Go up, reporter

wallAs a gentile, I learned to think of the Jewish people mainly in religious terms. Reading the Old Testament alongside the New Testament will do that to a goy.

I grasped that the term Jew had an ethnic meaning as well. But it wasn’t until I began writing, if only occasionally, about Jewish-related stories, that it was impressed upon me that the religious and ethnic aspects of Jewish life are hardly one in the same.

Still, I think that sometimes reporters gloss over Jews’ religious identity. Take this Los Angeles Times story by David Haldane.

Haldane writes about a fairly recent program for young Jews: an all-expenses paid trip to Israel. As Haldane describes the program,

Birthright is the brainchild of, among others, Michael Steinhardt, a New York-based investor and philanthropist, who saw what he considered an alarming trend: the increasing disaffection of young, non-Israeli Jews from their culture and community.

“They typically stop their Jewish educations after their bar or bat mitzvahs,” he said, referring to religious coming of age ceremonies performed at 12 or 13. “I decided to focus on the next generation of our people. If there is a miracle in our lifetimes, it’s the birth of Israel. You can be Jewish and not visit there, but you’re missing a lot.”

This passage is enticing. It suggests that the program aims in part to teach the principles and practices of Judaism. After all, bar and bat mitzvahs are religious traditions.

Yet the story never elaborates on whether the trips serve a religious purpose. Haldane merely hints that they do. Early in the story, he writes:

The results have been important to Israel “both ideologically and strategically,” said Gidi Mark, the program’s Israeli marketing director and soon-to-be chief executive. In addition to contributing to the country’s economy and bolstering its support among Jews worldwide, he said, Birthright marks the young nation’s ascension as an “equal partner in taking responsibility for the future of the Jewish people worldwide.”

Later on, Haldane writes:

“There will be no free time, only structured free time,” Birthright staffer Jay Feldman told the soon-to-be passengers of bus 909, which, he said, would be making stops at Jerusalem’s Western Wall and Ben Yehuda Street (“like the Santa Monica promenade”), as well as museums, monuments and the port city of Eilat, to name just a few.

The Western Wall is a distinctly religious site. A place of prayer, the wall is considered the last remnant of the Holy Temple. No wonder that Pope John Paul II prayed there. Yet Haldane does not offer so much as a dependent clause about the Wall.

More broadly, none of the young interview subjects mention religion, not even the young woman who hopes to be a rabbi someday. This criticism is not specific to religion, as no young people talk about Israel’s national or geopolitical significance. But in a story about Israel, the near silence about religion in general and Judaism specifically is deafening. Do they not see Israel in terms of God’s many promises to the Jewish people?

Haldane should have disentangled the strands of Jewish identity in this story. Again, I realize that Judaism is uniquely bound up with religious and nationalistic elements. In Exodus, God promises to Moses that his people will receive Canaan in return for their faithfulness. But this story shows no sign that Haldane tried to disentangle them.

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Shameless plug for … GetReligion.org

LuckyOliver 2382370 medium notebook and pen 410x267What can I say. Every now and then, since the creation of this here weblog, your GetReligionistas have found ourselves on the other side of the reporter’s notebook. We do have our own opinions and areas of expertise. MZ and “Two Kingdoms” theology. Mark and the interactions of the Democratic Party with Catholicism and labor. Daniel’s insights into why God cheers for the Indianapolis Colts.

This week, the editors of Time magazine aimed veteran reporter David Van Biema at the Anglican warfare story and he took the story into some ground already covered here at GetReligion. Thus, he gave me a call.

I am not sure how comfortable I am with journalists being quoted in news essays. However, several decades of covering this story, including 10 years when I was an Episcopalian, have left me with boxes of documents and a rather sprawling data base of URLs and telephone numbers. Click here to see a recent Again interview in which — framed by my own experiences and biases — I tried to help Eastern Orthodox Christians understand some of the major themes in the Anglican wars.

