Romney and the “Mormon Moment”

Lots of fear and loathing from the pundit class

More than once this election cycle, it has been declared “The Mormon Moment.”

Look no further than Broadway (The Book of Mormon is a hit) or television (Big Love and Sister Wives, about the polygamous lives of fundamentalist Mormons, are too). Or the Republican race and the candidacies of Jon Huntsman (now defunct) and Mitt Romney, the on-again, off-again frontrunner.

But while they may be in the spotlight more than ever before, if this is their moment, pity the Mormons.

“By any standard, Mormonism is more ridiculous than any other religion,” said Bill Maher last October.

“Magic underwear. Baptizing dead people. Celestial marriages. Private planets. Racism. Polygamy,” was Maureen Dowd’s summary of the faith.

The Daily Mail, the most popular online newspaper, more recently, ran a picture of the “Mormon underwear” with speculation about whether or not Romney wears it.

And New York Times columnist Charles Blow assumed Romney did last month, when he tweeted about his own success as a single parent, and somewhat inexplicably added that Romney should “stick that in your magic underwear.” (He later apologized for the tweet).

As much as we hear about Mormons in the media, we don’t often hear from Mormons, and that’s a shame.

“Mormons in America,” a Pew report released in January, demonstrates the cost of the missing Mormon voice: According to Pew’s survey, 62 percent of Mormons feel other Americans know little or nothing about their faith. Forty-six percent of Mormons feel there is “a lot of discrimination” towards Mormons. Thirty-eight percent feel news coverage of their faith is unfair.

Theoretically, this may be an ideal moment to broaden understanding of Mormon views and to remember the American values of religious freedom and tolerance.

Yet, much of the commentary on Romney’s faith this has campaign has cast The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as strange, cultish, and perhaps most of all, something to be mocked. And Mormons have noticed.

“The dominant frame that has arisen in this election cycle is that Mormons are weird,” says Sherry Baker, a communications professor at Brigham Young University, who has studied media coverage of Mormons throughout history and in select political campaigns. Baker sees this message emanating from both religionists (a la evangelical pastor Robert Jeffress: ‘Mormonism is a non-Christian cult) and anti-religionists (a la Bill Maher) and then amplified in coverage.
(The message got a different wrinkle when Politico reported in August that one of the Obama campaign’s strategies would be to portray Romney as “weird.”; Though Obama’s campaign denied it, many in the pundit class argued the term was code for Mormon.)

Baker says she has observed a third strain of the “Mormons are weird” narrative emerging in opinion media this year: that “Mormons are too good.” Jana Reiss, who happens to be a Mormon, discussed the trend in a post featured on The New York Times’s “Room for Debate” blog that asked “Can a candidate be too perfect?”

“Commentators will say [Mormons] are hardworking and they’re kind and they’re devoted to their families and they’re self-disciplined and they sort of represent the American dream,” says Baker. “And then they go on to talk about how these are all negatives.” She points to a recent article in New York by Frank Rich:

He can come across like an android who’s been computer-generated to be the perfect genial candidate… Richard Nixon was epically awkward too, but he could pass (in Tom Wicker’s phrase) as “one of us.” Unlike Nixon’s craggy face, or, for that matter, Gingrich’s, Romney’s does not look lived in. His eyes don’t show the mileage of a veteran fighter’s journey through triumphs and hard knocks—the profile that Americans prefer to immaculate perfection in a leader during tough times.

Baker contends this treatment is not just about Romney but suggests it is Rich’s profile of Mormons in general. That may seem like an unfair interpretation, though her argument is buttressed somewhat by this later passage:

Known for being frugal to a fault, Romney does not seem to particularly relish spending his fortune. He likes data, and his piles of dollars seem to be mainly markers to keep score of his success. Though he now tries to wrap himself in Main Street brands like Staples and Domino’s Pizza that passed through Bain’s clutches, he was not intellectually or managerially engaged in the businesses that Bain bought and sold; he didn’t run any of them. He seems to have no cultural passions beyond his and his wife’s first-date movie, The Sound of Music. He is not a sportsman or conspicuous sports fan. His only real, nonnumerical passions seem to be his photogenic, intact family, which he wields like a weapon whenever an opponent with multiple marriages like John McCain or Gingrich looms into view—and, of course, his faith.

