The AP Does It Again

Even though I offered my advice to the AP’s Jennifer Dobner yesterday, and even though I took pains to note that such advice came absolutely free (!), Ms. Dobner has done the same thing again in a story filed last night.   And she’s even upped the stakes, since her last piece only managed to quote a lapsed Mormon and a disfellowshipped one.  The ability to get virulent anti-Mormon Steve Benson on the record alongside famous excommunicatee Michael Quinn shows a truly dogged determination.  And by the way, Benson is listed only as the grandson of a former church president.  Hmm, how many other grandchildren of former church presidents would have picked up the phone to talk to this reporter, if asked?  Something tells me the real reason she chose Benson instead of any of the others has to do with the notoriety he gained from making his many bitter attacks against the LDS Church.

In fairness, the recent story also includes quotes from Richard Bushmand and Richard Ostling, the former an active member of the church, and the latter a respected source on the subject.  But still, that only brings the two-day tally to the following: Impartial commentators: 2; Prominent Mormon dissidents/critics: 4; believing Mormons: 1. What gives?

Like David says– it’s time for Jennifer Dobner to update her rolodex.  (See also unbiased coverage of Dobner’s balance problem at GetReligion).

Hints on Covering Mormonism, Part I

Hint: When covering a story within Mormonism, if you find that your three quoted sources are a famously disfellowshipped Mormon (something close to excommunication) a famously lapsed Mormon, and a non-Mormon, consider a re-write.

This tip is offered free of charge to Jennifer Dobner of the Associated Press.*

*Whose coverage, I should note, appears otherwise to have been fair.  Unnecessarily out of balance, but fair. 

Romney Never “Acknowledged that Mormonism is Not a Christian Faith”

In an article about the positions of Focus on the Family regarding each Republican candidate, Time magazine quoted evangelical leader Tom Minnery as saying that “Mitt Romney has acknowledged that Mormonism is not a Christian faith.” Minnery means this in a good way, as in “Now we can consider supporting Romney because he admits he’s no follower of Christ.” Funny how evangelicals, many of whom have ranted for some time now about insisting on electing a Christian president, think it’s a positive for Romney to have admitted he’s not Christian. But any time you let your religion mix too closely with your politics, the offspring is going to look a little weird.

But for many who have followed the Romney-religion discussion closely, hearing Minnery talk about Romney’s ‘acknowledgement’ came as quite a surprise. Romney has walked a fine line on his religion, but it’s been rare to see him make any big mistakes on this issue. Admitting that his faith is not a Christian one would be a very big mistake– it would anger a lot of Mormons, which would likely result in countless stories that he has distanced himself from his faith, and play into more ‘flip-flopper’ charges.

Fortunately for everyone involved (except for Minnery, I suppose), it’s just not true. In a followup article, Time tracks down Minnery’s basis for believing that Romney concedes that he’s no Christian. Minnery said there was a passage in Romney’s ‘Faith in America’ speech that gave him the impression that Romney admitted he wasn’t a Christian. Here’s the passage:

There is one fundamental question about which I often am asked. What do I believe about Jesus Christ? I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and the Savior of mankind. My church’s beliefs about Christ may not all be the same as those of other faiths. Each religion has its own unique doctrines and history.

See the part where he says Mormons aren’t Christians? Well, I didn’t actually include that part. Neither did Romney. The above is the full statement regarding Romney’s belief in Jesus Christ. And it was deemed sufficient by Focus on the Family to conclude that Romney concedes Mormons aren’t Christians.

To most people that seems like a horrible misinterpretation, even a willful one. And I agree, but there is some extra nuance that makes it even more interesting. That is, this little controversy plays up the strange, convoluted logic of evangelicals who claim to know what exactly it means to be a Christian. For most people, seeing a person declare faith in Jesus Christ as the “Savior of mankind” is more than enough basis to call that person a Christian. Not so with modern evangelicals, for whom ‘Christian’ has become more a signifier of denominational purity than adoration of Christ. In their attempts to exclude Mormons from the club, evangelicals have had to do all kinds of gymnastics to tell us what “Christian” really means, and have ended up throwing Christ right out of the analysis. Reliance solely on the Bible, but also adherence to certain extra-biblical creeds, and emphasis on this New Testament passage (but not this one!) and historical unity with other Christian churches (except for all the disunity all the Christian churches have had with one another) are all more important than a declaration of Christ as savior.

