Mormonism is a religion, not just a culture

For people serious about their faith, religious beliefs tend not only to influence other types of beliefs but they tend to be presuppositional. Believers adopt particular cultural and political beliefs because of their religious views. For example, an evangelical who believes that abortion is wrong tends to adopt cultural and political views that flow from their religious convictions. Not all evangelicals oppose abortion rights, of course, and even those that do may have developed their position on the issue apart from their religious views. But those who are pro-life tend to be so in a way that is different than those who developed a secular-minded opposition to abortion.

While this may seem too obvious to mention, it can lead to problem for journalists on the religion beat.

A prime example from several years ago is how the media covered the Tea Party movement. There were at least three main factions of the Tea Party, and the main one could be described as a subset of the religious right. Despite the perception of the movement being comprised of economically oriented libertarians, the majority held social conservative views. Nearly two-thirds (63 percent) of Tea Partiers polled in 2011 said abortion should be illegal in all or most cases, and only eighteen percent supported same-sex marriage. When the Washington Post contacted 647 Tea Party groups, they found that less than half of the organizations considered spending and limiting the size of government to be a primary concern.

The bottom line: By failing to understand the foundational beliefs underlying the movement, the media continually misunderstood (and misreported) what the movement was really about.

To truly understand a cultural or political movement comprised mainly of religious believers requires understanding the presuppositional religious views that shapes it. But since it can be difficult to determine the motivating belief and cumbersome to explain, it’s often easier to simply focus on the non-religious aspects. That is one of the reasons why so many religion stories become political stories. Journalists know how to write about politics, so if a story can be “translated” it becomes easier to tell.

A similar process seems to have occurred in a recent New York Times Magazine story focusing on Brigham Young University’s film animation program, “When Hollywood Wants Good, Clean Fun, It Goes to Mormon Country.” Instead of writing about religion-as-politics, though, it translates religion into mere cultural expression.

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