That faith is key to the Romney mystery.

Baker notes this ‘too good’ twist is particularly interesting given that Mormons enjoyed incredibly positive media coverage in mid-century America for the same qualities.

She describes this media treatment in terms of the “model-minority” stereotype, which in academic discussion has been used to describe media coverage of Asian-Americans, and more recently Mormons. “The whole thing about the ‘model-minority,’ is that they may have a lot of positive qualities, but they also raise fears,” Baker says.

This leads to another common grievance Mormons have with commentaries about Romney and his faith—the tendency for commentators to hint that there is something sinister about a Mormon presidential candidate and that he/she would use his office to govern in the interest of the Mormon church.

Harold Bloom, writing in November in The New York Times’s Sunday Review discussed, in foreboding terms, the secrecy of Mormons and what that would mean if one of their number—just 2% of Americans—were elected president.

There are other secrets also, not tellable by the Mormon Church to those it calls “Gentiles,” oddly including Jews. That aspects of the religion of a devout president of the United States should be concealed from all but 2 percent of us may be a legitimate question that merits pondering.

And later he speaks of the “troublesome” political implications of Mormon theology:

The Mormon patriarch, secure in his marriage and large family, is promised by his faith a final ascension to godhead, with a planet all his own separate from the earth and nation where he now dwells. From the perspective of the White House, how would the nation and the world appear to President Romney? How would he represent the other 98 percent of his citizens?

In Salon, Sally Denton published an even more sinister and conspiracy-minded account that leans on the White Horse prophecy—a purported vision of Joseph Smith that the Mormon priesthood would save the US Constitution when it was “hanging by a thread,” and which is not official church doctrine—to suggest the idea that “Romney’s candidacy is part of the eternal plan and the candidate himself is fulfilling the destiny begun in what the church calls the ‘pre-existence.’”

She compels readers to be afraid of Mormons and their secret designs throughout the piece, with descriptions like:

The seeds of Romney’s unique brand of conservatism, often regarded with intense suspicion by most non-Mormon conservatives, were sown in the secretive, acquisitive, patriarchal, authoritarian religious empire run by “quorums” of men under an umbrella consortium called the General Authorities.

As intriguing as these stories are, they fail to consider certain realities, like Romney’s previous record as a governor and business person, or the careers of other Mormon politicians—not all of the same party and platforms, like Harry Reid and Tom Udall—or the pains the Mormon Church has taken to remain apart from politics. The idea that Romney would bring a “Mormon agenda” is likewise undermined by the fact that naturally, not all Mormons agree with him on everything. Consider this story from last month.

“It’s interesting there seems to be an assumption that Romney’s political beliefs are a function of, or conditioned by his religious beliefs where that assumption is not made with any of the other candidates,” says Terryl Givens, a professor of literature and religion at the University of Richmond who has written a number of books on Mormonism. Of course, Santorum wears his faith on his sleeve, and Gingrich makes no effort to underplay his Catholicism, but whatever influence their religion has on their makeup does not get cast as threatening.

This assumption has resulted in the fear-baiting commentaries like those mentioned above, but also perhaps contributed to reporting on Romney’s faith, that while more fair, is disproportionate to that of other candidates.

According to Pew, in 2011, Romney’s Mormonism accounted for more than half of all religion-related campaign stories. (And in a sign that voters pick up on frequent media associations, a Pew/Washington Post poll from late last year found the one word people most frequently associated with Romney was “Mormon.” It was ‘Texas’ for Rick Perry and ‘9-9-9’ with Herman Cain.)

