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Nine Moons » Blog Archive : Dear Media, You Can’t Have It Both Ways » Dear Media, You Can’t Have It Both Ways

Dear Media, You Can’t Have It Both Ways

Rusty - April 7, 2007

I read a lot of articles on Mitt Romney, not so much because of my interest in him (the articles don’t reveal anything new about him), but because I’m fascinated with the way that the media talks about Mormons. And just as fascinating is reading comments about Mormons on (non-bloggernacle) blogs. I understand that some people have a deep need to ridicule us, and I’m okay with that. But the problem I have is when they try to encapsulate our religion in a few lines of text that go something like this:

“The Mormons believe that a 19th century charlatan money-digger named Joe Smith found a golden bible written in “Reformed Egyptian”. He looked into a hat at a stone and “translated” it into the Book of Mormon, which they claim is a record of Jews living in pre-Mayan America (even though DNA denies this claim). Then Joe Smith said God told him to have a bunch of wives (some underage, some married at the time) and lie about it to his own wife. After he was killed the racist prophet Brigham Young took the remaining members across the country to the Salt Lake Valley and established their racist, women-hating, gay-bashing “religion”. Among other things, Brigham Young taught that Adam was God and that blacks couldn’t have the priesthood because they were unrigheous in the “pre-existence”. The Mormons believe that they are the only ones who will get into heaven, that men will have many wives there, that God was once a man, and that women need to be subject to men. THAT’S the Mormon religion for you! Aren’t they WEIRD!?!?!”

Yes, many of those things have some truth to them and yes, that would be weird if that’s what we actually talked about in church and personally based our decisions on. But I live my life according to what we actually teach and emphasize at church: God is our Heavenly Father. Opposition in all things. Through Christ we can be forgiven of our sins. Living the commandments will bring happiness. Don’t consume tobacco, alcohol, coffee or tea. We can become like God. Forgive others their trespasses. Faith without works is dead. Pray always. Be a good example. A duty of the deacon is to pass the sacrament. Joseph Smith saw God and Jesus Christ and was told to not join any religion. Pride is the mother of all sins. Etc., etc., etc..

I’ve been a faithful member of the Church my entire life, went on a mission, went to BYU and I didn’t discover many of the questionable issues in the Church’s history until the bloggernacle. That would suggest that either those issues are part of our current dogma and I somehow missed them at every single turn, or that they aren’t really a part of our Church’s teachings now. (and don’t misunderstand me, I’m not saying that many of those things aren’t true or didn’t happen, I’m just saying that the Church doesn’t teach or talk about them).

So please folks, if you’re going to encapsulate our entire religion, do so by encapsulating what the religion actually teaches, not only the weird-sounding, cherry-picked issues from our past that most of our membership doesn’t know anything about. And if you must point out that the Church whitewashes its history, fine, but remember that when you do that you’re also admitting that those historical issues don’t encapsulate our religion.


  1. But Rusty, that would be too fair, which is (as you note) not what they’re interested in when it comes to describing Mormons or Mormon beliefs. They want to depict Mormons in the most negative terms possible, using dated, distorted, and simplified facts and fables (where facts won’t do, they just make things up). But when it comes to depicting themselves and their own beliefs, they use idealized, selective images and conveniently refuse to accept accountability or ownership of any Christian mistakes or outrages of the past.

    In a word, when it comes to Mormons, most Christians show themselves to be complete hypocrites (most, not all; there are a few genuine Christians around, some of whom comment publicly on Mormons in fairness and civility). Nothing makes one lose respect for Christians like seeing how most of them talk about Mormons. Really — I’ve lost respect for most Christians. I don’t exepct much from the Harrises and Dawkinses of the world, but I hoped for better from self-proclaimed Christians.

    Comment by Dave — April 7, 2007 @ 9:42 am

  2. Amen, Rusty and Dave. And, with renewed interest in the Church in the coming weeks and months, we are likely to see more of the same.

    Comment by Guy Murray — April 7, 2007 @ 10:03 am

  3. What nobody understands, and most don’t want to understand, is that not everything that has been taught or believed by Mormons is “what Mormons believe.” Journalists and anti’s like to glibly declare what Mormons believe and then back up their assertion with a quote from Brigham Young or even from the canon. But what’s completely lost on them is the complexities of how we give weight and privilege certain sources over other sources, of how we balance a belief in prophetic authority with prophetic fallibility, of how we have our own brains and are given wide latitude to believe or disbelieve a lot of what is and has been taught and to follow or not follow counsel. It’s true that there are some assumptions that can fairly be made about someone who professes to be a believing Mormon, but that they believe everything that has ever been taught by every Mormon leader is not one of them.

