Newsweek’s offensive cover

Imagine it is the summer of 2000 soon after presidential candidate Al Gore chose Senator Joseph Lieberman, an Orthodox Jew, to be his vice-presidential running mate. Newsweek does a cover story on Lieberman’s historic selection. Blazed across the cover are the words, “The Jewish Moment,” with a photograph of Lieberman, though the image is photoshopped. The face is clearly Lieberman’s, but in the image he is bearded in full rabbinic garb sitting at a desk preparing a sermon.  And over his left shoulder is a short line that leads to a phrase in small print, “Joseph Lieberman, Jew for Vice President.” I suspect that the Anti-Defamation League would not find this depiction of a Jewish United States Senator even remotely amusing. They would, rightfully, see it as an image that plays to the sorts of stereotypes that have often accompanied anti-semitism in both its benign and most malignant forms.

If you have followed me so far, then you may draw the conclusion that the Newsweek editors who published this week’s cover feel the same way about Mormons as anti-semites feel about Jews. Such vile bigotry, of course, is perfectly acceptable among the sophisticates that inhabit the enlightened enclaves of Manhattan and San Francisco. But I’d rather cling to my guns and religion than cling to the stereotypes that allow me to gun another’s religion.  (See Get Religion’s take on it here)

  • Donald M

    Good points, Dr. Beckwith. Suppose it was someone who was gay?

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  • bob

    I’m not a Mormon, but I respect the rights of others. I guess the editors of this formally fine magazine didn’t get the sensitivity training they say that others need.

    Hypocrites and liars. Be careful where you walk. And look out for lightning strikes.

  • jesme

    Oh, come on. Goofy, yes. Silly, yes. Bigoted, no way.

  • Joe Stokes

    Romney does look pretty gay on the cover, maybe he is in the closet too?!

  • amanda

    I’m mormon, and honestly, I wasn’t offended–maybe because I’m use to a lot worse in terms of criticism of my faith. I guess it’s just something I expect from the media–and our culture for that matter–it just comes with the territory.

  • Karen Spears Zacharias

    It’s really pathetic journalism.

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  • Andrew Cuff

    These are definitely excellent points.


    Open Theism VERSUS Dr. Norman Geisler!!!

  • MikeK

    I like your post: except, I count San Francisco as one of my former homes (sans participation within an “enlightened enclave”)…I hope no one will lump in Vegas as a Gomorran sanctuary that prohibits the inhabitants from coming to faith in Christ either. :)

    Great post.

  • Bishop Andrew Gentry

    I am not a techie or whatever one is called who loves computer software but I think the choice of the photo was offensive. Romney has never danced that well except on the end of a political question and no amount of photo shop will make him a dancer from a famous musical. But as to the good “doctor’s” point I think we are being just a wee bit oversensitive. The fact of the matter is rightly or wrongly the former governor’s faith or religion is an issue for many people especially for right wing Republicans who confuse Christ with so called “free market capitolism”! So yes in the political realm I don’t think this is over the top.

  • John Slattery

    I’m offended that people are getting offended by just about everything these days.

    How about we save offense for cases that are REALLY offense? This is devaluing the word.


  • Scott Pugsley

    If you want to learn what Mormons really believe, ask them, not their enemies.

  • Ranger1Peter5.8

    If there had been a block buster Broadway Play about Jews at that time, most of the people would have gotten the Lieberman Newsweek cover without offense.


  • Francis Beckwith

    Ranger 1Peter5.8 writes:

    “If there had been a block buster Broadway Play about Jews at that time, most of the people would have gotten the Lieberman Newsweek cover without offense.”

    That is troubling, since the play is offensive as well. Increasing the number of insults against a religious group does not make the last one less offensive.

  • John Slattery

    Dear Francis,

    The cover is offensive, the play is offensive – sweet sufferin’ succotash, I’m beginning to find your thin-skinnedness (yup, I made up a word, something I have no doubt you will also fine “offensive”) offensive.

    Attitudes such as yours are what has given the term “political correctness” a bad connotation.

  • FernWise

    Are you so very sure that Newsweek did NOT have a cover with Lieberman, dressed as Tevya, and the caption “But is it good for the Jews?”

  • Nathan Rein

    In 2000, TIME did run a cover photo of Gore and Lieberman with the headline “Chutzpah!” and devoted significant coverage to its own poll finding, according to which 49% of Americans were “concerned” about Lieberman’s beliefs about Jesus (

  • Warren Hicks

    I’m not Mormon, nor generally sympathetic to Governor Romney’s politics, however this cover subverts all the efforts made by the folks at Newsweek to become a serious contender in the News world again.

