Postmodern parents: Only time will tell

emptypewsThe Washington Post headline said it all: “Some Parents Who Shy From Religion Want Their Children to Taste Its Psychological and Spiritual Comforts.” (As a former copy editor, I ask, “What was that? A double decker six- or eight-column headline in 36-point type?)

The story by Stacy Weiner was just as broad and appeared, for some reason, in the health section. Still, it raised a perfectly valid issue. What happens when parents who have a skeptical or totally pluralistic approach to faith have childen? How does one teach postmodernism to a toddler? I mean, before they soak it up on Saturday morning in front of a television set?

Clearly, this is part of a larger story that we talk about all the time here at GetReligion — the struggle of a true religious left to find an identity and to hand it down generation after generation. Yet, as Weiner’s story notes, the secular/pluralist niche continues to grow. It is, for example, a growing segment of the Democratic Party’s base. Ask Howard “Call me Job” Dean. Once again, let me urge everyone to read the “Tribal Relations” article that The Atlantic ran not that long ago about religion and politics in American life.

The Post article stresses that parents of vague beliefs should lean left as they explore the pews. You never know when you might run into a damaging blast of certainty.

Nevertheless, what will most readers make of this?

Like her husband, Varun Gauri, Ayesha Khan did some soul-searching and concluded that she wanted religion’s bounties for their daughter Yasmeen and their year-old son, Sharif. At the top of Khan’s wish list: a sense of community and spirituality.

Over the years, says Khan, she’s seen religious community serve several of her friends — mostly Jewish — with its sense of shared history, support and belonging. “We no longer live among extended families and extended communities,” she says Khan, 42, who is legal director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. And, she notes, “there really aren’t intergenerational institutions that offer quite what religion does in our society.”

Khan also believes that spirituality — with its sense of purpose and meaning — is key to her children’s emotional well-being. And she’s convinced it would be a lot tougher for them to develop spirituality without the structure and guidance that religion offers.

So she and Gauri are dishing up a religious smorgasbord: Islam from one grandma, Hindu from the other, a Quaker school, a Buddhist retreat and a bit of evangelical Christianity via their former nanny. As Khan acknowledges, “Only time will tell if we were creating great confusion or great enlightenment.”

And there is the rub. Only time will tell. This is a fascinating article and the topic is ripe for news coverage. But I was troubled about several things. For example, Weiner does not interview any traditional authority figure or researcher who is skeptical about all this skepticism. The article is very one-sided, in other words. It could be a Unitarian or United Church of Christ tract.

19566Other than interviewing traditional believers, people who might see links between actual religious faith and its positive impact on the lives of children and adults, who else might this reporter have turned to for authoritative research?

I would suggest a follow-up story, focusing on the attempts of parents in interfaith marriages — the best data has been collected by Jewish groups — to raise their children in two faiths at the same time. During my days on the religion beat in Denver, the Jewish community there wrestled with this issue over and over.

The bottom line: Teaching children that two religions are true only teaches them that neither religion is true. Teaching them that all the religions are true will almost certainly teach them that there is no true faith at all, no religious faith that is worth their commitment.

Time will tell. And does anyone dare discuss eternity?

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Covering those flaky religious folks

Ahmadinejad2The 18-page letter from Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to President Bush is gaining a lot of attention for its religious imagery and its call for Bush to look closely at his own religious convictions. It reads, says the Wall Street Journal editorial board, like “the Unabomber’s manifesto.” Ouch.

Words from crazy people who threaten to blow up mailboxes and obliterate entire countries deserve a close examination from every angle possible. And while the media in America are jumping all over the religion angle, particularly the New York Times, they have failed so far in explaining the significance of this religious language:

While the letter laid out a litany of policy disputes with the United States, it was also personal, urging President Bush, who is candid about his religious conviction, to examine his actions in the light of Christian values. As he has done in the past, the Iranian struck a prophetic tone, which is certain to be well received by his core supporters and mocked by his opponents.

“We increasingly see that people around the world are flocking towards a main focal point that is the Almighty God,” he wrote. “Undoubtedly through faith in God and the teaching of the prophets, the people will conquer their problems. My question to you is: ‘Do you want to join them?’”