Givens argues the press should cover Romney’s religion less, and also that journalists should really reflect on the substance of the John F. Kennedy speech they frequently invoke when discussing the candidate’s faith:

Kennedy was quite adamant on the impropriety of examining a candidate’s religions beliefs as a prelude to an election. He said he deplored what he saw as a backdoor attempt to impose a religious test.

And yet, we’re right back where we were before that speech asking questions about Romney’s Mormonism as if they were relevant to his qualifications for office.

Indeed, in the speech, Kennedy calls out the press for deeming him the “Catholic candidate” and asks his audience to judge him not on the publications “that carefully select quotations out of context from the statements of Catholic church leaders, usually in other countries, frequently in other centuries, and always omitting, of course, the statement of the American Bishops in 1948, which strongly endorsed church-state separation.”

Now Romney did not exactly say this in his 2007 speech to address Mormonism—he echoed Kennedy’s sentiment, but then proclaimed “Freedom requires religion, just as religion requires freedom”—but Kennedy’s message, given that today’s coverage of Mormonism often touches on polygamy, Joseph Smith’s tablets, and the odder bits of the faith’s distant past, is apt. (The argument that Mormonism is odder because its past is more recent than other religions’ odd pasts is weak.)

Givens says public (and journalistic) interest in Mormonism too often stalls at the “superficial and sensationalist”—on subjects like polygamy and undergarments.

The American public has become fixated on the practice of polygamy that ended more than a century ago. There is little genuine inquiry into the core of Mormon belief and theology.

Givens suggests a better approach would be to report on Romney’s Mormonism and Romney’s candidacy as two distinct issues.

But of course, it’s not always such an easy distinction. The Pew report notes that one particular incident dominated the media coverage of Romney’s Mormonism: provocative comments made by Robert Jeffress, a prominent evangelical pastor and a Rick Perry supporter, to reporters after his speech at the Values Voters summit, calling Mormonism “a cult” and claiming that Mormons were not Christian. (Jeffress has since, and to less media attention, stated he would “hold his nose” and vote for Romney).

The comments were widely reported—and repeated in headlines like this—as evidence that Romney’s faith could be electorally problematic for him in the Republican race. While such a story is of course fair and necessary to understand the dynamics of the race, the way the story was reported by many outlets gave considerable power and prominence to comments of a single Evangelical pastor who was effectively allowed to define Mormonism in his terms.

Michael Otterson, the Director of Public Affairs for The Church of Christ of Latter-day Saints and a contributor to The Washington Post’s On Faith blog, speaking at a Poynter conference on religion and politics made this point and warned:

There is increasing danger that journalists are 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?

Both Baker and Lane Williams, a communications professor at BYU-Idaho agreed that while some of the reporting on Mormonism has been problematic, it has been better this year, and far more fair and accurate than the attention the religion has received in commentaries.

If there is one particularly easy, if partial fix for more fair and accurate reporting on Mormons, it’d be checking in with Mormons once in a while. (This was a point made by all the Mormon scholars I spoke with.)

“The Mormon voice is essentially missing,” says Baker of the coverage that has come with this year’s campaign. “Everyone else is speaking about Mormons as if we weren’t in the room. Few ask for a Mormon perspective.”

There are plenty of active commentators in the Mormon blogosphere—termed the bloggernacle—who opine about this sort of thing daily. Or lots of Mormons who would no doubt be happy to be asked—Baker, Williams, and Givens all were.

There have been a few good examples of how this can be done in a way that both informs readers and humanizes Mormons without advocating for them. See this story from The New York Times, this one from Politico, and the many written by McKay Coppins (who also happens to be a Mormon) at Buzzfeed. Weird it hasn’t been tried more before.

So, what do Mormons think of ‘their’ moment? They think the media, and particularly the commentator class, is missing it.

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Erika Fry is a former assistant editor at CJR.