    This is of the same ilk of the offensive cartoon of the Obamas in the White House in Islamic garb was some years ago.

    Whatever is on the inside of the piece that this is hyping is going to get short shrift because of this inane and insensitive portrayal of Mormons and Mormonism.

    I guess the age old question needs to be trotted out once again, “What were they thinking?”

  • PJ

    I too am tired of everyone being offended. I don’t mean that actual hateful slurs should be overlooked but the cover looked more dumb than offensive.

  • Francis Beckwith

    Since I’m not a Mormon, it’s not my skin. What I am concerned about is the quickness of the secular media to portray conservative religious believers in an unflattering and demeaning light.

    Here’s a class project: find the obituary of any conservative religious believer (e.g., D. James Kennedy, Jerry Falwell) published in a secular periodical and compare it the obituary of any porn star. I guarantee you that the porn star’s story will seem downright inspiring while the religious believer will be portrayed as an annoying failure whose demise has made the world a better place.

    I love humor, and I love the South Park guys. But when virtually all that comes out in the secular media is ridicule, insult, misleading portrayals, diminishing of person, etc., the humor comes across as mean and gratuitous.

  • Raymond Takashi Swenson

    The cover, and the stories inside, DO make fun of Mormons a bit. But what they DON’T do is depict Mormons as scary, which is the much more destructive theme in terms of its effect on Mormons and our civil liberties and acceptance in society.

    So much of the anti-Christian bigotry that is presumed in modern popular entertainment with a secular humanist viewpoint depicts religious believers in general, and adherent Christians in particular, as incipient tyrants bent on forcing all other people to comply with their standards of strict behavior, which are denigrated as inhuman constraints on emotion and sexual expression. In much popular entertainment, devoted Christians are depicted as willing to use violence to impose “Christian” behavior on others. Christians are depicted as people to be feared, and therefore justifiably suppressed as an act of self defense.

    Mormons are in a strange position in society, where the fact that so few people know them personally allows all sorts of prejudices to be projected on them. Some secular people lump Mormons in with the scary Christians, and depict us as something to be feared and justifiably suppressed.

    Other secular people identify Mormons with the practice of polygamy, and project on us their own fantasies about sexual relations with multiple women. Thus the popularity of depictions like Big Love on HBO and “reality TV” about the experiences of the relatively small number of people who rejected the Church a century ago and instead clung to the practice of polygamy, adopting practices that, in their denial of freedom to women to even choose their own husbands, have no resemblance to the actual practice of Mormon polygamy, in which a polygamous wife like Martha Hughes Cannon earned a medical degree at the University of Michigan, and defeated her husband in an election for the state senate.

    Some Christians see Mormons as a cult of mindless automatons, who threaten Christians by bringing them into the cult through deception, and then enlist them in a scheme to rule over and suppress Christians. This view, which bears many points in common with “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” and similar anti-semitic propaganda, has been publicized within just the last two weeks in the online religious forum of the Washington Post.

    The truth about Mormons is not nearly as dramatic. It is a completely voluntary association in which people participate only if they are internally motivated to make the sacrifices entailed in doing so, including the donation of tithes, the monthly fasting, the avoidance of alcohol and its role as a social lubricant, the devotion of two years of their lives to work as unpaid missionaries as youth, and often again in their retirement years, and the weekly donation of unpaid time to teach and lead in all of the capacities of ministry that are necessary in any modern church. There is no career clergy, and leaders of local congregations serve for about 5 years and then may revert to serving as Sunday School teacher for teenagers. The “Mormon” church does not offer a path to personal power or wealth. Many of its most senior leaders, when they accept callings to full time leadership, give up successful professions in law, medicine, academia, or business that were far more remunerative. The rewards of Mormonism are in the prosaic terms of family, and service, and personal conscience.

    So the real “threat” that Mormonism presents, to both secular humanists and some Christians, is its simple attractiveness as an alternative world view. Its implementation of selfless service even among the wealthy makes hollow the attack of Marxists on capitalists. Its transmission of devotion to Christ among its teenagers arouses the envy of some “born-again Christian” parents who have difficulty persuading their children to live differently than their non-Christian peers.

    Those who fear the reality of Mormonism have enlisted the fear of false depictions of Mormons in order to keep their followers away from Mormons. If Mormons are beginning to be depicted as “strange but nice”, that is better than the fear and hatred that is so often taught.