Anyway, Van Bierma decided that he wanted to talk with me. Click here if you want to read the article that resulted from his work and information from some other Time correspondents. This ran with the headline: “Could the Pope Aid an Anglican Split?” Here is a piece of the report, which tries to explain ways in which the current Church of England crisis over the consecration of female bishops is and IS NOT linked to what is happening in America:

… (On) its face, the Church of England’s crisis is only distantly related to the global or American scene. However, it might draw in a very powerful observer from outside the Communion who could make things very interesting: Pope Benedict XVI.

Both the special nature of the English crisis and the Pope’s possible involvement hinge on the fact that most of the English dissidents this week are not the evangelical, Bible-thumping members of the Communion whose fury at the American ordination of an openly gay bishop has led to talks of schism this summer. Rather they are members of a faction, heavy on liturgy and ritual, that abhors evangelicalism but considers itself very close to the Catholicism from which the Anglican Church originally sprang. Many “Anglo-Catholics” share Rome’s opposition to female ordination. They have also historically hoped for a reunion with Catholicism, and correctly assume that female bishops would be a deal-breaker in any negotiation with Rome. So the move to ordain women bishops is more than some of them can stand. In a petition last week, some 1,300 Anglican priests and bishops stated that if the Synod voted along the lines that it eventually did on Monday, that “we will inevitably be asking whether we can … continue [with] the Church of England which has been our home.”

Would they actually leave? This is where the Pope comes in. For an ordained clergyman to depart his cradle faith is a lonely endeavor, done individually. But that is probably not how things will roll out in this case. A Catholic Church official explained to TIME that the last time a situation like this arose (when the Church of England voted to allow women to become priests), “some 400 [dissidents] became Catholic priests or bishops.” The issue, he says, is “whether there is some way for [the current crop] to come into the Catholic Church in a corporate way, [with] their [congregations].” Along those lines, he notes, there are so-called “Anglican Rite” groups in the U.S. that maintain Anglican ritual, but recognize the Pope’s authority and count as Catholics.

It would be out of line for me to dissect this too much or to share my side of the interview that is referenced later in the piece. However, let me say that I have tremendous respect for the Reformed, low-church side of the Anglican tradition and, frankly, I would never refer to the J.I. Packers and John Stotts of this world as “Bible-thumping” Anglicans.

One of the major themes of GetReligion’s writing about this conflict is that there is no one “Anglican right” and that journalists who assume there is such an animal will not be able to anticipate what may happen next. There is no one “Anglican left” either, although, since the left is tied to the church’s establishment so tightly, Anglican progressives tend to hang together — for the most part. That’s why it was news when some on the Anglican left took potshots at the famous or infamous Bishop John Shelby Spong of Newark.

I have been watching the delicate dance between the Vatican and the Anglo-Catholics for a long, long time and actually wrote a Scripps Howard News Service column on the topic a few years ago. Also, journalists covering the story may want to dig out the 1997 book by former Anglican William Oddie entitled “The Roman Option,” which, way back then, stressed a theme now reemerging in The Times — which is that many liberal Catholics in England do not want to see a wave of conservative Anglicans enter their post-Vatican II world.

NotebookTurns 01As Ruth Gledhill just wrote:

In England at least, these Catholics are by and large pretty liberal. Many of them would like women priests, or at the very least married ones. The last thing they want is a whole group of woman-bishop-hating clergy coming over, with their wives and families, and enforcing some kind of new doctrinal orthodoxy on dioceses that are working very well without them and finding their own accommodation with Catholic orthodoxy and modern life. Given the sacrifices their own priests have made in their embrace of celibacy, poverty and obedience in the service of Christ, they are unlikely to want our more-Roman-than-the-Romans alighting their vestry doors.

So will Rome act? Look at it this way: Will Anglicans act, clearly and quickly? To state this another way, which institution is more likely to achieve doctrinal and institutional clarity first?

My bias is clear, in terms of my own choice and life. I think there will be a wide array of options available in the future for Anglicans whose theological convictions are on the Reformed and Evangelical side of the fence.

Will that be in or out of Communion with Canterbury? Who the heck knows. Will all of those Anglican conservatives choose the same path? Who the heck knows (but I have my doubts, based on the history of these things).

Will Rome act? My hunch is “yes.”

Will Eastern Orthodox leaders act in unity in England? I have my doubts about that, although some Anglicans may choose to swim the Bosphorus instead of the Tiber.