Rather than engage in the nonsensical philosophizing one must do to make sense of this, the Romney campaign has kept their response very simple, in the process taking a much firmer stance on the “Christian” issue than they ever have before. Here’s Time quoting a Romney spokesman:

Now some people define ‘Christianity’ differently,” Fehrnstrom continued. “Some people believe that ‘Christianity’ is a group of evangelical churches. Others believe that ‘Christianity’ is any church that follows the teaching of Jesus Christ, and that is what the LDS church believes.” I asked Fehrnstrom if that was also what Romney believed. He said yes.

It’s hard to believe we’ve come to a point where a “Christian” leader sees a candidate claim Christ as personal savior and then (1) concludes from the statement that the candidate is not a Christian and then (2) announces that conclusion as a reason to support the candidate. Strange times we’re living in. Anyone else think politics would be better off without all this religion stuff? It’s worth considering.

P.S. David Brody posts on this story, and draws a spot-on conclusion: that the Mormon issue has now completely expired.  I heartily agree. 

Retraction Regarding Williams’ ‘Lie’

UPDATE: Lowell Brown at Article VI Blog has a new post explaining the somewhat understandable confusion that inspired his original post on this topic, including a breakdown of the legitimate criticisms of Williams’ question.  Lowell admits, as do I, that the confusion doesn’t justify our jumping the gun on this story.

Article VI Blog has updated its post on the Brian Williams ‘Mormon President’ question. In their original post, they reviewed a copy of the poll to which MSNBC had linked, which did not include any question regarding Mormonism. It appears now that there was such a question (though it showed that more respondents were nervous about a Baptist Minister’s ability to unite the country than that of a Mormon), which was not visible in the version published by MSNBC.

I should have done more to verify this story, and apologize for both my error and the accusation that Williams “lied.”

Brian Williams Lies to Get Mormonism Into the Debate

NOTE: This post has been retracted.  See here

Article VI Blog has the scoop on the numbers behind the “Mormon President” question in last night’s debate. For those who didn’t watch, Williams told Romney he had a Wall Street Journal Poll, in which “44 percent of respondents say a Mormon president would have a difficult time uniting the country.” It was an odd question given the recent calm in the campaign regarding Romney’s religion. But hey- if that’s what the voters are saying, it must be relevant, right?

Would it surprise you to find out that that is very much NOT what the voters are saying? Indeed, the word Mormon doesn’t appear anywhere in the poll at all. Nor does the concept of Mormonism, or even religion in general. This is a straight poll with some very basic questions about who the respondent supports for president, etc. The final question reads as follows:

One of the goals people have mentioned as important for the next president to have is the ability to unite all Americans around goals and objectives for the country and to reduce the partisan fighting in Congress. I would like to list various presidential candidates. Please tell me whether you feel this person would be very successful, fairly successful, not too successful, or not at all successful in uniting the nation.

See anything in there about Mormonism or religion? Me neither. Responding to the poll, 22 percent thought Romney would not be too successful, and 22 percent also said he would not be at all successful. The total is 44%, giving Williams his cited number. But the number is for those who think Romney would be less than successful uniting the country, not those who think it’s because of his Mormonism. NBC must have just assumed, either sincerely or because it makes for a fun debate question, that this problem relates to Romney’s Mormonism. Problem is, there’s no support for such a crass conclusion. Anyone think there couldn’t be a thousand other reasons for that response? Especially given that many other candidates received very similar results (Giuliani came in at 46%, Huckabee at 43%)?

Unless NBC has some other explanation for how Williams drew that conclusion, this is really poor form, and they deserve to be kicked around for it. To have your flagship anchorman inserting blatant editorial conclusions into polling data in order to call a candidate out on his religion is just way beyond the line. Funny thing is, no one in the main stream press has picked this up yet. Hopefully NBC doesn’t make it through the weekend without some egg on its face.

