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…)

On Being a Mormon Candidate in America

Not yet twenty-four hours after Mitt Romney announced the end of his campaign, we’ve already seen several people telling him what he did wrong. Most of these post-mortems are limited by their failure to view the race as it was when Romney got in it. The consensus now seems to be that he sealed his fate by running to the right, acting the part of the red-meat conservative instead of the brainy technocrat with the ability to fix our country as if it were a slightly larger version of Dominoes Pizza. But a year ago, when Mitt Romney was receiving raves at the CPAC conference and being hailed as the perfect answer to the inevitability that enveloped Giuliani and McCain (depending on who you asked), that kind of advice would have sounded pathetically misguided.

What the commentators aren’t remembering were both the anonymity of Mitt Romney and the gaping hole on the right end of the GOP field. The man needed a niche to fill, and that niche was there for the taking. One more thoughtful moderate refusing to speak to the base would have flamed out instantly, and Romney was smart enough to know where he could fit in. But he wasn’t smart enough to anticipate the less visible, but far more serious threat to his candidacy- the rise of the “Authentic Christian Leader.”

Long before Mike Huckabee, there was plenty of talk about whether a Mormon could be elected president. Many doubted, and the polls seemed to back them up. But for the optimists (of whom Mitt Romney was one), there was abundant counter-evidence. Those same polls showed voter resistance to a “Mormon candidate” steadily decreasing from spring to summer to fall. Romney saw a corresponding bump in his numbers in Iowa and New Hampshire. For every big story in the mainstream press about nutty Mormon beliefs, there were three or four small-town papers running pieces on the very normal, upstanding Mormons in their own communities. The press became better informed about Romney’s faith, and slowly stopped mentioning it in every story about the “Mormon candidate.” Romney had a chance. (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. 

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. 

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