My suspicion is that, in the unique culture that is England, an Anglican Rite option could happen pretty soon. My conviction is that people who want to join an ancient church should go ahead and join an ancient church, although conservative Anglicans get very mad at me when I say that.

But that’s what I believe and that’s what I told Time. Let me know what you think of the journalism that ended up on print at that magazine’s website. If you want to talk about the Anglican disputes themselves, stay calm and be kind and quote some sources (as I just did with Oddie, Gledhill, Time and, in a way, the former Cardinal Ratzinger).

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Troubles with Templeton obits

templetonBy most any measure, the late Sir John Templeton was a remarkable man. He was a pioneer in not one but two fields: investing in stocks and donating money to explore the intersection of science and religion.

After Templeton died Tuesday, his obituaries were quite detailed and informative about one of those fields. You can guess which one his obituaries didn’t fare so well.

Religion News Service’s obituary
was not objectionable. It just wasn’t insightful. Reporters Daniel Burke and Benedict Cipolla noted, appropriately, that Templeton grew up in a town not far away from the Scopes Monkey Trial occurred, a big influence on his outlook. Yet their religious analysis was only skin deep. Take this passage about the intellectual projects that Templeton funded:

High-profile initiatives have included a study on the healing benefits of prayer, overseen by a researcher from Harvard Medical School; an investigation into the development of purpose among young people; the Stanford Forgiveness Project; and the Templeton Religion Reporter of the Year award through the Religion Newswriters Association.

In February, the Templeton Foundation announced that it will donate $4 million to researchers at Oxford University to investigate the origins of belief in God.

While some critics questioned the subjects and methods of Templeton-funded projects, even skeptics acknowledged the caliber of many of the studies, and several grantees praised Templeton for his hands-off manner.

Surely this last paragraph needs an extra sentence or two of explanation; as I will note later, two publications asserted that actually the caliber of the studies was questionable. To get their point across, Burke and Cipolla should have found out what made Templeton’s projects distinctive or not. A quote from an expert or academic would have been helpful.

This quote from Templeton, too, cried out for explanation:

“I formed charity foundations … so that, within a century, humans will know a hundred times more about divinity and spiritual principles as any human has known to date,” Templeton said in 2003.

Templeton presumably is referring to the masses, not spiritual leaders. But come on. Templeton is making a bold claim: that his charity foundations, and others like them no doubt, will reveal divinity and spiritual principles. A quote from a scholar or Templeton aide would have been helpful to readers.

At least RNS’ story was critical and fairminded. Scientific American‘s obituary was one sided and sneering. According to reporter JR Minkel, Templeton was a well-meaning but naive old man. Consider the obit’s final few paragraphs:

Critics charged that by attempting to reconcile what the late evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould referred to as the “nonoverlapping magisteria” of science and religion, Templeton was twisting scientific concepts in religion’s name.

“This is a sad event, since from all I’ve heard from those who met him, he was a very nice fellow,” biologist P. Z. Myers, a fierce opponent of creationism, wrote on his blog, Pharyngula. “It’s just too bad that he threw so much money away into a fruitless and pointless endeavor that does nothing but prop up belief in unreality.”

Others supported Templeton’s work. He was knighted in 1987 by Queen Elizabeth II for his philanthropy.

While Queen Elizabeth is better known than P.Z. Myers, the contrast is not fair toward Templeton. Myer’s quote is pointed and polemical. The Queen is not quoted, nor are any supporters of Templeton. Were no Templeton Prize winners available?

The Los Angeles Times‘ obituary had a different problem. It made an outright bizarre statement about the Templeton Foundation’s projects:

… the Templeton charities have engendered controversy over the years for their support of research into such topics as character development, forgiveness, free enterprise and the role of prayer in medical healing.

Detractors have argued that the grants back flimsy science aimed at promoting religion and right-wing causes. The online magazine Slate called Templeton “a conservative sugar daddy” whose ultimate goal was “the reunification of science and religion.”

How topics such as character development and forgiveness are controversial is never broached. I realize that numerous post-Enlightenment philosophies deny free will, as do some Christian ones. But unless I am wildly off base, a typical LAT reader would wonder why character development and forgiveness, or even prayer, meet intellectual resistance.