Mormonism as “Counterknowledge”

Writing in a blog on the U.K.’s Telegraph website, author Damian Thompson makes some thoroughly unsupported and misguided claims about Mormonism. In what appears to be simply a plug for a book that he wrote focusing on the reliance on myth and fake history, which he dubs “counterknowledge,” Thompson argues that Mormonism rests on “pseudo-historical fantasy,” and calls out Romney for believing in the origins of the Book of Mormon.

Of course, in order to dismiss Mormon claims as fantastical, but not offend every other religious believer, you have to come up with a creative way to distinguish the miraculous claims of the former from those of the latter. Given that Christians, Jews, and other major religions make claims just as extraordinary and just as unverifiable as any Mormon does, this can be tricky. Thompson decides to draw his line between the Book of Mormon and the Bible by saying that “nothing in it actually happened. Nothing.”

We’ll get to why he’s wrong in a moment. But first consider the logic here- the Book of Mormon should be dismissed because it posits an entire history we cannot verify. Whereas, the Bible at least has the courtesy to present its fantastical stories and impossible miracles in an area for which we have some historical record. And yet isn’t it interesting that so much set forth in the Bible cannot be verified? Did you know, for example, that scholars can only locate approximately 36 of the 475 place-names mentioned in the Bible? (See Givens, By the Hand of Mormon, p. 148). Isn’t that sort of strange for a book that is widely assumed to be easily proven with the use of history? And how about the fact that no one can find any evidence of a census that would have forced Joseph to go to Bethlehem in the year of Christ’s birth? (You’ll have to look that one up.) If you think these little voids in the historical record are unique, you don’t know your Bible. (more…)

Movie Review: Article VI

Most politically-minded Americans are now very familiar with Article VI of the U.S. Constitution. As I’ve said before, it’s been a particularly good year for this article, kind of like how that famous clause in the constitution that gives us all the right to privacy got a big boost 35 years ago. (wait . . . there’s no clause?)

But for those still unfamiliar, here’s the text of Article VI, in pertinent part:

The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.

This becomes both the foundational text and the jumping off point of a new movie about religion and politics in America, called, simply Article VI. (click here to visit the official site). Contrary to what you might think, this movie is not about Mitt Romney. In fact, it uses the 2008 race merely as a frame for bringing out a multitude of opinions on the core religious values that govern spiritual America, and the political values that attempt to share that same space without causing too much disruption. The result is a fascinating mixture of vituperation, rumination, and condemnation, with lots of different people participating.

Notably, and perhaps not surprisingly, all of the condemnation and harsh judgments come from members of one broad group- evangelical Christians. We see different members of this group ranting bitterly at Mormons attending a conference, praying loudly from the gallery of the U.S. Senate to drown out the opening prayer being offered by a Hindu clergyman, peddling messages like “truth is hate . . . to those who hate the truth” from the sidewalks, and even condemning Mormonism from the pulpit. We also see evangelicals (including Richard Land, and EFM’s David French) offering reasoned exhortations to moderation and exploring the boundaries of their own political theology as well.

The focus on evangelicals is predictable, given that group’s centrality to the discussion of religion and politics in America. Conservative Christians make up a very large percentage of total Americans, are often well-organized, and can wield great political power. Either as a cause or effect of that power, they often feel comfortable taking sharp political action motivated by their faith. Thus, it’s not uncommon to see an evangelical leader judge a candidate by his faith, and spew the unlucky pol from his mouth upon findings of lukewarmness, which always makes for great cinema.

But while the focus on evangelicals may be predictable, their treatment in this movie is far from standard. The movie casts several villains, willing to say all the right (read: mean) things about Mormons, Hindus, and everyone else that is obviously going to hell. However, somewhere near the middle of the film, there’s a transition in which these people move from being hateful talking heads to people full of real concern for America with actual notions of love for those they’re hoping to reach. The stock evangelical villains suddenly become quite sympathetic and are allowed to step out of the caricatures set out for them in the early part of the movie, as well as in countless media profiles.