    To be fair, those complexities are not easy for an outsider to grasp. So I cut journalists and Average Joes a lot of slack. I’m less patient with former Mormons and enemies of the Church who willfully misrepresent and distort in order to attack and belittle.

    Comment by Tom — April 7, 2007 @ 11:29 am

  4. The title of your post addresses the “media,” but seems more directed at the DAMU. To the extent the media are truly your target, however, I think your post fails to acknowledge an important nuance; i.e., the distinction between purveyors of news and the purveyors of opinion, both of whom like to call themselves journalists. As a regular reader of the Washington Post and occasional reader of the New York Times (the two most common targets of attacks on the “media”), I have seen nothing in a news story that bears any resemblance to to your caricature. Sometimes, that stuff might get into an opinion column, but that doesn’t bather me. Those guys are being paid to preach to their respective choirs, not to be fair and balanced.

    Comment by Last Lemming — April 7, 2007 @ 1:46 pm

  5. Rusty, you say “dear media”; but if you’re claiming that these kinds of statements are common in the mainstream media, I think you’re being grossly unfair. The vast majority of professional journalists are, I think, quite careful and are remarkably gentle with us. They commonly withhold judgment about the strong, and recent, historical claims of our religion (mainly because, it seems, they are religious claims), when they would not do the same thing about non-mainstream claims about other, non-religious elements of American history.

    It is also important to admit that what an organization and its members say about themselves and tell themselves is not the whole and only truth about that organization. Cultures and institutions are constituted not just by their stated values, but also by their practices–what they do and what they have done (the Church is not equivalent to the Gospel). Joseph Smith’s polygamy was largely unknown to outsiders and even to many church members during his lifetime. Does that mean that it really had little to do with Mormonism, even then? To be sure, many critics “cherry-pick” as you say, and focus only on the negative aspects of our history. But just because some facts are not known or not acknowledged by the average member does not mean that they are not important aspects of what we are about, and important elements of any accurate description.

    Comment by Jeremiah J. — April 7, 2007 @ 2:03 pm

  6. i am somewhat offended that you try to encapsulate every journalist as being me…if you feel you are being described unfairly by ‘me,’ perhaps you should ask yourself why…


    Comment by the media — April 7, 2007 @ 6:10 pm

  7. I am somewhat offended that you try to ascribe those kinds of statements to the DAMU. We are not the media, we are merely expressing our opinions – something anybody with a computer and a blog can do. What people do with those opinions is none of our business.


    Comment by the DAMU — April 7, 2007 @ 6:55 pm

  8. I think it’s only going to get worse. The more serious a candidate Romney becomes, the deeper the knife will cut, even if its criticisms are not intended in an overly hostile way. What I mean to say is, if a major presidential candidate participated, on occasion, in secret religious rituals, it would probably catch my eye if an internet site/documentary were to discuss a few of the details of that ritual, showing pictures of people wearing the clothing that this candidate wears and citing some of the things that the candidate says. Whatever I thought of that candidate beforehand, knowing that he actively participates in all that stuff would probably leave me thinking he’s a bit too weird to be President of the United States.

    (In addition to any consideration of ever joining the church. How many converts would have joined if they had been told the details of the temple in the first discussion? What will missionary work be like in a post-Mitt world?)

    Comment by Eric Russell — April 7, 2007 @ 7:43 pm

  9. Dear Rusty,

    We can’t have it both ways. We have to accept that our Church has some pretty radical doctrines.

    I don’t think that I knew that Joseph Smith was a polygamist when I went on my mission. Later I learned that not only was he a polygamist, but some of his wives were teens and some were married to other men. It’s a little shocking. But it’s true.

    And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. There’s the magic peep stone in the hat B of M translating, the Book of Abraham papyri, the Kinderhook plates, the non-existence of the Word of Wisdom until the 20th century, blacks and the priesthood, and now Lamanite DNA.

    So what do we do? We need to embrace these things, not run away from them. I still believe in this Church; my testimony is just more nuanced than it was when I was in high school and saw things (quite arrogantly, I suppose) in black and white. But I’d say it’s just as strong.

    You seem to want to run away from the reality of our Church’s past, as if you want to deny that anything radical was ever institued by Joseph Smith. Bizarre things happened and they are noteworthy. I’m not really bothered that they happened; indeed I find them interesting. And it’s possible to embrace them and still be a believing Latter-day Saint. The odd things don’t bother me so much as the cover-up by the Church that they ever happened. Like I said, when I was a missionary I don’t think I knew that Joseph Smith was ever a polygamist. I probably just thought that Brigham Young was.

    I actually think it’s wonderful that the Internet is uncovering all of this uncomfortable information. If we are indeed the true Church, we shouldn’t be afraid of anything, not even the warts.

    And I think you’re wrong about the media. It has been respectful about the Church as it has covered Mitt Romney.