Don’t get me wrong. Maybe Templeton’s awards and prizes were hokum, although I doubt it given the roster of its past winners. But these obituaries needed to explain why it was so.

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Chuck Colson, Renaissance man

BurglarSir John Templeton, the wildly-successful mutual-fund manager who pioneered international investing died Tuesday at the age of 95. He was also well-known for giving away much of his fortune to scientific and religious causes.

Mark will be looking at some of the obituaries, which seem amazed by Templeton’s belief that science and faith might be reconciled, in the next day or so. But one had an error we have to point out.

Like many other papers, the Telegraph focused a great deal on Templeton’s religious philanthropy. But check out these paragraphs:

In 1973 he inaugurated the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion, an annual award to remedy the Nobel Foundation’s omission of religion from its prizes.

A brilliant publicist, Templeton guaranteed that his prize would always be worth more than the Nobel, and arranged for the Duke of Edinburgh to present the award at Buckingham Palace, thus ensuring full press coverage.

From 1973, when it stood at £70,000, the prize money has risen to £820,000, making the Templeton Prize one of the world’s largest annual monetary awards.

Winners over the years have included Mother Teresa of Calcutta, Alexander Solzhenitzyn, the Reverend Dr Billy Graham, and Charles Colson, the Watergate-burglar-turned-minister. Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus and Jews also qualified to win the prize.

All of which is interesting. Except that Chuck Colson (who, by the way, donated his entire prize to Prison Fellowship) was not a Watergate burglar and is not an ordained minister.

Other than that, no problem. The bungling of these descriptors is just sloppy journalism. As for the second of those two mistakes, it makes you wonder if the reporter thinks that all people involved in religious work are clergy (see James Dobson, etc., etc.).

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The Rt. Rev. Douglas LeBlanc, kind friend

coffeecoveredkeyboardI received a lovely and witty email this morning from GetReligion co-founder Doug LeBlanc, who still lingers out there in cyberspace doing that copy editor thing that he does. This is a guy that knows what makes me laugh.

The email’s caption was a warning: “Set your morning beverage aside before reading.”

Doug didn’t need to worry, since the Eastern Orthodox fast before going to Divine Liturgy. Thus, I did not have a cup of tea in hand when I read his note (and I do not drink coffee). Still, I appreciated the kind thought and he had found a rather amusing error in a mainstream newspaper.

The email contained a link pointing me to an essay in The Morning Call in Allentown, Pa., written by the Rt. Rev. Paul V. Marshall, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Bethlehem. The subject was the truly global nature of the upcoming Lambeth Conference, a once-a-decade event which is supposed to bring together the bishops of the Anglican Communion.

Thus, this powerful voice in the Episcopal Church establishment wrote:

Women and men along a large chain of human connection are about to link at Lambeth in England. I invite readers accustomed to praying to keep us in mind.

Seldom do I use this space for purely denominational issues. When I do, it is usually to make a larger point. Next to the United Nations and the Roman Catholic Church, the Anglican Communion is the world’s third largest linkage of human persons, cultures and geography. While the American branch of the Communion is the relatively tiny Episcopal Church, Anglicanism is the major expression of Christianity in much of Africa.

Doug knew that the sentence that would send me into orbit was in that second paragraph, in large part because of a debate that your GetReligionistas had a few years ago with the New York Times and its excellent corrections team. That sentence: “Next to the United Nations and the Roman Catholic Church, the Anglican Communion is the world’s third largest linkage of human persons, cultures and geography.”

Now the reference in the Times went like this:

The Episcopal Church is a small but rich and powerful member of the Anglican Communion, which has 77 million members, the second-largest church body in the world, and is presided over by the archbishop of Canterbury.

What’s the problem? Well there are about 1 billion Roman Catholics and about 55 to 70 million Anglicans, depending on who is doing the counting. However, there are also 250 million or so Christians in another large, global and very multicultural body — the ancient churches of Eastern Orthodoxy.

The Times corrected the error and The Morning Call needs to do the same. However, note that the Eastern Orthodox are not alone in being left out of the bishop’s view of global culture and Anglicanism’s place in it.