The letter was framed entirely in religious terms but also laid out a populist manifesto of anti-Americanism, offering illustrations of what has won the Iranian a following among many ordinary people throughout the Middle East. He presented himself as the defender not only of Muslims but of all oppressed people, including those in Africa and Latin America.

As the WSJ editorial aptly said, Ahmadinejad “needs to broaden his daily media sources beyond the BBC.” From my own reading of the letter, Ahmadinejad is attempting to connect with what he sees as a commonality with Bush, which is a strong belief in religion in the public square. Ahmadinejad either needs to broaden his source for news or find better intelligence officers.

Despite what the international media like to say about Bush’s religious convictions, Ahmadinejad’s sources have failed him in informing him of Bush’s religious convictions. Ahmadinejad and the international media could start by reading this article and then this book for a better idea of Bush’s religious convictions.

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Why military chaplains matter

SoldiersPrayingLast Sunday’s 8,000-plus-word takeout in The Washington Post Magazine on military chaplains is a tremendous example of why long-form journalism is so helpful in dealing with complex religious issues. The magazine’s editors gave Kristin Henderson, the wife of a Navy chaplain and author of While They’re at War: The True Story of American Families on the Homefront, the space needed to tell the story of why chaplains are a necessary part of the U.S. military operations and some of the immense challenges they face:

The soldier nicknamed Razz is standing on the platform between the two back seats, half in, half out of a hole in the roof, manning the .50 caliber machine gun mounted in the turret. He scrunches down as the overpass closes in. His butt settles into a sling hanging next to the head of a fourth soldier in the backseat, a man who’s not part of the crew, who seems to be doing nothing. He’s Chaplain John Smith.

Smith, 32, has been preaching since he was 16, has a bachelor’s degree in psychology and a master’s in divinity. But he looks like a kid, walks like a kid, high-speed and bouncy-toed. He first arrived in Iraq four months ago, a brand new captain fresh out of an Assemblies of God seminary and Army chaplains school. Back on the forward operating base, or FOB, Smith leads two different services every Sunday, one an intellectual hymn to traditional [P]rotestantism, the other a two-hour, standing-room-only Pentecostal throw-down. Together, the two services reflect Smith himself, brainy and charismatic. Six to seven soldiers a day come into [Smith's] office for counseling; more pull him aside as he passes through their workspaces on his daily visitation rounds.

This Humvee is one of his soldiers’ workspaces.

chaplainsThe military chaplaincy has become ever more controversial these days, and a growing chorus is calling for the practice to be re-examined. The issue also gets more complicated in Muslim countries and for Jewish chaplains. This type of journalism has an impact in government politics and policies. Not only do policymakers read such articles, but they also hear about them from their wives, children, friends and fellow church members. This article excels not only in its descriptive color, but also in its deep understanding of the issue:

Chaplains can come from any faith group that has established a relationship with the Department of Defense. But statistics from the Defense Manpower Data Center indicate that while Christian fundamentalist and evangelical service members make up less than 20 percent of the military, more than a third of military chaplains come from such denominations. As a result, for every Southern Baptist chaplain, there are only 40 Southern Baptist service members. By comparison, Roman Catholics, who constitute the military’s single biggest religious group, make do with one priest for every 800 Catholic service members.

Captain Edward Grimenstein, a Lutheran who has been an Army chaplain for only two years, explains the large number of evangelical chaplains in his class this way: “It’s in their theological doctrine — very pro-nation, pro-government, pro-country. You don’t find that in a lot of mainline Protestant denominations.”

Pentagon policy acknowledges that these days Americans practice a wider variety of religions than ever before. Prior to becoming an Army chaplain, a candidate must certify that he or she is “sensitive to religious pluralism and able to provide for the free exercise of religion by all military personnel, their family members, and civilians who work for the Army.” Chaplains don’t lead worship services outside their own faith group, but they do have to make sure that every other recognized faith group has the supplies and space they need to practice their religion. Officially, proselytizing is forbidden, but recent headlines indicate that commandment isn’t always obeyed.

A washingtonpost.com online chat with Henderson is just as interesting — if not for the answers, then for the questions asked, especially the first one. Clearly Henderson knows her subject and understands the importance of religion. Her article will help people better understand the challenges involved in being a chaplain in the U.S. military.