It’s a brilliant film-making choice, as it allows the viewer to conclude that these issues are far more complex than one might think at first glance. The issues gain complexity not because they are hard to work out (they are), but because most points of view are heartfelt and motivated by sincere and unimpeachable intentions. One telling example of this perspective is in the movie’s portrayal of Reverend Bill Keller, by far the most vehement condemnor of Mormonism in the whole pantheon of anti-Mormon spokesmen this year (see here for one example). Keller is up to his usual tricks here, but near the end, he gives a very credible testimony of his hopes for those that wander in evil/Mormon paths, signaling that perhaps we can no longer divide our religious characters neatly into loving spiritualists and hateful firebreathers.

Article VI is a surprisingly personal movie, following the film’s director in his interviews with others, and in his attempts to reach and understand those who criticize his Mormon faith. This dynamic adds an emotional perspective to the film, showing the punches thrown by many critics of Mormonism alongside a person that is to some extent absorbing those punches. However, there may be moments in which the use of personal narrative passes just a bit too far from perspective-enhancement to self-indulgence. If the movie has a weakness, it is that it takes this personal viewpoint just a shade too far, casting Mormons more as victims in this fight than participants in the hurly-burly of sectarian give and take.

On the whole, however, this is the work of a mature film-maker, skillfully meshing controversy with analysis and deeply-felt spiritual feeling, and still packed with historical and political information that will be new even to those that have followed this issue closely. This is a great entry in our ongoing debate about the role of religion in our nation’s government. One only hopes it can gain the exposure it deserves while these questions remain as pressing as they are. If you care about faith and politics and the crazy, fiery ways in which they intersect, Article VI is a great way to get your fix.

What You Might Have Missed

Several items I was too busy to blog about last week:

Mitt is most likely to be thought of as a flip-flopper by those with anti-Mormon sentiments.  A new study out of Vanderbilt University attempts to understand why the flip-flopper tag has stuck to Romney, but not to many other candidates with records just as curvy.  The study concludes that “of those who accuse Romney of flip-flopping, many admit it is Romney’s Mormonism and not his flip-flopping that is the real issue.”  If Romney does eventually go down to defeat, some will question whether his religion played a significant role.  However, most will likely say that it was his flip-flopping record that sealed his demise.  If this study is correct, that may mean it was his religion after all.

Published before the Nevada caucuses, this piece in the Guardian asserted that “Romney Looks to Fellow Mormons in Nevada.”  Feel free to search the story for any support of that headline.  It’s clear that Mormons did strongly support Governor Romney in Nevada.  What is not clear at all is that Romney made some special play for Mormon support, as this headline suggests.  Despite rampant discussion of the intensity of Mormon support for Romney in that state, the most salient truth on the topic is that Romney had nothing to do with it.  There’s a big difference between certain groups flocking to a candidate unbidden and of their own will (Romney’s Mormon support in Nevada) and a particular identity base being constantly coddled and spoken to in code and otherwise courted until they dutifully support a candidate (Huckabee’s evangelical support in Iowa).  Whatever else may be said about the Nevada Mormon vote, Romney came by it honestly.

Ron Rosenbaum (who coincidentally works for Slate.com, Campaign 2008’s official purveyor of anti-Romney bile) posts on his blog with the following “Question for Mitt Romney:”  “Did You Take a Stand Against the LDS Practice of Baptizing Holocaust Victims — and Adolf Hitler?”  It’s the kind of gotcha piece that has become a classic these days- find some sketchy thing that was going on long ago and then find a way to tie a candidate tenuously to that practice by triangulation.  Usually there’s no evidence at all to link the candidate with the controversial issue (anyone know if Romney participated in baptisms for Holocaust survivors? Didn’t think so), so the scandal-monger just steps back and asks “But did you take a stand against it????”  As if everyone in the world is required to “take stands” against every wrong going on in the world around them.  Ron Rosenbaum, did you take a stand against self-serious photographs being posted on blogs?