LeBlanc played around at Adherents.com and proposed this list of some other religious groups or bodies of people that are, well, a notch or two larger than Anglicanism on the global scheme of things. I mean, the bishop’s fuzzy language does not even limit itself to religion.

So Doug writes:

– Islam: 1.5 billion
– Secular/Nonreligious/Agnostic/Atheist: 1.1 billion
– Hinduism: 900 million
– Chinese traditional religion: 394 million
– Buddhism: 376 million
– primal-indigenous: 300 million
– African Traditional & Diasporic: 100 million

That’s not even counting such linkages as the BBC, the NFL, Wal-Mart, Rupert Murdoch’s media empire, tobacco companies, Google, Harpo Productions or McDonald’s.

LeBlanc has a point, a whole bunch of them in fact. A correction is needed. It’s a slam dunk.

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Give us the faith-based details

orwellIn his famous essay “Politics and the English Language,” George Orwell criticized modern writers for all manners of sins, not the least of which were a lack of detail and specificity. He cited a well-known verse from Ecclesiastes: “I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong …” Then he translated it in modern English: “Objective consideration of temporary phenomena compels the conclusion …”

Though written more than 60 years ago, Orwell’s passage is still relevant today. Take the major print coverage of Barack Obama’s faith-based announcement yesterday.

Most of the stories focused on the right topic: the program’s hiring and firing provisions. But their descriptions were almost as general and opaque as Orwell’s second passage.

The New York Times
, as Daniel noted, gave readers the most information about Obama’s plan. Yet reporters Jeff Zeleny and Michael Luo described the controversial provision in only the haziest of terms:

Mr. Obama’s plan pointedly departed from the Bush administration’s stance on one fundamental issue: whether religious organizations that get federal money for social services can take faith into account in their hiring. Mr. Bush has said yes. Mr. Obama said no.

“If you get a federal grant, you can’t use that grant money to proselytize to the people you help and you can’t discriminate against them — or against the people you hire — on the basis of their religion,” Mr. Obama said. “Federal dollars that go directly to churches, temples and mosques can only be used on secular programs.”

So, too, did Jennifer Loven of the Associated Press:

Obama’s support for letting religious charities that receive federal funding consider religion in employment decisions was likely to invite a storm of protest from those who view such faith requirements as discrimination.

Only Jonathan Weisman of The Washington Post filled readers in on the details, if partially:

Those aides said an Obama administration would get tough on groups that discriminate in hiring practices and doling out assistance. The groups would have to abide by federal hiring laws that reject discrimination based on race, sex and religion. Obama said he supports federal legislation that would extend those protections to gay people as well, a flash point with some religious organizations that say hiring or assisting gays would run counter to their beliefs.

Except for Weisman’s passage, those of the NYTimes and AP, as well as The Politico, were vague. An otherwise informed reader would wonder what’s the fuss all about. Little would the reader know that Obama’s plan is a big deal: An orthodox Jewish group would have to consider hiring gay Catholics, while a liberal Lutheran organization would need to consider bringing on board conservative Muslims.

In other words, while religious groups can receive federal funds to help the needy, they cannot do so to pick their own co-religionists. Was this not the policy in place before President Bush? If so, the reporters mischaracterized Obama’s plan as an expansion of Bush’s program. In fact, Obama’s plan would all but rescind it.

Another major deficiency in the coverage is a lack of specificity about how Obama would prevent religious groups from discriminating against employees. Does he propose adding an office to the Justice Department?

These stories suggest that God is indeed in the details. They also suggest that You Know What exists in their absence.

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Abortion and the modern “Arabs”

MuslimUSA 01Most conversations about globalization focus on economic issues and, clearly, that engine of modernization turns many other cultural wheels. But anyone who has studied mass media knows that images from other cultures — especially advertisements and entertainment images — have a profound impact on their own. A professor of mine once said that that two main messages carried by most ads are (1) you do not own this and (2) you do not look like this.

I thought of that while reading a sobering Los Angeles Times piece by Borzou Daragahi, which ran under one of those giant headlines that tells you most of what you need to know: “Number of abortions rising in Middle East, experts say — Changing social values and economic realities, along with demographic shifts, are among the reasons, observers in the Arab world say.”