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Does Da Vinci need a disclaimer?

tom hanksOne thing I’m looking forward to seeing in the launch of The Da Vinci Code next weekend (besides everyone laughing at Tom Hanks’ career-damaging hair) is what type of on-screen language it will open with and what, if any, type of language it will end with.

Director Ron Howard says that there won’t be a disclaimer, but if the book had a disclaimer of sorts (“Fact: The Priory of Sion — a European secret society founded in 1099 — is a real organization”), should not the movie have something similar? Here is the Los Angeles Times:

For the lay reader, such musings rank up there with what if the South had won the Civil War or Hitler had triumphed over the Allies. But the theory rankles the devout, hence the drumbeat of criticism. Howard’s movie version contains re-creations of the biblical allusions so viewers understand the alternate religious history that drives the plot. There’s no disclaimer, however, though some critics have asked for one.

“It’s very controversial. What Dan Brown did with the novel, we didn’t back away from in making the movie,” says Howard. “I think what a lot of people have discovered — a lot of theologians — is this is a work of fiction that presents a set of characters that are affected by these conspiracy theories and ideas. Those characters in this work of fiction act and react on that premise. It’s not theology. It’s not history. To start off with a disclaimer … .” he searches for the right words. “Spy thrillers don’t start off with disclaimers.”

Quick question for the LAT: Who are these “lay readers”? Non-priests/pastors? They are the only ones upset about Da Vinci? How about the odd journalist or historian who cares about history and facts? Just curious, because I don’t know anyone who sees this book along the lines of Philip Roth’s Plot Against America. While books like Roth’s can be very profound in examining an alternative form of history, Dan Brown goes a huge step further in his mixed portrayal of fact and fiction.

da vinci artBut let’s get back to the main topic. Howard and journalists writing about this movie should know that this is more than just another spy thriller. And they do know that. Otherwise it would just be another movie and nobody would give a hoot and a half, unless, sadly, Tom Cruise was starring. Journalists, armed with the facts, need to call Howard and the movie’s promoters out for such distortions.

For those of us who are concerned about those tricky, sometimes nebulous things known as facts, Jeffrey Weiss of The Dallas Morning News has written a tremendous piece that must in the back of all reporters’ minds as they write about the controversies surrounding the movie (because journalists care about facts, right?):

Experts agree: Dan Brown got most of his facts wrong.

Religion scholars have been whacking The Da Vinci Code like a low-hanging pinata. The swings have come from establishment Christianity — the Vatican and the Archbishop of Canterbury — and from the fringes of the faith — a member of the liberal Jesus Seminar and the agnostic historian Bart Ehrman.

At least 44 books debunking The Da Vinci Code are for sale at Amazon.com, several written by serious academics or well-known pastors. And with the movie starring Tom Hanks scheduled to open in two weeks, surely more are in the pipeline.

All of which leaves this question unanswered: Why bother?

Weiss goes on to explain that smart people care about Brown’s creation because the book made a pretension of accuracy and it “reeks of truthiness and smartiness.” But the movie’s promoters are not playing the movie like the book when it comes to its alleged grounding in truth. If the movie doesn’t carry some type of “factual” disclaimer at the beginning, will the movie studios lose out on potential ticket sales? As James Frey will tell you, selling truth is always going to be easier than selling fiction:

If Mr. Brown can’t get inarguable facts right, the experts say, what faith can readers place in his conclusions about the nature of Christianity?

Some critics say they’re intent on tearing down the credibility of the book because many people, mostly ignorant of what is known of the early years of Christianity, accept Mr. Brown’s fictions as gospel truth.

“In our experience, readers are taking it as true,” said Dr. Ehrman, a religious studies professor at the University of North Carolina and the author of Truth and Fiction in The Da Vinci Code. “Historians care about what happened in the past, and it’s important … to separate the fact from the fiction.”

The biggest question in this story is whether people will start actually believing Brown’s theories. So far I have yet to see that the book has had that kind of influence. Time will tell with the movie.

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China-Vatican deal goes boom over bishops

CardinalZenOr does it?

