The Mormon Moment: A Religion News Service Guide – Review

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Much has been said in popular media about the so-called “Mormon Moment”. The accuracy and fairness of recent media coverage of Mormonism has been a mixed bag, to say the least. It is sad to admit that there are plenty of media personalities who know next to nothing about Mormonism, and yet feel unconstrained to opine on this or that subject relating to Mormon doctrine or history. Unsurprisingly, those who are the most ignorant of Mormonism usually choose to write about the most complex and controversial aspects of Mormonism, such as polygamy, Mormon racial history, and esoteric aspects of Mormon belief and practice best left untouched by non-Mormon novices of Mormon history and doctrine. (Andrew Sullivan, I’m looking at you.)

The United States presidential election is in a few days. Governor Mitt Romney, the first Mormon to have a respectable chance of winning the presidency, stands poised to usher modern Mormonism into a new era of history. Undoubtedly, if he wins the election Mormonism will be scrutinized by the public like perhaps no other time in its history. Every action, every gaffe, every policy decision by Romney will, in some part of the infinite expanses of the Internet, have someone asking, “I wonder if he did that because Mormonism teaches X, Y, or Z.” On the flip-side, as one BYU professor who has recently written a book on past and contemporary American views of Mormonism told me a personal conversation, if Mitt Romney loses the election, we can most likely expect the “Mormon Moment” to come to a grinding halt.

Given the lamentable fact that most of what has been written about the “Mormon Moment” comes from dreadfully uniformed or highly polemical sources, it is refreshing to have been made available a serviceable selection of some of journalism’s better pieces on Mormonism. The Religion News Service, working through the commendable Patheos website, has collated a small book of articles (a mere 37 pages) from Daniel Burke, an editor and writer at Religion News Service, Peggy Fletcher Stack, a columnist with the Salt Lake Tribune, and Matt Canham, a correspondent for the Salt Lake Tribune, on the “Mormon Moment”. Although one can quibble with this or that, the articles, overall, are excellent, and offer not only a refreshingly honest and fair assessment of modern Mormonism during the “Mormon Moment” (with not too shabby treatments of Mormon history, to boot), but also set a high standard for how journalists should be writing about Mormonism today.

The American View of Mormonism

“How does the American public see Mormons? How do Mormons see themselves?” Thus asks Jana Riess in her foreword to the collection. The articles that follow seek to shed further light on this question. Daniel Burke devotes time to explain what recent sociological data tells us about how Mormons are viewed in contemporary America. His conclusion? Mormons see themselves as “outsiders looking in”, and broader American culture is still uneasy with the new faith. With only the lunatic fringe of anti-Mormonism thinking otherwise, Mormons are no longer seen as fanatical terrorists who are bent on overthrowing the United States, as they largely were in the 19th century. Instead they’re seen today as good citizens, friendly neighbors, and honest people with really crazy religious beliefs. Oh, and they’re also totally naive about the problems facing the world. This is more or less the image of Mormons put forth in the mega-popular Broadway musical The Book of Mormon, where Mormons are semi-sympathetically portrayed as nice, well-meaning folk who are detached from reality with really stupid beliefs. (Kolob and golden plates? LOL!) The Book of Mormon can be viewed, to a certain degree, as the veritable avatar of contemporary views of Mormonism, given the gushingly effusive reviews, sweeping the Tony awards and its continually sold out seats in New York, L.A., and Denver.

The challenge, therefore, for modern Mormons is not so much to try and convince non-Mormons that we aren’t seditious terrorists (we’ve been able to do that well enough with the “I’m a Mormon” campaign), but rather that our beliefs aren’t intrinsically stupid, as The Book of Mormon musical or Bill Maher would have us believe. A number of outlets, including FAIR, the Maxwell Institute, Mormon Scholars Testify, and the Interpreter Foundation are there to do just that: to show an intellectual rigor to Mormon belief. Richard Bushman, Terryl Givens, Matt Bowman and others have made great strides in dispelling the illusion that Mormonism is just too hilariously stupid to be taken seriously, and I’m hopeful that the new booklet released by the Religion News Service will help in this endeavor as well.

Meet Mitt, Meet Joseph

Two articles are devoted towards giving a fair representation of Mitt Romney and Joseph Smith, both of whom have run for the presidency, and both of whom are often wildly misrepresented in today’s media. Burke gives a good overview of Joseph Smith’s run for the presidency, while Peggy Fletcher Stack gives a look at Mitt Romney before his career in politics. I have to say that, shameless liberal though I am, I was actually endeared to Romney somewhat by Stack’s article on Romney as a bishop and stake president. This isn’t to say that she sanitizes Romney’s past (which has been dogged by some unflattering allegations by former members of his stake), but rather that she made him a real, flesh-and-blood human being whom I could relate to, and even admire, and not the cold, sniveling Scrooge McDuck he is caricatured as being by much of the media.

