Thursday, June 21, 2007

A Mormon Guide for Journalists

Considering all of the attention the media is giving to Mormonism, a quick guide would be handy. Obviously, these are just suggestions and probably no journalist will actually take notice. It contains must read interviews, comments on repeated statements, clarifications, style usages, and etc. There is really no reason a reporter should be ignorant of at least some basics with as much information and sources available.

Start with must read interviews. The following should be read by every news reporter before they start a story. Many answers to questions can be found in these insightful interviews. Keep in mind these are qualified individuals, but not official statements:

Mormonism and Democratic Politics: Are They Compatible?, with Richard Bushman and the Pew Forum. Best to start here than anywhere.

This can be followed up with Elder D. Todd Christofferson, a member of the Presidency of the Seventy, a church leadership body.

Another good Pew Forum interview is with the church's general counsel Lance B. Wickman and Elder Russell M. Nelson of the church's Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. Many of the same questions should be covered like the above, so there is no reason not to have answers available.

A good mix, actually better than the show itself, is the PBS Interviews, including the President of the LDS Church, Gordon B. Hinkley. For better reference of context read Who's Who on "The Mormons" for each person represented on the PBS show and the extended online interviews.

Technically, this isn't an interview. However, it might be helpful to read Ken Jenings' advise to would be writers on the Mormon topic.

There is no secret doctrines in Mormonism, only lazy research. As Richard Bushman stated in the Interview above, "There are things that go on in the temple that are not talked about outside the temple, but they are not really doctrine; it is really a set of rituals that are practiced in the temple that are not discussed." In other words, whatever Mormons teach might be confusing, unusual, and unfamiliar, but they are not hard to find. All it takes is a little "heavy" reading material.

Here are some official sources:

Start with the Scriptures that Mormons use for doctrine. This includes the Bible, Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants, and Pearl of Great Price.

Go to Gospel Topics section for quick reference guide to individual subjects.

Even more information can be found in the LDS Church Ensign magazine. There you can find a treasure of statements about doctrine from general members to LDS Church leadership. It is best to pay attention to the Semi-annual General Conference talks. That is where most of the official business takes place.

Don't forget to visit the official LDS Newsroom for more help.

Of course, all of this can be found at The LDS Church web site. Any place can be visited, but these are good starting points.

For a cornicopia of information outside of "official channels" there is always the diverse Mormon Archipelago filled with any number of Mormon viewpoints. Like any group of people, opinions are as varied as the individuals.

Just remember, as quoted from an article at the LDS Newsroom about doctrine, not everything is of equal stature:

Some doctrines are more important than others and might be considered core doctrines. For example, the precise location of the Garden of Eden is far less important than doctrine about Jesus Christ and His atoning sacrifice. The mistake that public commentators often make is taking an obscure teaching that is peripheral to the Church’s purpose and placing it at the very center. This is especially common among reporters or researchers who rely on how other Christians interpret Latter-day Saint doctrine.

Be aware of Style and Definitions. Although the general readership might not know the difference, every journalist has been taught bad style, spelling, and word usage can be unprofessional.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. This is the official name of the Church. It is best to include the full name at first mention. Although the official Church would like it to be refered to as "The Church of Jesus Christ" after the first full mention, that might not be politically acceptable. However, calling it the "Mormon Church" is equally unacceptable. It should be called the "LDS Church" after the first mention.

Mormon or Mormonism. The name "Mormon" can refer to individual members, although "Latter-day Saint" is probably a better designation. The word itself comes from "The Book of Mormon" that Mormons hold as Scripture just as they do the Bible. Mormon is the name of the person said to have anciently edited and compiled "The Book of Mormon" and is considered a prophet from long ago. Any reference to doctrine and practices can be called "Mormonism" without problem.

Gentiles. This is a name that Mormons have not used in at least two generations, if it ever was much at all. It can designate those who are not Mormon, but is more a religious term rather than practical one. Instead, Mormons use "member/Mormon" and "non-member/Mormon" for those in and outside of the LDS Church. Anyone who might be a member of record who doesn't or rarely follows the faith is often called "less-active" in some situations. Jews are not considered "Gentiles" by any Mormon who understands the religious implications. Therefore, any Jews who might say they are only "Gentiles" while in Utah or among Mormons is technically incorrect. They are considered of the House of Israel.