Alessandra Rizzo of the Associated Press reported Friday that the Vatican excommunicated four bishops because two of them were ordained by the state-controlled church without consent from the Pope. The two bishops who ordained them were also excommunicated. Except they weren’t quite cut off from church fellowship.

Rizzo is a bit too far ahead of the story. Look at this Los Angeles Times story, which mentions the possibility of excommunication:

VATICAN CITY — The Vatican declared Thursday that two bishops ordained by China’s state-controlled church without papal consent were excommunicated, escalating tensions as the two sides explored preliminary moves toward improving ties.

The Vatican also excommunicated the two bishops who ordained them, citing church law. The Holy See then criticized China for allegedly forcing bishops and priests to participate in “illegitimate” ordinations that “go against their conscience.”

Pope Benedict XVI’s first major diplomatic clash since his election as pontiff a year ago shatters hopes for any reestablishment soon of official ties that ended after communists took control of China in 1949.

Now read this Catholic News Service article:

VATICAN CITY (CNS) — The threat of excommunication hangs over two Chinese bishops ordained without papal approval, but only if they acted knowingly and freely, said a canon lawyer.

And even if they incurred excommunication automatically by acting of their own free will, the penalty is limited until Pope Benedict XVI publicly declares their excommunication to the bishops and their faithful, said Jesuit Father James Conn, a professor of canon law at Rome’s Pontifical Gregorian University.

Then there is this piece by Edward Cody, who is responsible for a lot of the “Pope goes to Romehype, in the Washington Post from Thursday:

BEIJING, May 3 — For the second time in four days, China’s government-sponsored Catholic church consecrated a new bishop without the pope’s approval Wednesday, casting a deeper chill on what had been promising efforts to end half a century of hostility between China and the Vatican.

The new bishop, Liu Xinhong, was installed as Anhui province’s top prelate in a morning ceremony at St. Joseph’s Church in Wuhu, in eastern China, according to a church official who declined to be identified. His ascension followed the consecration Sunday of Ma Yinglin as bishop of Kunming, in southwestern China’s Yunnan province, in spite of a request from the Vatican for more time to consider whether he could meet the pope’s approval.

Excommunication in the Catholic Church is not taken lightly and it is rare that the punishment is inflicted on bishops. If Pope Benedict XVI does indeed approve these excommunications, you can forget about any near-term reunification between the Chinese Communist government and the Vatican, despite the church’s willingness to give up ties with Taiwan.

Also from the Times piece is this interesting information that may shed some light on the diplomatic tit-for-tats:

Some analysts here suggested that China’s abrupt decision to name bishops in defiance of the Vatican came in response to Benedict’s elevation of Hong Kong Bishop Joseph Zen to cardinal this year.

Zen [pictured] has been an outspoken critic of the communist regime. He said his promotion could make him an important bridge between the Vatican and Beijing. But he has not hesitated to criticize Chinese abuses, including the jailing and persecution of priests and other Catholics.

Most recently, the Associated Press reported late Saturday that a bishop appointed by the Pope will be ordained Sunday, according to the AsiaNews agency out of Rome.

This story isn’t ending anytime soon, and reporters should avoid grand pronouncements about excommunications and potential Vatican trips to China until the facts have settled in place. Too much can shift as the many players work the situation, and the media, to their advantage.

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Why does Time see religion as irrelevant?

time 100 coverMany of you know World as a publication that strives to compete with other newsweeklies, but with an avowed evangelical Christian slant.

As a longtime reader of the publication, I appreciate it most for covering items that did not show up in The Washington Post and The New York Times the previous week, as both Time and Newsweek are known for doing so lamely.

So it’s not surprising that World founder Joel Belz over at the WorldViews blog pointed out that Time, in its list of “100 men and women” who are transforming the world through their “power, talent, or moral example,” sadly failed to include more than three people who could be considered religious figures.

