Mormons Feeling Stung By Their ‘Moment’

Suzanne Sataline, the Wall Street Journal’s crack religion reporter, filed a front page piece today in the Journal titled “Mormons Dismayed by Harsh Spotlight.” Although I spoke with Ms. Sataline several times over the writing of her piece (and am lightly quoted near the end), I was still surprised at the depth, breadth, and understanding of Mormonism it managed so gracefully. Mormons licking their wounds this morning as they contemplate the beating their religion took over the last year may find some small consolation in this sympathetic piece. (more…)

Mormonism Returns to the Campaign

The presidential campaign of Mitt Romney began under a cloud. When the former governor came on the scene, one question rose above all the others– “Can a Mormon win?” That question waxed and waned as a dominant theme through 2007, with the climax coming in December, as Romney addressed the question head on in his landmark speech on “Faith in America,” and as Mike Huckabee became a real competitor based partly on the contrast his Baptist credentials drew with Romney’s more suspect religion. But as the horserace moved into high gear, with primaries coming every week or so, the press collectively decided that the religion story had lost its luster, and moved on to issues of greater political relevance.

So it is oddly fitting that in the final stages of the campaign, Romney’s religion comes back to the fore, based on events far out of Romney’s control and far-removed from the world of politics. When Gordon B. Hinckley, the longstanding and well-beloved President of the LDS Church, passed away last week, Romney announced immediately that he would attend the funeral. This resulted in some head scratching in the media, as commentators wondered how to interpret Romney’s willingness to be overtly Mormon just two days before the largest primary event of his candidacy. Was his new candor regarding his loyalty to his faith evidence that he had conceded the race? Or was this some kind of new pander to play up his authenticity?

The AP’s Glen Johnson sees the new openness as a mere artifact of the low religious tension in the upcoming primary states, as opposed to that in past primary states like Iowa and South Carolina. USA Today has Jan Shipps, an oft-quoted academic with an expertise in Mormonism saying that “[Romney’s] in a bind. If he goes (to the funeral) people will say, ‘Oh, his religion is more important than his campaign.’ If he doesn’t go, people will say, ‘He doesn’t care about his religion, he cares about politics.'” The same story also quotes a University of Utah Political Science professor saying that Romney “could not not be there. Given the world of (Mormon) political insiders, this is an absolute must-attend.” In other words, attending President Hinckley’s funeral was a political necessity, in the eyes of some.

Yet others found a suspicious evasiveness in the candidate’s funeral plans. Salon Magazine’s Mike Madden is put off by the campaign’s privacy about Romney’s plans while in Salt Lake, as if one might expect him to set up a press conference with the funeral cortege passing slowly by in the background. In fact, you could almost smell a hint of suspicion in the Salon article that the LDS Church was itself complicit in helping Romney escape attention, by avoiding any religious ritual that could highlight the Mormon-ness of the affair. On the contrary, while it was conducted at an enormous scale to accommodate the huge masses interested in the event, the funeral was a very typical Mormon funeral in terms of content. The sincere speeches and sedate hymns, while anything but rewarding to a reporter looking for a thrill on Temple Square, were familiar displays of Mormon-ness, a lifestyle that is maligned for its strange eccentricity at the same time that the critics gripe about how boring the whole scene can be.

But in the midst of all this coverage, there’s a different story, about a 97-year old man who died this week, a man held by some 13 million people as a prophet and great spiritual leader.  His funeral was attended by 21,000 people that cared very little for the political implications of the day, but wanted only to pay their respects to a leader who had lived a thoroughly exemplary life.  Yet few in the press corps were willing to consider that Mitt Romney may have been driven by the same motive as the rest of those attendees.  It is no coincidence that the most insightful and probing story in the mainstream press about the funeral (kudos to Newsweek) both ignored Mitt Romney, and was written by a Mormon.

Ultimately, no motive or calculation should be imputed to Romney for spending crucial campaigning minutes in devotion and contemplation besides a simple desire to be himself and life the life of the Mormon he is. This is most easily proven by how impossible it would be for his advisors to calculate the effect of such a move, for which there is not even a hint of a script, even if they had tried. This weekend, Mitt Romney, the man, went to the funeral of another man, whom he knew a little, and whom he revered as a prophet. The media clearly lacked a script as well, and that’s as it should be. It is difficult to find public meaning in moments this private. And true to his core, which is so famously thought not to exist at all, Mitt Romney navigated the unscripted moment with grace and humility, failing to score points or protect himself from the barbs of his critics. Whatever else the world may want him to be, Romney is neither a hollow shell nor a secret cultist. He is a man of faith that sometimes needs a moment to live out that faith. Even two days before Super-Tuesday.