  • John Slattery

    Dear Francis,

    Perhaps the difference in the obituaries is due, at least in part, to the fact that porn stars aren’t usually hypocrites. In their cases, it’s what you see is what you get, so to speak.

    Much as it may be distasteful, many of us delight in seeing the mask of piety removed to reveal the salacious leer underneath. There are, I think, few who do not enjoy the unveiling of a holier-than-thou humbug.

    Moreover, I would argue that the secular media is not loathe to shine an unflattering and offensive light upon anyone, conservative religious believer or otherwise. The media knows that such a light usually means bigger sales and more profits.

    Such is human nature, and I guess human nature is often offensive.

  • Francis Beckwith

    “Perhaps the difference in the obituaries is due, at least in part, to the fact that porn stars aren’t usually hypocrites.”

    That’s not true. I once knew of a porn star that was actually celibate. Hypocrite! :-)

    BTW, hypocrisy is only a sin within a moral tradition. Those outside the tradition have no moral authority to issue judgments against other tradition’s hypocrites, since the judgers reject the tradition entirely. That is, the grounds for the wrongness of hypocrisy makes sense only if one knows the proper functions of things (their telos). So, for example, hypocrisy is a moral flaw if I already know what the ideal human should be like.

    There is no such thing as “hypocrisy” in the abstract, just as there is no such thing as an “orphan” unless you once had parents.

    I’ve always thought it odd that Larry Flynt is fond of finding hypocrites, but the wrongness of hypocrisy is not the sort of thing that is entailed by the philosophy of Hustler. After all, if open marriage, group sex, etc. are permissible, why shouldn’t hypocrisy be allowed to revel is the nihilist fun-house with all the rest? If one’s sexual powers have no proper function, then why believe that my person as a whole has a proper function?

    Nevertheless, I am sure that Mr. Flynt will receive a wonderful obituary in the New York Times upon his death.

  • John Slattery

    Dear Francis,

    “Those outside the tradition have no moral authority to issue judgments against other tradition’s hypocrites, since the judgers reject the tradition entirely.”

    Who, then, do you consider to be “outside the moral tradition” – the writers of obituaries? I doubt that many/most of those who feel schadenfreude at the downfall of a hypocrite are outside the moral tradition. I hope you don’t intend to imply that only those who are adherents of some religion are entitled to “issue judgments” And come to think on it, in the Christian tradition, isn’t the issuing of judgments itself frowned upon?

    “Hypocrisy is the tribute vice pays to virtue” – I’ve always liked that quote. But wouldn’t you agree that hypocrisy in a public figure is more deleterious since it can often have the effect of turing former admirers of the unmasked hypocrite into cynics?


  • Christian

    “Perhaps the difference in the obituaries is due, at least in part, to the fact that porn stars aren’t usually hypocrites.”

    Thank goodness that most sinners have the common decency to be hypocrites.

  • Andrew Lang

    It might work on the cover of Mad magazine but Newsweek?

    Of course, standards in the news magazine market are not what they used to be: Newsweek has degenerated into a checkout rag so the more compelling the cover, the better. Still, I think Mr. Beckwith has a point: the cover is demeaning to Mormons and implies that his religion defines his political career (which it doesn’t).

    The article was better than the cover.

  • Bishop Andrew Gentry

    Religion, which is not the same as faith, is getting it just desserts! From insane lunatics running around decapitating people for “offending Allah” or being an “infidel” or stoning to death a woman for being an adulterer to so called christian literalists who laugh and mock a soldier’s death to Jewish or Palestinian nationalists who would risk WW III over a religious site and on and on it is high time the secular media held these people to account.
    Forgive me but I can have much more respect for a pornstar who is at least honest about his or her trade than a self appointed arbiter of public “morals”.
    I knew the president of a business guild once who complained about a hustler carving out his “venue” near his office and I told him that the only difference between the hustler and the business man was that the latter carried a briefcase and that when the hustler, how shall I say this politely, nailed you at least you knew beforehand that was the service you paid for but as to the businessman’s “service” when you were “nailed” you did not know it until it happened and then you were told it was good marketing!

  • scizen

    There are degrees of offensiveness. This cover, lightly offensive, parodies Romney, imbuing him with a “not-to-be-taken-too-seriously” demeanor. Is there a hidden political agenda here? Does Newsweek want to deflate Romney so that he will not be a serious candidate against Obama? All in all, I think this cover makes me question Newsweek’s ability to be objective. Objectivity, though elusive, is a news organization’s obligation.

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