While I cannot say here how disgusting I find the magazine’s hero-worshiping style and selection — Will Smith is on the list? Power? No. Talent? Definitely not. Moral example? Let’s hope not. — I do respect such efforts to catalogue the influential and powerful. It’s relatively interesting, good for conversations (and blog posts) and probably good for the magazine’s bottom line. But as Belz notes, the lack of religious leaders in the list is truly disturbing, especially since being a “moral example” is one of the qualifications:

Indeed, TIME lists 27 “artists and entertainers,” 16 “scientists and thinkers,” 22 “leaders and revolutionaries,” 21 “heroes and pioneers,” and 23 “builders and titans.” (The fact that this actually adds up to 109 people may be because TIME saw no mathematicians among the world’s most influential people). The three who might fall into the “religious” category are Muqtada al-Sadr of Iraq, Pope Benedict, and Archbishop Peter Akinola of Nigeria. Is organized religion really that miniscule in its worldwide influence these days — or is that just the secularist perspective of the editors at TIME?

I would like to think that the lack of religious leaders on the list is not due to “the secularist perspective” of the editors. Smart secularists should be able to recognize the importance of religion in the world. The magazine clearly understood it in putting together its list of the 25 most influential evangelicals in February 2005. I would also, obviously, disagree with the position that organized religion is “miniscule in its worldwide influence,” but an argument could be made that it is difficult to nail down 15 to 20 truly significant international leaders.

Who then should be on the list? Based on the inclusion of Tyra Banks, Stephen Colbert and Steve Nash (who was owned by NBA MVP rival Kobe Bryant on Sunday), one would think just about anybody can get on that list. So why did the editors omit the Dalai Lama, Rick Warren, Osama bin Laden and Tom Cruise (in jest, for his Scientology crusade)? Who would you add to the list?

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China-Vatican deal hiccups

chinese cathedralThere goes any prospect of a reunification between the Chinese Communist government and the Vatican. Or maybe things aren’t that ominous. Did you hear that the deal, so close to fruition, according to a front-page blast by The Washington Post, has come crashing to the ground due to the government’s insistence on appointing another bishop to its state-run church?

Whatever happened to the Chinese Communist leaders agreeing to retired bishops that were appointed by the government? That type of talk sounded too good to be true. Or maybe both stories were given too much hype?

It will ll be interesting to see if the Post‘s Edward Cody follows up on last week’s pronouncement that “China and the Roman Catholic Church have inched within reach of normal relations.” Here’s an Associated Press report:

HONG KONG — The Vatican should suspend talks with Beijing on restoring diplomatic ties because China’s official Roman Catholic church is ready to ordain another bishop not approved by the Holy See, Hong Kong’s cardinal said Tuesday.

On Sunday, China’s state-sanctioned church ordained Ma Yinglin as a bishop in the southwestern province of Yunnan. Cardinal Joseph Zen told The Associated Press the Vatican was still considering Ma’s qualifications and had asked for more time to approve it, but China refused.

Beijing was to appoint another new bishop, Liu Xinhong, in eastern Anhui province Wednesday, despite the fact the Vatican has deemed Liu not qualified for the post, Zen said.

We all knew that the major problem in restoring relations between the two sides was determining who has the authority to appoint bishops. Giving up that authority would be a massive step forward for the Chinese government. Perhaps at some point they will realize that attempting to control people’s religious affiliation is nearly impossible. But for now, with these developments, whatever deal that was in the works appears to be in the gutter.

From a journalistic perspective, covering negotiations that have gone from “ever so close to an agreement” to outright collapse is surprising, but overall it has a simple storyline.

My big question is who in the Communist government pushed for the appointment of Liu Xinhong. Clearly some Chinese leaders believed that appointing new bishops was a bad idea. But who were they and why couldn’t they stop this one?

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Evangelicals prefer Clinton over a Mormon?

romney in massThe “Mitt Romney cannot win the Republican nomination because he believes in weird things” chorus is singing again. The major theme this time around, as explained in this this excellent blogpost by Ross Douthat, is whether it is constitutional for voters to apply a religious test to candidates for public office.

Romney’s presidential run has picked up some serious steam, thanks to his universal health-care initiative in Massachusetts. National Journal considers Romney one of the big three contenders for the GOP nomination behind Sens. John McCain of Arizona and George Allen of Virginia.

Putting his super-secret sources to work, Chicago Sun-Times columnist Robert Novak wrote Thursday that “Romney is well aware that an unconstitutional religious test is being applied to him.”