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. 

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.

National Review Endorses Mitt Romney for President

RomneyExperience doesn’t often stray from the center of its niche of religion/politics, but once in a while, there’s an issue important enough on one or the other side of that combination that it’s worth discussing. Today, there are two, one on each side.

First, and most important, the editors of the National Review have officially endorsed the candidacy of Mitt Romney. In their editorial, they make the detailed case for Mitt Romney as the right man at the right moment, far better qualified and better positioned to win the presidency and lead the country than any other Republican candidate. Here’s the kernel of the argument, in my view:

Romney is an intelligent, articulate, and accomplished former businessman and governor. At a time when others yearn for competence and have soured on Washington because too often the Bush administration has not demonstrated it, Romney offers proven executive skill. He has demonstrated it in everything he has done in his professional life, and his tightly organized, disciplined campaign is no exception. He himself has shown impressive focus and energy.

I think it would be really difficult to argue with that statement. There’s no question that viewing the field solely in terms of competence, focus and energy, Romney is far and away the best choice on either side of the aisle. Of course, Romney’s got so much more to recommend him, including his broadly conservative stances on most important issues. The NR editors also deal with every major objection to Romney, from the claims of inauthenticity and flip-flopping, to distaste for Mormonism. I recommend reading the entire article. It’s the second strong piece of evidence in a week (after last week’s Faith in America) that Romney has what it takes to become the nation’s president. And the accompanying illustration pushes the total to three, clearly.

Secondly, on the religion side, one of the biggest questions in the public discussion of Mormonism is whether Mormons are Christians. RomneyExperience has dealt several glancing blows to this question, but hasn’t yet confronted it head on. If this is a topic that interests you, please read this piece by Mike Otterson, who is the official spokesman for the LDS Church. Otterson writes on Newsweek’s “On Faith” blog, and offers his own answer to the question of whether Mormons are Christian. The money quote:

But for Mormons, these belief differences have nothing to do with whether or not they are Christian in the true meaning of the word. Mormons believe in the Jesus of the Bible, the same that was born at Bethlehem, grew up in Nazareth, preached His gospel in Galilee and Judea, healed the sick, raised the dead, and finally offered Himself as a sinless ransom for the sins of the world. They believe that Jesus Christ was literally resurrected, that He lives today, and that He is the only name under heaven by which mankind can be saved. This is the Jesus whose name is depicted on the front of every Mormon place of worship. This is the Jesus in whose name every Mormon prays and every sermon is preached. This is the Jesus whose body and blood are commemorated in weekly worship services by Latter-day Saints from Nigeria to New Zealand, from Michigan to Mongolia. For Latter-day Saints who try to live their lives as they believe Jesus taught, assertions that they aren’t Christian are as bewildering as they are wounding.

It’s a great piece, worth a few minutes of your time.

Ambinder: Romney “accomplished the improbable”

Marc Ambinder has one of the first write ups that seems to actually consider the (possible) revolutionary ramifications of the Speech:

Let’s pause and take a moment to appreciate what Mitt Romney has done today for his campaign. Looking presidential, speaking at a lectern with the presidential seal on it, speaking before the largest press corps ever assembled to hear him speak, speaking just 28 days before the Iowa caucuses, speaking — reading — a text that he wrote, giving a complex and nuanced argument about faith in America — he may accomplished the improbable: giving a speech that actually moves hearts and moves, a speech that actually persuades, a speech that may have succeeded in moving the public’s perception of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints from outside the circle of “normal” to a few lengths inside it.

With this speech, Romney may have mainstreamed Mormonism and injected a fresh dollop of energy into his presidential campaign.

Those last points about moving Mormonism into the mainstream may be pushing it, but just the fact that someone is now saying this turns Romney’s speech into something far grander than anyone ever anticipated.  On a similar note:

 For most non-Mormons, the social pressure to tolerate the quirks and vicissitudes of that faith has been absent. Pre-Romney. Post-Romney, that pressure is there. Opponents of the LDS church ought to be forced to respond to Romney’s argument and explain why the LDS church ought to remain outside the circle of tolerance.

Frankly, the “pressure” Ambinder speaks about here has always been one of the founding objectives of this blog.  To see Ambinder pronounce the birth of this pressure is a somewhat triumphant moment for members of the LDS faith.  No one has said that the LDS faith must be given protections different from those of other faiths, only that suddenly, people may begin to realize that Mormons deserve courtesy in the way it is given to Baptists and Catholics, and in a way not yet realized by Scientologists and Kabbalists.  Again, to consider that Romney’s speech might have helped inch Mormonism from the latter group to the former within the “circle of tolerance” is indeed momentous.