Houses of Worship. There are two kinds of houses of worship in Mormonism. The first is a "Ward house," "Church," or "Chapel." These are for weekly Sunday church services where members have Communion, give sermons/talks, and have Sunday School. Other social functions with more or less religious purposes can happen throughout the week. A "Stake house" is a Church that is designated the center of a small geographic area with other churches.

A "Temple" is a special place where Mormons go for sacred rituals. Only Mormons who have been found to have faith in the basics of the teachings and of moral character are allowed to attend. It is open Mon.-Sat., with Sunday set aside for regular worship. Non-members are not allowed inside unless through an open house before it is designated for religous activity.

Baptism for the Dead. This is the reason for so much genealogy work among Mormons. Although members of the LDS Church don't often use the clarification themselves, it is best to call it "proxy baptisms for the dead" rather than leaving out the first word. What that means is that in the Temple where special rituals are performed, a worthy member is baptised in behalf of a person who has died without a Mormon baptism. Those who have the proxy work done for them are considered free to accept or reject the religious performance. Ideally this work is only done for relatives only, but that isn't always the case.

President. This designation can come before Pres. Hinkley, the Prophet and leader of the LDS Church and his two councelors. It can also be the designation for the leader of a Stake who oversees a small group of congregations.

Elder. Most of the higher and general leadership of the Church can have this designation before their names. This includes members of the Quorum of the Twelve and the Quorum of Seventy. It also can be the desination for male missionaries who have been sent out to preach the Gospel, although females are called Sisters in this capacity.

Some corrections on repeated statements about Mormonism. There are some things that seem to get repeated often, but not with complete accuracy. Obviously, only a limited amount of space is available with an article. A complicated theological lesson is not realistic. Regardless, some minor corrections need to be made in fairness toward the subject. For a great list of the most basic teachings, read The Thirteen Articles of Faith for starters.

From an evangelical who with an open mind writes for Article VI Blog, another must read:

The larger issue is this idea in the e-mail that states, "The LDS Jesus is not the same Jesus of the Christian faith.

The banality of that assertion is astonishing. Jesus is an historical figure - a person who existed. There were not two guys that ran around Israel, under Rome, preached the Sermon on the Mount, that were crucified and resurrected, by the name of "Jesus." The same person in history is venerated by Mormons and creedals alike. What is different is how those two relgions interpret the nature and ministry of that historical figure. In other words Mormons and creedals have different theology.

Mormons view God and Jesus as separate beings, both of flesh and blood.

This is both true and false. First, Jesus only had "flesh and blood" when he was a mortal before his death and resurrection. The more accurate statement would be, "Mormons view God and Jesus as having a Glorified body of Flesh and Bone, quickened by the Spirit."

the Book of Mormon describes dark skin as a divine mark of disfavor.

Again, this is only part of the story. A good description would be, "In the past, church leadership tried to understand the reason for the priesthood ban for blacks. Many saw the black skin, although there were those who disagreed, as a curse of Cain similar to the reasoning of pro-slavery Christians. The "Book of Mormon" describes a similar curse of blackening of the skin for ancient Native Americans, but not as a priesthood damnation. It often warned against treating others badly because of that same skin color change."

In other words, to compare the priesthood ban and the rampant theologizing of the reasoning with what happens in the "Book of Mormon" is to compare apples to oranges; at best both are fruit.

Women cannot get to heaven without men.

A better description would be, "Mormons believe in the absolute necessity of marriage in the afterlife. A man and woman must be married in order to make it to the Mormon's belief in the highest degree of Heaven. No man or woman can reach that without the other."

A person will be excommunicated for not following the Prophet in Salt Lake City.

This has been answered since the early 1900s when a little known Mormon politician named Reed Smoot was elected. The book The Politics of American Religious Identity: The Seating of Senator Reed Smoot, Mormon Apostle by Kathleen Flake is a must read on the topic. As John at Article VI Blog states, "The vision of the CJCLDS presented by this book and the events it describes is one quite typical of a democratic organization. Strife, conflict, discussion and resolution are all at play here. Hardly the stuff of a prophet driven cult." And Richard L Bushman adds that there is a difference between what happens because of theology and church government and what happens because of politics.

In case your wondering, the answer is "No."