Of course, the scandal has a bit more heft is there actually is a “wrong” to take a stand against.  But the LDS practice of baptizing the dead has always been tossed around as a possible controversy without ever really breaking through to the level of real scandal, to the great disappointment of many critics.  One of the reasons people have a hard time getting behind this one is evident in Rosenbaum’s statement of the problem- that the LDS had the practice in the past (now ended) of performing proxy baptisms for holocaust victims AND other notables such as Adolf Hitler (meaning that the LDS performed such works for all dead people, and among them were some holocaust victims, as well as WWII era Nazi dictators).  Thus, in the first instance, Rosenbaum suggests that Mormons are attempting to sully the religion of the Jewish victims, but also somehow honoring Hitler via the same treatment.  Which is it- do baptisms for the dead rob the dead of their dignity, or unduly dignify dead villains, or both?  The suppositions on which all such arguments depend are so abstract and hypothetical that it hardly makes for any kind of engaging scandal.  But to take a step further into abstraction to tie Mitt Romney to the whole thing, via his failure to “take a stand” pushes the scandal-making tradition from respectable parlor game to wacky conspiracy theory.  Not really befitting a real journalist, even if he is just writing on his blog.

Finally, from the “Mormons Speaking Out” file, Leonidas Ralph Mecham, a Mormon and former chief administrator of the U.S. Courts, has written a letter to G.E. C.E.O. Jeffrey Immelt expressing displeasure with Lawrence O’Donnell’s anti-Mormon screed, which aired on NBC’s McLaughlin Group.  The letter is not exactly a model of restraint, and sometimes goes way too far in its rhetoric, but it gives yet another example of Mormons speaking persuasively against the widespread public mistreatment of their faith.  To view the letter, click on this link:Mecham Letter

Romney- the Real Christian Leader

Dave Sundwall of A Soft Answer alerted me last week to a very informative article in the Salt Lake Tribune about Mitt Romney’s religious ministry. As has been well documented, Romney served for several years as a leader in the Boston area Mormon Church, first as a Bishop, or leader of his local congregation, and then as a Stake President, or the higher-level leader of a collection of congregations.  But while these titles have appeared in many biographical profiles of the candidate, their meaning may have flown silently over the heads of most readers, who likely do not understand the depth of commitment and discipleship these roles require of anyone who takes them on.

Earlier this year, Richard John Neuhaus wrote that while he does not consider Mormonism to be a Christian faith, he is open to the possibility that many Mormons could be Christians. This likely means that setting aside strictly theological questions, those who lead lives fully of charity and Christlike compassion may be thought of as Christians in a broad sense. The picture of Mitt Romney painted in the Salt Lake Tribune portrays someone who fully deserves that distinction. Here are a few pertinent excerpts:

Regardless, Mormon women in Boston still talk about an extraordinary 1993 meeting Romney called to address the women of the stake.

More than 250 members poured into the Belmont chapel. One by one they called out their issues while he stood at the front with three pads labeled: policies we can’t change, practices we can change, and things we can consider.

Nearly 100 proposals were made that day, including having female leaders give talks in various wards as the men on the high council do; letting women speak last in church; turning the chapels into day-care centers during the week; letting women stand in the circle while blessing newborn babies; recognizing the accomplishment of young women as the church does of Boy Scout advancements; and putting changing tables in the men’s rooms.

Many women left with a new appreciation of Romney’s openness.

He was “so brave,” says Robin Baker, who has worked on Exponent II.

Sievers, who worked with Romney to set up the meeting, was ecstatic.

“I was really surprised,” she says. “He implemented every single suggestion that I would have.”

***

Not long after Grant Bennett fell off a ladder while trying to dislodge a hornet’s nest outside his second-story bedroom, Romney came to offer sympathy and show Bennett a smarter way to deal with the festering insects – from inside.

Before Doug Anderson had even finished getting family out of his burning house, Romney showed up with a brigade of neighbors to salvage beloved belongings from the remains.

Several Mormons affectionately describe him as a man who can’t remember names and can’t tell a joke, but did preach inspiring sermons.

“We loved hearing him speak,” recalls Bennett’s wife, Colleen. “He was so smooth yet so connecting.”