Here’s Ambinder’s back-to-business-as-usual sum up:

Back to politics. Universal praise (from Dobson, Colson, Dick Land, bloggers). Excellent television coverage. Excellent visuals. Unadulterated, unfiltered Mitt Romney, direct to camera. Romney aides are ecstatic.

If he’s right about the long term effects of this fascinating moment, Romney’s aides won’t be the only ones.

The Speech: Final Reactions Post

I notice that Matt Evans, from the Mormon blog Times and Seasons, has done the hard work of collecting numerous full-length responses to Romney’s speech, again, mostly very positive. Instead of re-creating a complete summary for myself, I’m cribbing it verbatim from him, with apologies (and a hearty hat tip, of course!) to Matt. Original link is here.

Romney defends faith in speech he shouldn’t have to give, Editors, USA Today

One Nation Under Mitt, Kathleen Parker, Southern Illinoisian

Boldness, Watered Down, E. J. Dionne, Washington Post

Mitt Romney Raised the Bar, Rush Limbaugh, RushLimbaugh.com

What Iowans Should Know About Mormons, Naomi Schaefer Riley, Wall Street Journal

Latter-day Speaker, Maggie Gallager et al, National Review

Faith vs. the Faithless, David Brooks, New York Times

Answering Critics — and Kennedy, Michael Gerson, Washington Post

Romney’s Achievement, Fred Barnes, Weekly Standard

I’m a Mormon: Take it or leave it, Romney says, Jessica Van Sack, Boston Herald

Mitt Romney’s Case for Pastor in Chief, Domke and Coe, Seattle Intelligencer

VIDEO: Fred Barnes, Mora Liasson and Charles Krauthamer

VIDEO: Sean Hannity with Evangelical Leaders

And by the way, in case you had forgotten that there are seething, irrational people out there who hate Mitt Romney as much as they hate religion itself, our old friend Christopher Hitchens has a new tirade out, to Slate.com’s continuing shame. This is another piece of completely unhinged teeth-gnashing without any basis in facts. I may get to a point by point rebuttal today, but if not, please see my last post detailing the numerous inaccuracies relied upon in the ravings of this increasingly dismissable antagonist.

What Mitt’s Mormonism Does Mean

Mitt Romney has an identity problem. Newsweek says “voters can’t connect with a candidate they feel they don’t know.” The Chicago Tribune asks “Who is the Real Mitt Romney?” Each publication goes on to try and pin Mitt Romney down, explaining the man in terms of his ancestry, career path, and, most often, his religion. (At one point, Newsweek suggests that Romney’s m.o. at his private equity firm was essentially Mormon– “make good choices because you’ll have to live with their consequences.” Right. Because Catholics and Baptists prefer to make stupid choices).

Despite their attempts to understand the man, both pieces, and scores of other stories just like them, conclude that Romney is inscrutable– an enigma wrapped in a religion wrapped in an enigmatic religion. If you examine these kinds of pieces closely, this conclusion is a bit shocking. For all the people that have set out to understand Mitt Romney as a human being via the interpretive lens of his religion, you would think someone would either find the religion helpful in some way, or that everyone would eventually abandon the approach as useless. Instead, the parade marches on, every week bringing a new story with the same formula: “Who is this guy? Let’s consult his religious beliefs to understand him. Hmm, we conclude that he’s a mystery.” Do journalists have fun asking questions they know they can’t answer, or are they just enjoying the tease?

The repetition of these inquiries reveals one thing: that regardless of whether it sheds any light, the religion angle brings lots of heat, so it’s going to remain a juicy part of the narrative. This is disappointing, because hidden under the analysis of obscure doctrines and superficial cultural flavor, Romney’s Mormonism actually does reveal something very important about the man. (more…)

Reader Email: Newsweek Piece Unfair

Thanks to reader James Masters for sending the following email contribution. Please email your guest post to [email protected]

The current issue of Newsweek includes an extensive article on the relationship between Mitt Romney and his Mormon faith (authors: Jonathan Darman and Lisa Miller). Aside from being a bit discombobulated in flow and structure, the article is also weakly presented as “balanced.” The attempted “balance” comes in a tit-for-tat package of terse compliments coupled with small nuggets of Mormon culture. As is the case with many other articles in the media on Mormonism, the article contains assertions with little contextual elaboration and fails to attribute relevance on some points. (more…)