Additional Resource

Religion and Politics: Getting it Right in 2012

The following is a presentation by Michael R. Otterson, managing director of public affairs for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, delivered at the Poynter Institute's conference, "Religion and Politics: Getting it Right in 2012," on 8 December 2011.

After the midterm elections of 1902, the US Senate debated for years whether to allow the newly elected senator from Utah, Reed Smoot, to take his seat.  At the time, the New York American newspaper said:

“Mormonism is a repulsive anachronism, a dangerous plague spot, a gross offense to the nation’s moral sense.” 

Almost exactly one hundred years later, in 2005, Newsweek magazine wrote: “No matter where Mormons live, they find themselves part of a network of mutual concern; in Mormon theology everyone ... is empowered in some way to do good to others, and to have good done unto them: it is a 21st century covenant of caring. This caring is not limited to Church members alone, but extends far beyond.”

That’s a long way to come in 100 years. Yet even today Mormons face plenty of throw-backs to the kind of intolerance we saw in 1904.

Getting it right is not an easy thing to do in the world of religion. We don’t expect a sports reporter to know everything about the intricacies of every sport. But we do expect a religion reporter to write knowledgeably on hundreds of different denominations, and political reporters to get it right even when religion isn’t their specialty. That’s not simple, given the nuanced positions that often separate one denomination from another. My starting point, however, is the same assumption that is implicit in the theme today - it is possible to get it right if we acknowledge two things: the importance of going to the source, and the pitfalls of stereotyping. Furthermore, many in the industry are getting it right.

After 35 years of working with journalists on stories about the Mormon faith, I can confidently condense the most common stereotypes to these:

1.   Mormons are not Christian

2.   Mormons belong to a cult

3.   Mormons are insular, aloof, secretive, disconnected from mainstream society

4.   Mormons are weird (odd beliefs, strange underwear etc)

5.   Mormons practice polygamy

1.     Mormons are not Christian

For convenience in this setting, I will sometimes use the nickname “Mormon” to refer to members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The term was first applied in the early 1800s because Church members use the Book of Mormon as additional scripture.  It has lost any of its original intended hostility, and members today are not uncomfortable in being referred to as Mormons even though they may prefer Latter-day Saints.

Are Mormons Christian?

Here’s the National Council of Churches Yearbook list of the top ten Christian faiths in the USA, ranked by numbers of members. It’s hard for me to understand why we would question the Christian commitment of any of these faiths, but here we are at number four, with our formal name, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Does a name alone make a church Christian? By itself, not necessarily. But ask any Latter-day Saint you know, or drop in to any Mormon service on a Sunday and talk to anyone in the congregation, from the volunteer bishop to the children in the classrooms, and you will get an unequivocal, affirmative response when you ask about Jesus Christ.

You could not sit through a worship service in any Latter-day Saint congregation without hearing the name of Jesus Christ and references to his divinity repeatedly, whether during the opening prayer, the reading of scriptures, the singing of hymns or the taking of communion. I am happy for you to test me on this by dropping into any Mormon service in your neighborhood. If you prove me wrong, I’ll buy you and your spouse a romantic dinner at a restaurant of your choice. And I won’t even insist on coming along.

This issue of whether Mormons are Christian moved to center stage a few weeks ago. Let’s take a look at just three minutes of this clip from CNN.

[CNN clip of Anderson Cooper and Pastor Jeffress]

Anderson Cooper did a good job here of looking moderately incredulous. So how are you to sort it out?

This timeline from Wikipedia shows the development of multiple strains of Christianity, from the early 5th century, and depicts the historical Christianity that the pastor was referring to.

Ask a Mormon, and he or she will agree readily that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is not identical to what is often referred to as “traditional Christianity” or “historical Christianity.”  The pastor was right in that limited respect. To a Latter-day Saint, “traditional” or “historical” Christianity refers to the churches that emerged from the various creedal declarations of the early 4th century and later. 

That is not the same as saying that Latter-day Saints are not Christian, however. For their doctrinal roots, Latter-day Saints look to a period much earlier – to the teachings of Christ and the apostles at the time that they lived, 400 years before this timeline even begins. Mormons believe that some time in the first century the Christian church began to lose or distort some of its foundational doctrines. Hence The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is seen not as a reformation but as a restoration of that ancient church.  Mormons point to the modern parallels with the early church - its twelve apostles, its missionaries who preach two by two, its unpaid ministry at the congregational level, its claim to restored authority, and biblical doctrines on such things as the nature of God.

Is this controversial? Of course, especially among theologians. Yet there is still enormous common ground with other Christians and the similarities are substantial. In our pluralistic society, Mormons happily embrace other churches and the truths they teach as part of the Christian fold. Mormons have not the slightest hesitation in including as Christian anyone who professes Jesus Christ to be the Son of God and Redeemer of all mankind.

Do we care when we are described as not part of historical Christianity, or not part of “traditional” Christianity? Not if it’s qualified in the way I’ve explained.

Do we care when we are described as not Christian? Yes, we most certainly do, because that suggests we are not followers of Jesus Christ, and Christ’s divinity is a foundational belief in our faith, formally articulated in our first Article of Faith, which is: “We believe in God, the Eternal Father, in his son, Jesus Christ, and in the Holy Ghost.”

2.   Mormons are a cult

Does this make us a cult? The term cult may be parsed by academics as to its literal meaning, but anyone using the word in ordinary conversation clearly intends it as a pejorative, to marginalize and diminish.  After the Jeffress episode, many commentators, including some in this room, acknowledged that.

Evangelical professor of philosophy John Mark Reynolds at Biola said in a Washington Post column, “This is bigotry, buttressed by irrelevance, fortified with invincible ignorance.”