There is nothing new to this argument, as The Washington Monthly‘s Amy Sullivan points out. It was Sullivan who wrote in September 2005 that Romney’s Mormon beliefs will be a problem in a 2008 presidential run. Nevertheless, Novak has the super-secret sources and his article will be a watermark in Romney’s presidential run:

Mitt Romney, in his last nine months as governor of Massachusetts, was in Washington Tuesday to address the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in an early stage of his 2008 presidential campaign. To a growing number of Republican activists, he looks like the party’s best bet. But any conversation among Republicans about Romney invariably touches on concerns of whether his Mormon faith disqualifies him for the presidency.

The U.S. Constitution prohibits a religious test for public office, but that is precisely what is being posed now. Prominent, respectable Evangelical Christians have told me, not for quotation, that millions of their co-religionists cannot and will not vote for Romney for president solely because he is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. If Romney is nominated and their abstention results in the election of Hillary Rodham Clinton, that’s just too bad. The evangelicals are adamant, saying there is no way Romney can win them over.

Evangelicals, whoever these strange folks are, prefer a President Clinton II to a President Romney? You have to be kidding me.

The biggest problem I had with Novak’s article is the assumption that evangelical voters — those who are orthodox in their politics — actually have that level of influence in the Republican Party. The influence of these voters is minimal and must be separated from the millions of churchgoers who readily voted for Ronald Reagan despite his wife’s use of a personal astrologer to help determine his schedule.

romney buttonAn angle that needs to be covered in these pieces of political speculation is that Mormon politicians have historically been very friendly to evangelicals’ ministries and issues. A Washington, D.C., pastor I spoke to last night said that the politician who is most helpful to his ministry is Mormon.

A note to political writers: Romney’s religious beliefs matter. They matter because Romney himself knows they matter. Will conservative evangelical voters and their leaders really not vote for Romney in a general election because he is Mormon? Sounds like a good story for local papers to do during the GOP primary.

Adam Reilly over at Slate wrote a nice piece of political commentary a day before Novak’s piece ran that provides the Romney campaign with some nice suggestions for overcoming what has now become the “Mormon problem.”

In recent months, for example, he’s done a nice job convincing pundits and the public that religious voters care more about core values than theological minutiae. During a February trip to South Carolina, a key primary state, Romney was asked how his faith would go over with Southern evangelicals. “Most people in South Carolina want a person of faith as their leader,” he replied. “But they don’t care what brand of faith that is … I believe Jesus Christ is my savior. I believe in God. I’m a person of faith and I believe that’s the type of person Americans want.” Romney’s contention that the “brand of faith” doesn’t matter is debatable — but if he keeps saying it, and enough people take up the mantra on his behalf, some skeptics might change their minds. Romney’s hard sell is already working with the press: In a recent column on Romney’s ’08 prospects, Newsweek‘s Jonathan Alter asserted that “[M]ost just want a believer, regardless of faith” — a line that could have been penned by the governor himself. …

RomneyStandardWhat’s more, there’s a desperate quality to Romney’s eagerness for approval from non-Mormon religious notables. In March, Romney traveled to Rome for Boston Archbishop Sean O’Malley’s elevation to cardinal. It was a nice photo-op for the governor, who’s sure to tout this trip — and his cooperation with O’Malley in fights against gay marriage and stem-cell research in Massachusetts — while courting the Catholic vote nationwide. But Romney overreacted, embarrassing himself with breathless commentary about what a big deal his Vatican junket was. “This is extraordinary, and particularly for someone of my faith,” Romney gushed at a St. Patrick’s Day breakfast in New Hampshire prior to his trip. “I don’t know that there’s ever been a Mormon guy that’s been to the Vatican for a [M]ass held by the Pope, so it’s a personal honor.” Thanks for the reminder that Mormons are religious pariahs, governor. Worse, a Romney spokesperson told the Boston Globe that A) Romney and O’Malley were friends; and B) the archbishop had invited the governor to make the trip. Romney just looked foolish when O’Malley told the Globe he hadn’t invited Romney and didn’t really know him all that well. (An O’Malley spokesman eventually explained that Romney had received an invitation “similar to that extended to the general public.”)

In between Romney’s lectures that HBO’s Big Love does not represent Mormonism, political reporters are going to have to dig into the true beliefs of this faith. As we have written at GetReligion, those beliefs are hardly monolithic.

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