However, there is a problem right there in the headline, with the use of the term “Arab world.”

The piece seems to use two words interchangeably — “Arab” and “Muslim.” However, there are Arabs who are not Muslims and, now that you mention it, the story also blurs the lines between terms such as “Arab” and “Lebanese.” Meanwhile, there are a wide array of forces that are changing life in the Middle East and the wide variety of people, religious and secular, who live there.

Here is the crucial chunk of the LA Times story offering the typical blitz of statistics linked to modernization and globalization:

Despite legal and religious restrictions against abortion in much of the Arab world, changing social values and economic realities as well as demographic shifts have contributed to an apparent increase in the number of the procedures in the Middle East. …

In most Middle East countries, the 15-to-24-year-old age group has grown to make up about a third of the population, but the percentage of early marriages is dropping. In Egypt, only 10% of 15-to-19-year-old females were married in 2003, down from 22% in 1976.

As young people wait longer to marry, they’re increasingly engaging in premarital sex.

“I think abortions are going up for just for one reason: Sex is becoming more permissive,” said Wissam Ghandour, a Lebanese obstetrician and scholar. “I assure you that the majority of girls getting married now are non-virgins and sexually active.”

And right here, at this crucial point in the story, comes a key confusion in terms of culture and religion.

… Arab youths receive little in the way of birth control or sex education, say family planning experts in the Middle East, many of whom work discreetly to provide reproductive health services in conservative Muslim societies that hold women’s maternal roles as sacrosanct.

“If access to contraceptives was widely and freely available, abortion wouldn’t be necessary,” said an official at a Western family planning organization in Yemen. She spoke on condition of anonymity for fear her organization would be targeted. Abortion, she said, is “a last resort.”

Ignore, for a moment, the assumption that access to contraceptives automatically drives down abortion statistics, an assumption that would light up our comments pages for a month if we allowed it to be argued. So don’t even go there. Please.

No, what interests me the most is that this section of the story again equates “Arab” and “Muslim.” There are Christian Arabs left in this part of the world and they drift away from their traditions and teachings just as easily or, sadly, perhaps more easily than do the Muslims in these cultures.

The story gives us a short summary of the Muslim teachings on the issue of abortion — or the views of the Muslims interviewed by the reporter, which is not quite the same thing — but does not say a word about the views and beliefs of Christians in the Middle East.

This is especially interesting since the Christian Arabs have often served as a bridge — for better or for worst — to Europe and the values of the West. It’s a crucial question: Who is performing these abortions and how do these individuals fit into the religious puzzle that is this region? What are the forces, in terms of culture, business and media, that are spreading this new permissiveness?

Islam is important, of course. Thus, we read:

According to most interpretations, Islam strictly forbids abortion after the fetus has reached 4 months, and allows it before then only in cases of violent rape or when birth poses an extreme threat to the physical or psychological health of the mother. Otherwise, abortion is tantamount to killing a living soul, a major sin in Islam, said Abdel Moati Bayoumi, a professor of the fundamentals of Islam at Cairo’s Al Azhar University, the world’s premier Muslim school of higher education.

“The rise of abortion and its acceptability in the Arab world reflects the decadence of societies in the region and how much people are drifting away from the teachings of Islam,” he said in a telephone interview. “Abortion should not be taken lightly, because it involves killing a creature that belongs only to God.”

Abortion is, of course, forbidden under the traditional forms of Christianity, Islam, Buddhism and most other traditional forms of the great world religions. This story is only about Islam and the Arabs. However, if failed to even cover all of the Arabs and the forces that are shaping their lives today. Thus, there is a hole in the reporting.

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What’s in a name?

roseBack in April when Texas authorities seized children from a ranch owned by the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, we discussed how well the media distinguished between them and the much larger Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

As far as media coverage went, we thought reporters handled the distinction pretty well. We definitely took issue with how well they retained their objectivity with the story.

But the LDS church commissioned a survey of 1,000 Americans and found that 36 percent thought the Texas compound was part of the LDS Church or the “Mormon Church” based in Salt Lake City. According to the survey, six percent said the churches were partly related, 29 percent said the groups were not connected at all, and 29 percent weren’t sure.