(By the way, for those worried that Romney would be too beholden to Mormon dogma or policy to govern independently, that meeting regarding the concerns of women should go a long way toward settling the concern. That Romney even held the meeting shows a departure from how many other Mormons leaders would have dealt with these issues; that he was so open to wide-ranging, and sometimes heterodox proposals shows that he was far from a blind follower even as a church officer. He could hardly be expected to be less independent as the nation’s president).

While these anecdotes don’t give the full view of what it means to be a Mormon bishop or stake president, they do indicate that Romney’s service must have required a real depth of spirituality and humanity, attributes he is not often assumed to possess. In order to give a better sense of what those positions required, I asked my older brother, a Mormon Bishop in the Bible Belt to describe his duties. I believe that Romney’s job description as bishop would have been very similar to the following:

As a Mormon Bishop, I am the leader of the local congregation. That means I am ultimately answerable for the physical, emotional and especially spiritual welfare of the members. This involves a great deal of time spent counseling those with serious issues such as marital problems, addictions, or emotional problems. I also spend time working with those who are seeking a deeper and more meaningful relationship with God.

Because we have no paid, full-time clergy, leadership at every local level is composed of volunteers. As Bishop, I oversee their efforts and coordinate with other congregational leaders, those who work with the children, the youth, as well as the men’s and women’s ministries. I am also responsible for the administrative matters–overseeing budgets, collecting and depositing offerings, the maintenance and use of the building and so forth. The church operates a large welfare program that assists struggling members with their needs, and that is also administered by the Bishop. Occasionally, I am given special assignments as well, for example, I am the designated contact person for transients passing through the Metropolitan area and am responsible to assess their needs and provide them with such help as may be prudent and useful.

Among Mormons, it is well-known that to be called as a Bishop means the end of one’s free time, and calls for huge sacrifices from one’s family. Bishops give great amounts of time to very complex and emotional problems with no pay and very limited training. If you find it impossible to picture Mitt Romney selflessly giving such personal, Christian service, then maybe you need to reevaluate what you think you know about Mitt Romney.

The Soft Bigotry of Accusing Mormons of “Soft Secrecy”

In media discussions of Mormonism, one often comes across the assumption that Mormons are “secretive.” The accusation is rarely accompanied by facts or sources, but the grainy cult-like feel it seems to give the LDS Church has made it a pretty sticky meme for some. I’ve addressed the question at length in a two-part series of posts here and here.

Surprisingly, the New York Times Magazine appears to have ignored RomneyExperience’s take on the question, opting to publish the thoughts of a Harvard Law Professor instead. Noah Feldman authored a long article published yesterday hypothesizing on what about Mormonism so many Americans find troubling. I should note that Feldman is no polemicist or bigot, and he make several insightful points, alongside a few complimentary portrayals of Mormons (“If anything, the systematic overrepresentation of Mormons among top businesspeopoel and lawyers affords LDS affiliation a certain cachet — rather like being Jewish, but taller.”).

However, when one approaches the central thesis of Feldman’s piece, it becomes quite surprising to notice just how unable he is to support his argument. Feldman begins with a historical view of Mormonism, detailing how Mormons became secretive in their early days in order to protect themselves from outsiders who would persecute them due to their unorthodox beliefs, most prominently the practice of polygamy. Feldman briefly follows this up by noting that once in Utah, Mormons became somewhat isolated from mainstream America (natch). Let’s concede these points and move to Feldman’s central claim:

The Mormon path to normalization over the course of the 20th century depended heavily on this avoidance of public discussion of its religious tenets. Now that plural marriage was out of the picture, the less said the better about the particular teachings of the church, including such practices as the baptism of the dead and the doctrine of the perfectibility of mankind into divine form. Where religious or theological conversation could not be avoided, Mormons depicted themselves as yet another Christian denomination alongside various other Protestant denominations that prevailed throughout the United states.

What Feldman is saying, in essence is that as Mormons have become more mainstream over the last 80 or so years, they’ve decided to clam up about their distinctive doctrines and act like they’re just another Christian church. (more…)