The philosophical problem here for journalists is whether it’s fair to allow any group to stereotype and become the primary definer of another group. As a former journalist and stringer for the Financial Times, I know a little about your world and how exacting editors can be. Which of these two statements would a fair-minded editor opt for?

 “Mormons are considered by some conservative Christians to be a cult, and not Christian.”

That is a phrase I have seen repeated many times. Or this:

“Mormons consider themselves Christian, but take issue with some aspects of more traditional Christianity.”

I submit to you that a group should be allowed primarily to define itself.

May I make a slight detour here? There is an increasing danger of journalists unwittingly creating another stereotype, and that is that all evangelicals are lined up against Mormons, and vice versa. But evangelicals and Mormons embrace a lot of diversity, and most of us also get along just fine with each other.  By repeating the cult reference over and over again, and attributing it to “some evangelicals,” is the media casting this in concrete and creating a self-fulfilling prophecy?

3.  Mormons are insular, aloof, secretive?

This is a more difficult one to pinpoint. Frankly, part of it may be our own fault because we are so busy in our church work that we can appear to be less interested in the broader community.

In any congregation of Latter-day Saints - and there are 28,000 congregations around the world – every job in the Church, from the bishop down, is done by a volunteer. Meaning that members have their usual professional occupations and pursuits during the day, and all of the usual family responsibilities by night and weekend, but they also have an additional church responsibility of some sort on top of that.  A Mormon bishop typically spends at least 20 hours a week counseling, helping members through personal difficulties, administering meetings, overseeing finances and paying special attention to the young people. In those responsibilities he is helped by dozens and dozens of his parishioners.

The landmark work American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us that was published last year by authors Robert Putnam and David Campbell says , “Mormons are strikingly more active in giving and volunteering of all sorts, even taking into account their high levels of religious observance.” An independent study to come out next year will show that Latter-day Saints give on average almost ten times as much to community service as the average American.

So why are Latter-day Saints seen as aloof or insular or disconnected from the mainstream? In practice, even though Church leaders encourage our people to do otherwise, some of us may be so busy with our own church that to an outsider we can seem in a world of our own.

What about secrecy? Insularity is not the same as secrecy, but the two terms may be related. I have found that whenever this issue comes up with reporters, it is often traceable to a single point of misunderstanding:

We have thousands of chapels or churches across the country and around the world, and any one of you can walk through the door uninvited, take a seat in the worship service or even take part in the discussion classes that follow.

For the highest sacraments of the faith, however – specifically the marriages that we believe unite couples or “seal” families together for the next life – we have to look to our temples. Temples are created as sacred spaces of the highest order. Like the ancient Temple of Solomon described in the Bible, these are buildings of the finest materials and workmanship, built as an offering of a people to their God. They are places where members go not only for the most sacred sacraments, but as places of special solitude, away from the distractions of the world. Everyone changes into simple white clothing in the temple, a symbol of purity but also to remove worldly distractions.  We have fewer than 140 temples around the world – you are familiar with the one here in Washington on the Beltway – but because they are not open to the public after they have been dedicated it is often assumed we don’t welcome people into our ordinary services either. Emphatically, although temples are closed to the public, we do welcome all comers to our regular Sunday services in our chapels.  Mormons as a people are often gregarious, and eager to talk about their faith.

4. Mormons are weird

You may not all have seen this. Bear with me for three minutes.

[Stephen Colbert clip on Mormons (21s) to 3m 06s (“fight it”)]

I don’t really think I have to say much else, do I? Weirdness is in the eye of the beholder, and assertions of it may simply be a tool intended to marginalize. You can see the rest of this clip on the Colbert website.

5. Polygamy

It is not possible to be a member of our faith and practice polygamy. Empirical data shows that journalists are increasingly getting this right. Most recognize that polygamy was a part of the Church’s history in the 1800s, but is not practiced today. Period. Polygamy still remains a persistent, top of mind association among the general public, however, probably because other polygamous groups from Texas to British Columbia are periodically the subject of news attention or TV series.

In April 2008 Texas authorities raided a polygamous compound in that state, an event which led ultimately to the shocking disclosures about Warren Jeffs, and his eventual jailing.  TV images of polygamous wives dressed identically in pastel-colored dresses and with identically braided hair were as foreign and disturbing to me as they were to you. By the way, this particular polygamous group adopted the name “The Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints” only in 1991.

Sometime after the blaze of national publicity that accompanied that episode, we conducted our own opinion poll. It found that 91 percent of those surveyed had heard about the raid on the Texas ranch owned by the FLDS group. Thirty percent of respondents associated the "religious compound in Texas" with our faith. Popular culture and entertainment shows like Big Love and Sister Wives keep this association alive in the public mind.

For the record polygamous communities or individuals are not in any way associated or affiliated with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. We are neither sympathetic to them, nor supportive of them.

Some polygamous groups use names similar to ours, as we have seen. Some describe themselves as fundamentalist Mormons. We can’t stop people from calling themselves whatever they want, but for the sake of clarity for your readers and viewers, we suggest that the term “Mormon” is not an appropriate adjective for members of these communities – as, in fact, the Associated Press style guide suggests.

Stereotypes are difficult to avoid, and by definition do now allow for historical context or different perspectives. By their use they demean the user as much as the subject.

So, my invitation is to:

·       Engage us directly. Include us in your sources.

·       While you obviously will have multiple sources, please allow us to define our own beliefs and practices

I look forward to hearing your comments, questions and discussion.

Thank you.

Style Guide Note:When reporting about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, please use the complete name of the Church in the first reference. For more information on the use of the name of the Church, go to our online Style Guide.