Mormons believe they can become Gods and own their own planets

This is the interpretation of Mormon doctrine from those who are not believers. There is no such doctrine in existance. It is true that this can be speculated from some other doctrines, but it is not an article of faith. The best that can be said is,"Eventually, Mormons believe, it is possible to become like God. What that means is up to debate within the religion, but at the least it means becoming fathers and mothers in Heaven."

The Constitution of the United States has been prophecied to "hang by a thread," and Mormon Elders/a Elder will save it.

As has been reported, this is part of a larger "prophecy" that has been denounced by LDS Church leaders for over a generation. There is a belief that the U.S. Constitution will hang by a thread, but not that the Mormons will take over or destroy it. Rather, that Mormons (I am not aware of a "single" Mormon) will step in and SAVE the U.S. Constitution from destruction. By the way, that means every part of it, including the freedom of religion.

LDS Missionaries can be a political force.

The role of a Missionary is purely spiritual. It is true that once or twice in the past they have been used for spreading a political message, but that was when the very existance of the church because of politics was in jeopardy. Today and for the past few generations the only role is to spread the Gospel as taught in Mormonism. As should be well known, to do otherwise has serious political and economic consiquences. The repeated statements of nuetrality of the LDS Church in personal and party politics (outside of what it sees as moral reasons) would be shattered.

Just remember, as John wrote,"Mormons are like anyone else; they have a wide range of political and religious views– including interpretations of their own beliefs." Because of that, the last great advice to journalists is don't simplify Mormons or Mormonism if you are going for fairness and accuracy. Actually talk to some.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Clowns to the Left and Jokers to the Right

As a conservative Mormon I have been having an existential dilemma. The religion is stuck between two places that are making it very uncomfortable to find a seat in at least the American landscape. Nothing new there. It has always been that way, but only recently has it become possible to fit better in one or the other. There are Mormons infused (by average if not numbers) in all corners of society; many active religiously. However, it is still too tight to fit more than a toe into any pre-fab social hole.

The question was asked in an interview with Richard L. Bushman about Mormons and politics:

. . . who would be some intellectual allies that Mormons and others who might be the butt of the same charge [of irrationality] might find outside their own faith tradition? In other words, where are their intellectual allies for responding to this conception of rationality?

It could be added both intellectual and moral allies. Richard Bushman responds:

Well, their natural allies, which are all conservative Christians, refuse to accept them as allies, and that makes it very difficult.

Indeed, and that is what is so infuriating. There is no secret that Creedal Christians have serious reservations about the Christianity of Mormons. Without any hesitation a large portion of them label Mormons more than non-Christian, but often "cult" as if that means anything beyond the emotional rhetoric of hatred. They dance around vague definitions as if that excuses them from putting a scary mark on a large group of mostly respectable citizens. Never mind that the LDS Church holds very similar ethical and moral positions that has kept the vast majority of members voting Republican and Conservative.

Some few have thrown out the possibility that Mormons should jump ship and cross over to the Democratic side. They could take up the more liberal ideas of fighting poverty, protecting the environment, and social justice. As a Mormon conservative, even I can see how such things can fit in with the historical and theological Mormon philosophy. Tempting as that sounds, it is fraught with an equal amount of hostility that doesn't bode well for tipping the scales.

Harry Reid is a perfect example. Mormons are, by nature of its teachings, a very religious group that is uncomfortable with compartmentalizing. We are to be witnesses of God and Jesus Christ everywhere and in everything; at least by personal behavior. When Harry Reid, that very visible Mormon in Washington, was picked as a leader things looked good. He was, apparently, pro-life and against gay marriage among other conservative positions. At last there was hope he would be a beacon of moderation in a very left Democratic Party.

Sadly, it turned out with Harry Reid very horrible. Moderation went out the door and in its place a shrill puppet of the extreme liberal Democrat movement. Every time he opens his mouth it is to attack Bush, the War, Republicans, and Conservatives. Not once has he said anything about how awful abortion is or anything positive about the institution of marriage between a man and woman. In fact, I don't believe he has said anything at all about God or Religion. Many use him to say that good Mormons can be Democrats. The best that can be said about that is, sure if they shut their mouths and don't talk about it except in the cloistered halls of home and chapel.

