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.”