Striking a blow for open-mindedness and quality reporting, smaller newspapers around the country are publishing a new kind of story in recent days- one that gives actual Mormons a chance to comment on all the commotion being caused by Mitt Romney’s candidacy. While it may be the job of reporters at larger national papers to pontificate from the distance of their respective coasts on polls and zeitgeists and broad trends, there’s a much more authentic, source-rich feel to the reportage coming out of the heartland. And it’s refreshing. Try this piece from the Peoria Journal Star, which juxtaposes one professor’s dubious statement that “there is an unspoken, tremendous rejection of the Mormon religion,” with everyday descriptions of Mormons at their church houses– talking, corraling children, and joking with one another– the very picture of typical religious America. Or this story from the Norwich (Connecticut) Bulletin, which quotes several members of the LDS Church as viewing the exposure brought by the Romney candidacy with a mix of trepidation and enthusiasm. (Accompanied by this op-ed by the writer of the above story, arguing against religious tests in elections). Similar stories coming out of Galesburg, Illinois and Wellesley Massachusetts. Each of the stories gives the mic to a Mormon or two, who invariably come off as alarmingly personable, slightly cautious, and . . . well, normal.
To call this a victory for quality reporting is not to say that every detail of these stories is correct. Rather, despite a few over-simplifications of Mormon belief and history, each of these papers evidences a refreshing willingness on the part of journalists to actually investigate their subject, instead of spouting cliches and sweepingly prejudiced generalizations. In short, the last great barrier in covering Mormonism is finally being challenged– talking to Mormons themselves.
There’s no reason to overstate what this means for the press, the campaign, or for Mormons. There won’t be any LDS converts made in Peoria because a Mormon was allowed to speak his mind in the press. Rather, the effect of this kind of journalism will likely be something gradual and small but significant. That is that small town America, at least, will start realizing that Mormons are actual people. Just as the polls stating that x percentage of Americans wouldn’t vote for a Mormon presidential candidate are unhelpful because they do not account for the specific person that category represents, so the generalized feelings that Mormons are a bit odd are specious because they arise from unfamiliarity with actual Mormons.
The solution to this unfamiliarity is just giving a few actual Mormons a chance to talk to their fellow citizens in Wellesley, Galesburg, or a thousand other towns across America. It’s no great victory to become a real person in your neighbors’ eyes, but for perfectly normal members of a faith that has been continually viewed as abnormal, small triumphs are enough for now.