Mormonism and Evangelicalism: Two Uncomfortable Bedfellows in Modern Politics

Modern Mormons and Evangelicals seem made for each other. On the whole, they share many conservative social values, place great emphasis on American Exceptionalism (something discussed by Stack in the book), and value religious devotion. And yet, some of the most strident anti-Mormons voicing opposition to Romney have been evangelical Christians. (Robert Jeffress and Bill Keller are two prominent examples.) What gives? The tension between Mormons and Evangelicals, according to two articles offered by Daniel Burke, lies in the vast gulf between key theological points. The nature of God, the nature of scripture, soteriology, and other theological differences have set Mormons and Evangelicals drastically apart. Burke explores some of these differences, and why they create tension between the two groups, who otherwise would seem like natural allies.

Unfortunately, the weakest aspect of the book was Burke’s answer to the tired question “Are Mormons Christians?” Burke can only answer: “It’s complicated.” I’ll give Burke credit for retaining his objectivity on the matter, but I felt wholly unimpressed with his treatment. The fundamental problem I have with Burke’s treatment here is his seemingly unconscious acceptance of the idea that fundamentalist Protestants alone get to define who is and who isn’t “Christian”. As I have written elsewhere, there are too many problems inherent in this idea for us to take it seriously. Fundamentalist Protestants emphatically DO NOT have the right to be the final arbiter of who is and who isn’t “Christian”. Much of the modern debate, however, hinges on assuming just that: that Billy Graham and Robert Jeffress are the bouncers at the door of “Christianity”. I vigorously reject this assumption, for reasons more fully articulated by Professors Daniel C. Peterson and Stephen D. Ricks.

Follow the Prophet… Except for Everything He Said About Black People

“Forget everything I have said, or what … Brigham Young … or whomsoever has said … that is contrary to the present revelation…We spoke with a limited understanding.””

These words, spoken by Elder Bruce R. McConkie after the revelation on blacks and the priesthood in 1978, highlight two of the more hard hitting articles in the packet. Peggy Fletcher Stack tackles the question of prophetic infallibility while Daniel Burke highlights the controversial racial history of Mormonism.

Stack carefully explains something that shouldn’t come as a surprise to Mormons, and yet often is: Mormon prophets aren’t infallible. They never have been, and they’ve never claimed to be. The oft repeated joke, although a cliche, nevertheless has a kernel of truth: Roman Catholic theology says the Pope is infallible, but few Catholics believe it. Mormon theology says the Prophet is fallible, but few Mormons believe it. Stack’s discussion is most welcomed, as the assumptions Mormons may have about the infallibility of  prophets need to be challenged wherever they are manifest. Too many testimonies have been unnecessarily shaken by the wholly unrealistic, unreasonable, misguided and un-scriptural pseudo-doctrine of prophetic infallibility.

Burke’s treatment of Mormon racial history is careful and nuanced, though now somewhat dated. For instance, Burke claims that, “The LDS church has neither formally apologized for the priesthood ban nor publicly repudiated many of the theories used to justify it for more than 125 years.” In February 2012, however, the Church released this statement in response to comments made by Professor Randy Bott, who resurrected some of these theories in an interview with the Washington Post:

The positions attributed to BYU professor Randy Bott in a recent Washington Post article absolutely do not represent the teachings and doctrines of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. BYU faculty members do not speak for the Church. It is unfortunate that the Church was not given a chance to respond to what others said.

The Church’s position is clear—we believe all people are God’s children and are equal in His eyes and in the Church. We do not tolerate racism in any form.

For a time in the Church there was a restriction on the priesthood for male members of African descent.  It is not known precisely why, how, or when this restriction began in the Church but what is clear is that it ended decades ago. Some have attempted to explain the reason for this restriction but these attempts should be viewed as speculation and opinion, not doctrine. The Church is not bound by speculation or opinions given with limited understanding.

We condemn racism, including any and all past racism by individuals both inside and outside the Church.

Given the extremely sensitive nature of this controversy, Burke is to be commended for avoiding a sensationalist or polemical coverage of this issue. Those wishing for a fuller discussion of this issue, however, would do well to look further than what is offered by Burke.

Conclusion

Other articles are included in the book, including a look at the Church’s missionary program and a discussion of whether Church leaders would try to influence presidential policies with Romney in the White House. (Spoiler: the answer is no.)

All things considered, I think this brief packet is a welcomed addition to the current discussion of the “Mormon Moment”. Both Mormons and non-Mormons would benefit from reading this book. Mormons would benefit by seeing what aspects of Mormonism in contemporary culture non-Mormons find important to look closer at, and non-Mormons would benefit by seeing what a proper, nuanced, and fair journalistic approach to Mormonism looks like.

In our current political, social, and religious public discourse, too much of the public square is being dominated by bellicose partisans who are more interested in shoehorning their polemics into an already crowded public discourse than seeking genuine understanding and cooperation. Hopefully this short book, The Mormon Moment: A Religion News Service Guide, will serve as an antidote to the increasingly venomous nature of modern public discourse. It is sorely needed, and, in large measure, successfully delivers exactly what is set out to accomplish: “…to promote civic engagement and discourse on religion…out of a conviction that religious literacy is a necessary component of effective citizenship.”

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