Another positive for Mormons joining the liberal Democrat Party, some would say, is they are more tolerant toward minorities. It has been proven by the Article VI Blog how wrong that presumption can be with religion. They have been arguing (and with evidence from Op-eds and news reports to the man on the street who won't even shake a Mormon's hand while making it clear why) that the liberals have been far more disdainful than conservatives. Of course the left has been attacking religion in general, unless you can treat it as a moral myth that is secondary to the liberal agenda. The argument of the blog is not completely persuasive, thus the reason for bringing the issue up.

That leaves Mormons with few options if they want to have some say in at least American life:

They could stick with the Republicans. There isn't anything indicating this will change any time soon. Most Mormons still feel strongly the conservative movement is their movement, and that is in the Republican side of the political system. Nothing has happened yet to push things over the edge. It is ironic that the Religious Right is worried about Mormon power, and yet many comments from them indicate they are the ones who want to create a theocratic "Christian" nation.

They could become Democrats in protest to the Religious Right's theological purity standards. The only way that could happen is if Mormons were given a sense of empowerment. The Democratic Party would have to tone down its heavily liberal stances and become open to religious views. As Harry Reid has shown, at least in the minds of the Republican voting Mormons, that isn't a possibility in the near future. Currently, even more than the Religious Right dominated Republican Party where Mormons can at least tap a shoulder, the Democrats would be telling Mormons to sit in the back of the bus.

Go it alone. It happened at the end of the 19th Century, but with no positive outcome. This could only be if most Mormons felt satisfied to hold on as a regional power. In the worst case, maybe influence Utah and Idaho. Of course, if this happened then accusation of "theocracy" would be intensified. On the other hand, playing the cards correctly could be tangentially influential. The Mormons could start a party that promises inclusion of ANY conservative religious organization that the present Religious Right of the Republican Party shuts out. Certainly this could include Jews, Muslims, Hindus, etc. who might otherwise be on the political periphery. Of course, even that depends on how inclusive exclusive religions can become when sharing common goals.

All that can really be said is that, if trends hold, something has gotta' give in the Mormon political landscape.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

The Francher Party and Forgiveness/Repentance

While reading articles online, I came across a review of September Dawn about the Mountain Meadows Massacre. What struck me wasn't the review itself, but a few of the comment exchanges. Particulary interesting was one poster who claims to be a relative of members of the Francher Party that were killed. The vindictive against Mormons sounded absolutely over the top. No doubt the writer would claim it is nothing of the sort. Of course, a Mormon responded by the usual explanation that to understand the context is part of understanding the actions. Not surprising the self-identified Francher relative completely went unhinged at the idea that context means anything. Considering this person basically called Mormons murderers, its past and current leaders as unholy bigots, and compared us to child abusers, I found one of the comments rather ironic:

The hubris is the same stunning stuff that made for the trouble in the early states. What continues to mystify me is how so many church members can look to this institution for spiritual leadership when it is unable, in the space of 150 years, to find an open measure of humility and humanity to demonstrate repentance, as an example to its people of how to take responsibility and offer sincere apology when wrong.

with such vindictive on the side of the poster I can't help questioning if they understand what "humility" and "forgiveness" means. Reading the rest of it doesn't get any better or consilitory for either side. Thoughts kept going through my mind that century long bloody wars have started with these kinds of back and forth accusations.

Now, I don't bring this up to fight about who is to blame or what exactly happened. In fact, I will be watching very carefully the comments made (if any) and probably even close down the comments section. My reason for bring this painful subject up is to discuss exactly what is forgiveness and repentance in a situation like this? Should the offended get everything they want to show contrition? Yes would seem like the right answer, but history (particularly WWI) proves doing that can make things worse. It is an institutional problem or an individual one? Who should be in charge of officially repenting? Who should be in charge of accepting that repentance and forgiving? What if one side doesn't believe they are fully to blame, but still acknowledges the actions? On the other hand, what if the other side won't forgive?

The exchange in the review sounded completely personal on both sides in a way I had never encountered. Usually, the arguments have been at least academic and level headed even when sensational. It is also possible to see when it is an anti-Mormon religious hit piece (and I am still not sure that isn't what this is) because other unrelated "beliefs" are trotted out for scorn. The down and dirty side of the responses (invoking 911 and those "evil" Muslims for goodness sake!) came as a shock. Mostly the surprise comes because I really don't know if Francher Party relatives are actually as angry and out for justice as much as this person seems to insist. At any rate, loving your enemies and doing good to those who hate you is probably the hardest thing to do, especially when it is claimed the criticism is out of love.