Katie Couric is curious about Mormons. So she brought in a religion-beat journalist to answer some questions. The answerer is Ken Woodward, whose name you might recall from the byline of this story, which has long served as an anchor of RomneyExperience’s “Attacks” page. Regardless of the man’s apparent dislike for members of Mitt Romney’s Church, our “expert” culture demands someone who has studied such things, instead of someone who has lived them. So, somehow, Ken Woodward is the man to tell us what Mormons believe, instead of, say, an actual Mormon.
Still, Mr. Woodward seems generally to know his stuff. One hates to argue with him because he gets his facts pretty right. Yet his descriptions combine the sound of authoritativeness with a tonal bent for painting Mormonism as cultish and backward. It’s no great thing to get your facts right but leave the reader with a completely wrong impression.
The first example of this tendency comes in Woodward’s first answer, about what makes Mormonism different from traditional Christians. Woodward makes the mistake made by all religious commentators and partisans, by arguing against Mormons’ inclusion in the definition of “Christians,” based on the separate truth claims of their theology. Woodward’s erudition about the varying doctrines within Christianity makes him look too far for the answer. We all agree that Mormonism has different beliefs and origins than other Christian denominations. But more basic than that is whether Mormons believe in and follow Christ. They most certainly do. (And no, despite what Woodward would have you believe, it’s not a very different Jesus at all). If “Christian” means “a member of a Church that follows the ancient Christian creeds,” Mormons are not Christians. If “Christian” means “someone who believes Jesus Christ is their personal savior,” Mormons are every bit as Christian as anyone else. Given that most Americans appear to hold the latter definition, we ought to be honest about how well Mormons pass the relevant test.
Woodward goes on to defend his assertion that Mormons are “clannish,” a word that raises the term “cult” in the reader’s mind, and which is similarly devoid of a precise meaning. Thus, he can say that Mormons are clannish because they gathered in Utah, and also because Mitt Romney appears to have many relatives. Why Romney’s relatives are considered evidence of “clannishness” rather than, say, “family values,” as any fair-minded person would concede, is never explained. While Woodward tries to explain that Mormon “clannishness” is not a fault, he succeeds in portraying Mormons as far more insular and cloistered than they actually are. If he’s trying to be kind, it’s not working.
Finally, Mr. Woodward defends his statement that the LDS Church is a “church with the soul of a corporation.” Again, the explanation raises minor points in defense of a major conclusion. For example, Mormon leaders are often drawn from the ranks of American businesses (of course they are– Mormons don’t have a dedicated clergy, so every Mormon leader holds or has held a real-life full-time job; they’re also drawn from academia, the sciences, and medicine); the Mormon church owns many corporations (it has a separate arm for its business holdings, which it views as a means to invest and multiply its funds). These facts might support the view that Mormonism has certain administrative elements that appear similar to corporate practices- it is a structural hierarchy with great administrative needs after all. But a corporation in its soul? In the LDS Church’s soul is the gospel of Jesus Christ, as any fair commentator would have to agree. The Church, with all its business-suited leaders and financial stewardships is only a vehicle for disseminating the Good News around the globe. It is, first and last, a religious organization, there to improve lives and preach truth and serve humanity. The corporate structure is at most the Church’s hands. But to speak of it as Mr. Woodward has is to give new confirmation to the idea that the Church is a cult, obsessed with counting nickels and dimes instead of saving souls. Nothing could be more incorrect when it comes to the Mormon Church.
Mr. Woodward can defend these failures of interpretive precision behind the veneer of his basic factual correctness. But this defense refuses to take responsibility for the actual meaning of words. He defends his statement on the Church’s corporate soul as a modification of an old G.K. Chesterton quote. This cute usage may have been fun for him, but it was lost on most of his readers, who took Mr. Woodward at his word that Mormonism is actually more business than Church. He may have his own technical meanings of “clannish” and “Christian” in mind, but most of his readers do not. Mr. Woodward must be responsible for the actual meaning of his statements on Mormonism, and no matter what caveats he appends to them, they have the effect of demeaning a faith in ways that are simply unfair.
We hope that the next time Katie Couric and Co. need information on Mormonism, that they will at least consult with a few Mormons on the topic. Mormons need not be the only ones authorized to explain their faith, but they are at least a relevant reference, especially for combating the kind of non-factual interpretive smears that Mr. Woodward is so good at.