So the LDS decided to do a big public relations campaign and enlist religion reporters help in clarifying the distinction. Whereas Peggy Fletcher Stack of the Salt Lake Tribune ran a rather brief story, the Associated Press’ Eric Gorski used the campaign as a hook to explore the issue in greater depth:

As authorities have investigated a polygamist sect in Texas, Mormon church leaders in Salt Lake City have largely stayed on the sidelines, weighing a response.

Church officials knew the sect’s similar name and practice of polygamy — part of Mormon church life until it was banned more than a century ago — would cause people to confuse the two.

Now the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, better known as the Mormon church, is starting a public relations campaign that seeks a delicate balance: distinguishing itself from a small, separate group that claims some of the same history while not denigrating someone else’s beliefs.

It’s a sensitive issue for the Mormon church, which was persecuted in its early years. The initiative begun Thursday also details how it considers its 19th century practice of polygamy different from present-day practitioners like the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

“People have the right to worship as they choose, and we aren’t interested in attacking someone else’s beliefs,” LDS church apostle Quentin Cook said in a statement. “At the same time, we have an obligation to define ourselves rather than be defined by events and incidents that have nothing to do with us.”

“Mormons,” he said, “have nothing whatsoever to do with this polygamous sect in Texas.”

I love the way that Gorski really makes the most out of each word. There is rarely an unnecessary clause in his prose. The middle of the story gives a ton of specifics — the LDS took no stance on the April raid of the FLDS compound in Texas or subsequent battles. Gorski explains why the campaign was launched and how it centers around videos on the LDS web site that aim to demonstrate that church members are like anyone else in the community.

He also explains how the church aims to explain its former practice of polygamy relative to the FLDS’ current practice of polygamy. He gives the specifics of the public relations campaign, such as an article that emphasizes that most polygamous marriages involved just two wives and that Mormon women in the 19th century could choose whether to marry and could leave their polygamous marriages. He notes a few things that were left out, such as the fact that church founder Joseph Smith had at least 28 wives, some as young as 14 and that his successor Brigham Young married at least 20 women. But he gets a response from LDS Apostle Cook about why comparisons of FLDS prophet Warren Jeffs to the early Mormon church prophets are unfair. There’s no “gotcha” in the reporting.

In addition to another religious scholar, Gorski speaks with historian Jan Shipps, who is a highly-regarded non-Mormon scholar of the Latter Day Saint movement:

Although the Mormon church distances itself from polygamist groups like the FLDS, the groups are not unrelated, said Jan Shipps, a historian who specializes in Mormonism. They share common roots, call themselves Mormon and recognize Joseph Smith as a prophet, she said.

“You can see why the (LDS) church is doing its best to draw a line between the two,” she said. “The problem is that by drawing the line, they don’t recognize the shared history both accept.”

Shipps said it’s accurate to call sects like the FLDS “fundamentalist Mormons” because she, and other scholars, considers Mormonism a new religious tradition with several expressions.

The LDS church, which considers itself Christian, sees it differently.

As part of the new initiative to set itself apart from polygamist groups, the church’s general counsel, Lance Wickman, wrote a letter to media executives this week urging sensitivity in coverage and asking that the term “fundamentalist Mormon” not be used.

“Decades ago, the founders of that sect rejected the doctrines of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, were excommunicated,” he wrote, “and then started their own religion.”

I love how straightforward Gorski is. He doesn’t come down one way or the other, even if he gives the LDS official the last word. His story from beginning to end shows the most important point: the LDS church seeks to distance itself from the FLDS. But he also shows that the church’s goal of getting journalists to refrain from calling the FLDS “fundamentalist Mormons” is not universally shared. The one thing that would have been nice to have included in this story is some perspective from the FLDS themselves. What do they think of the LDS public relations campaign? It would also have been nice to find out what the LDS think the group should be called. All I could find on the LDS site was the not-so-specific “polygamist sect in Texas” and the clunky “the polygamous group in Texas that calls itself the FLDS,” neither of which are probably going to catch on at copydesks.

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