp in New Orleans for the Sweet 16 was an easy variation on a predictable story that many journalists find irresistible. I am referring, of course, to the “strange religious people visit sinful city for a convention” template that has been around for decades. Think Southern Baptists holding one of their national conventions in Las Vegas, etc., etc.

Thus, here is the top of the story:

NEW ORLEANS – Jeff Kimball and his father, Cy, both live in Provo, Utah, and have been following the Brigham Young men’s basketball team throughout this season, a journey that now finds the Cougars in the Sweet 16 for the first time since 1981. Cy says he’s maybe missed four BYU games — home or away — over the past 30 years.

Upon arriving in New Orleans on Tuesday for the Cougars’ matchup with Florida on Thursday night in the Southeast Region semifinals, Jeff Kimball realized he had yet to purchase a copy of Sports Illustrated, which features Cougars star Jimmer Fredette on the cover this week.

That, though, is harder than it sounds in this town.

“All I could find were Playboys and Hustlers,” Jeff Kimball said with a grin as he watched BYU’s open practice at New Orleans Arena on Wednesday afternoon.

(cue: rim shot and cymbal splash)

The surprise is that this is a rather restrained “Mormons do Bourbon Street” story, if one can imagine such a thing. There are a few inky smirks, of course. But some punches were pulled, or the logical connections were missed. Consider, for example, the doctrinal implications of this passage:

For some, like 27-year-old BYU graduate and lifelong Provo native Alex Grow, this week has been his first taste of New Orleans. He and his friend Trent Tueller have followed the Cougars since they won the Mountain West tournament two weeks ago in Las Vegas. Tueller joked that the college basketball gods “have been sending us to the cities of sin.”

But when the two touched down in New Orleans, they made it a point to visit Bourbon Street before they did anything else. They grabbed some beignets, deep-fried doughnut-like pastries that have long been a staple of the city’s cuisine.

OK, if you have spent much time in Nawlins — I grew up in Cajun country on the Texas-Louisiana border — you KNOW what beignets are all about. What does one eat beignets with? Coffee, of course. And, as everyone knows, who abstains from coffee? Mormons, of course.

All needling aside, the story does seek out some interesting people — such as the leader of the only Mormon ward inside New Orleans, proper — to discuss the realities of life in the Crescent City. Like I said, this is a better than average winking-at-Mormons news story.

But here is the missed connection that disappointed me. Think logically. Young people in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are justifiably famous for the discipline and dedication that they show as they conduct their two-year missions to nations around the world, which one reason that so many Mormons know one or more foreign languages (a valuable skill, in this age of globalization).

Yet, this commitment to evangelism also places waves of young Mormons in some of the world’s most exciting, and tempting, cities. Once again, think logically. Is New Orleans really a tougher moral environment than, let’s say, Bangkok, Rio de Janeiro, Amsterdam or Johannesburg? Something tells me that these folks are used to talking about temptations.

In fact, did anyone at the Post think to talk to some of the young Mormons who are currently serving as missionaries in — wait for it — New Orleans?

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