    Comment by John Williams — April 8, 2007 @ 1:54 am

  10. It’s important to remember that while the mainstream media are for the most part tactful and respectful, we now live in an age of mass media. In other words, people go to many different places to obtain information. Often that info comes from blogs and other sort of “news” services which have no obligation to be fair or respectful. Also, I think we’re missing Rusty’s main point. For example, when we talk about Catholics, we don’t talk about of the inquisition, the crusades or anti-semetism. Why? Because these past practices and doctrines have almost nothing to do with what Catholics actually believe and do on a daily basis.

    Comment by cj douglass — April 8, 2007 @ 11:07 am

  11. Last Lemming, Jeremiah J, media, John Williams,
    Well, I guess when I was talking about who encapsulates the Mormons in the manner that I said above I was thinking less those who write for established/legitimate publications and more those who write and comment on less-established publications and blogs. I recognize that professional journalists don’t treat us that way, even if they privately feel otherwise.

    John Williams,
    I think I could have written your first four paragraphs because I completely agree with them. But I certainly am not trying to run away from “the reality of our church’s past,” rather I think a peepstone in a hat has virtually nothing to do with what it means to be a member of the Church. What I’m saying is that many/most members don’t know about the peepstone, yet somehow they still live the Mormon lifestyle, still try to follow the commandments and most importantly they still believe in the Atonement. If someone were to ask you “in fifty words or less describe the Mormon religion” I’m doubting “peepstone” would find it’s way in that description, and I imagine the reason is because it’s not who we are, it has little/nothing to do with our beliefs and has no bearing on how we make our decisions that determine our lives.

    Exactly, that’s my exact point.

    Comment by Rusty — April 8, 2007 @ 1:55 pm

  12. CJ: “For example, when we talk about Catholics, we don’t talk about of the inquisition, the crusades or anti-semitism.”

    Who says ‘we’ don’t talk about those things? After the sex abuse scandal, Maureen Dowd compared the priesthood of the Catholic church to the Taliban. Mentioning the Inquisition when criticizing religion (especially Catholicism) has got to be almost as hackneyed as comparing very bad people to Hitler. If blogs are your standard, then there are plenty of anti-Catholic sites out there to pick from. Indeed, some Catholics think *they* are singled out for abuse (most believers are a lot more familiar with criticisms of their own religion than they are of criticisms of other religions, so they think the former are more prevalent). But rude, ignorant comments about just about everyone and everything are easily found on the internet. So I think that we are treated surprisingly well for a movement that claims between 1 and 2% of the U.S. population, and I also don’t think that the kind of hyper-sensitive religious discourse which sees discussions of polygamy, racism, etc. as taboo is healthy in a democracy.

    Comment by Jeremiah J. — April 8, 2007 @ 6:58 pm

  13. I agree, Rusty. Except that I’m most offended when the MSM (because, frankly, it’s not just blogs–it’s the mainstream) are so lazy that they get things wrong. Stuff that’s not that hard to find out (and if it hadn’t been such a long weekend and I weren’t exhausted, I’d think of an example). Stuff that a simple fact-check–probably even to Wikipedia–could help them get right. Because to me that says not only that Mormons are weird, but that we’re weird and irrelvant enough to do a little research on. I’ll blow of an anti- or ex-; I could care less about them. But laziness . . . . I mean, it’s your freakin’ job, MSM, to get the background right.

    But I rant.

    Comment by Sam B — April 8, 2007 @ 7:12 pm

  14. For what it’s worth, I watched the Chris MAtthews Show yesterday morning on NBC and they didn’t mention the Mormon church once. There were positive comments about Mitt Romney and his ability to raise vast sums of campaign money but there were also critical comments of Mitt because of his most recent gaffe claiming to be a “life long hunter” despite almost no actual experience in hunting.

    If Mitt Romney doesn’t get the Republican nomination I don’t think it will be because of anti-Mormon sentiment. It will be because of his own blunders and his tendency to switch his position on issues depending on the audience he’s speaking too. It seems to me that some of his recent record has done as much to damage the reputation of Mormons as any anti-Mormon sentiment expressed by ignorant bloggers.

    Comment by Lamonte — April 9, 2007 @ 4:44 am

  15. Good point Jeremiah,

    The Catholic church takes a ton of crap from all sorts of media.

    Can you imagine if the movie “The Exorcist” had been about a Mormon bishop instead of a Catholic priest? What about that Sean Connery movie “Name of the Rose?” Not to mention “The Da Vinci Code.” The list goes on.

    The Mormons have “The Godmakers” but it doesn’t even come close to the volume of negativity Catholicism gets.

    Comment by Seth R. — April 9, 2007 @ 11:09 am

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