Beliefs Culture

The 10 Best Stories About the ‘Mormon Moment’

The 2012 presidential campaign put Mormons and their Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints under an intense media spotlight. Mormonism was analyzed, criticized, praised, appreciated, and misunderstood in a deluge of articles, blogs, television shows and opinion pieces.

MormonVoices, a subsidiary of the Foundation for Apologetic Information and Research, kept a steady eye on the voluminous coverage, offering both praise and criticism. As we try to make sense of the “Mormon moment,” Religion News Service asked Mormon Voices to collect examples of the media at its best and worst.

To be clear, the views expressed below belong to FAIR, not Religion News Service. On Thursday we’ll post the Ten Worst stories about Mormonism, so stay tuned. And please feel free to offer suggestions of stories to consider in the comments section below.

The Ten Best Stories About Mormonism

(1) Naomi Schaefer Riley wrote an in-depth piece for Philanthropy Roundtable, investigating and explaining the Mormon welfare system and its importance in Mormon practice. Riley acknowledged the political connection to her story, but spent much more time communicating details about the welfare system and included several Mormon points of view. Riley’s piece is an excellent contribution to a thorough, in-depth understanding of Mormonism that many news stories lacked.

(2) Joel Kotkin, whose academic expertise in urban development is reflected in his journalism analyzing demographic and sociological trends, added substantially to understanding of Mormonism. His reporting included historical background, but focused much more on Mormons’ participation in society and politics without being sidetracked by obscure controversies that have little to do with Mormons’ everyday lives.

(3) NBC’s Rock Center, hosted by Brian Williams, devoted an entire prime-time program to Mormon belief and practice. Though some Mormons noticed a few inaccuracies, and took offense to the portrayal of sacred Mormon garments, many were also appreciative of the program’s overall even-handed and respectful tone. NBC clearly attempted, and mostly succeeded, to portray Mormons accurately, relevantly, and respectfully.

(4) David French is an opinion journalist and activist who headed the group Evangelicals for Mitt, and his coverage of Mormons was directly to a specifically evangelical audience. French makes clear that Mormon theology and his own Calvinism have important differences, but he also conveyed the true and even mundane details of Mormon practice to those who may have heard inaccurate accounts.

(5) The BBC went directly to the source to find out how Mormons think and act. They assembled a panel of Mormon church members in Salt Lake City and facilitated a wide-ranging discussion that produced several interesting insights. This good example was a stark contrast to other BBC offerings, which skipped even-handed reporting in favor of controversy.

(6) Coverage of the “Mormon moment” also included reporting how non-Mormons reacted to Mormons. Thomas C. Terry’s article in Inside Higher Ed explained several instances of bias against Mormons among academics and analyzed the implications of the separation between scholarly circles and most Mormons.

(7) In the Catholic journal First Things, Stephen H. Webb ensured that a vitally important but often-overlooked facet of Mormonism was insightfully explored: in his words, “Mormonism is obsessed with Christ.” Webb reads and explains the Book of Mormon, focusing not on a few phrases that can be related to political preoccupations, but showing its overall purpose.

(8) When Broadway put Mormon missionaries at the center of a popular show, “The Book of Mormon,” most audience members were no doubt smart enough to separate satire from realism. But would audience members be able to find any realistic sources to help them better appreciate the inside jokes? The New York Times filled this void with a lengthy account of actual Mormon missionaries serving in Uganda. The first-hand look into the missionaries’ words and actions is a valuable source for anyone interested in the young men behind the spoof.

(9) Mormon temples received a great deal of curiosity and speculation, which is natural considering their sacred rituals are not open to non-Mormons. Danielle Tumminio, an Episcopal priest, attended a temple “Open House,” wherein the public are allowed to tour a temple in its entirety prior to its dedication and closure to all but Mormons in good standing. Her analysis, while positive and even enthusiastic about the spiritual aspects of her visit, is praiseworthy more because it considered what temple worship means to Mormons.

(10) McKay Coppins of Buzzfeed and Peggy Fletcher Stack of Salt Lake Tribune are practicing Mormons. This gave them the opportunity to publish several articles demystifying Mormon belief and practice for an unfamiliar public. Their familiarity and thoroughness probably couldn’t have been duplicated by a non-Mormon reporter’s conversation with a few sources. Of course not all reporting on a religion can be done by its adherents, but as Mormon scholar Joanna Brooks suggested, much reporting on Mormons could be vastly improved with one simple step: a Mormon fact-checker.

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Scott Gordon and Cassandra Hedelius

24 Comments

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  • My recollection is that Peggy Fletcher Stack is not a Mormon, but a long time resident of Salt Lake City who is an excellent journalist and covers all religions evenhandedly.

    The point is well taken that having a fact checker who is Mormon, or at least well versed in what Mormons believe (ala Ms. Stack) would be a good idea for any news media story about the Mormons, simply because people come to these stories with such an ignorance of the ways that Mormon beliefs and practices are similar to, and also widely divergent from, those of Protestants, Catholics and other churches that believe in the New Testament. Most reporters are so ignorant that they don’t even know how ignorant they are.

    For instance, a cover story in Newsweek about Mitt Romney started out with the reporter being surprised that Mitt Romney was not very interested in an old building that had once housed the Mormon congregation in Detroit. The reporter assumed Romney would tell some nostalgic story about the pastor of the congregation, demonstrating that the reporter had no clue that Mormons don’t have professional clergy, and all leadership and teaching positions are fulfilled by members of the congregation as unpaid, part time workers. Indeed, the “pastor” of Mitt Romney’s boyhood years was often his own father, about whom he has told many admiring stories.

  • Just need to point out that Joanna Brooks is not a scholar, nor does she any more claim to be (at least via her blog). Referring to herself as a scholar while publishing unorthodox opinions may have brought her a lot of media attention, but opinions supported by anecdotal evidence does not a scholar make. After multiple callouts on the lack of scholarly evidence, Joanna revised her introduction and taglines on her website to exclude the word “scholar.”

  • I take it back. Just checked again and her new website’s bio reintroduced the idea that she is a scholar.

    I don’t mind unorthodox opinion. I just wish we would call it what it is–opinion.

  • Thanks for the recap. I appreciate the opportunity to look back and see the many ways the media portrayed the Mormons throughout the campaign.

  • As a retired LDS Religion Teacher (BYU & CES) I found Mr. Webb’s comments about the Mormons and Christ refreshing and on target. Thank you. Dr. S Beck

  • Before this article I had not been aware of Rev. Danielle Tumminio’s account of her visit to the Kansas City Missouri temple. Her explanation of the doctrine of baptism for the dead is the best I have seen. It makes clear a fundamental principle missed by those who are offended by the practice – no one is “made” a Mormon by the baptism, They are simply given the opportunity to chose to become a Mormon, one they may not have had in their lifetime. Her sensitivity to that vital detail is appreciated.

  • Thank you for bringing this collection of articles to our attention. A positive outcome of the election has been having reporters seek the facts about LDS beliefs. What a welcome relief!

    As an adult, long ago I adjusted to the misinformation–knowing that these writers simply lacked the facts. But, imagine our children’s feelings as they have read textbooks and news articles filled with ridiculous falsehoods and inaccuracies about their/our faith. So, I thank these writers not only on my own behalf, but especially on behalf of LDS children and youth.

  • The evolving even-handedness of coverage in the Mormon Moment took a time, but ultimately led to some legitimate good coverage and improved understanding.

  • Great after election round up of stories. Looks like I missed a couple along the way. I hope I’ve missed more on the worst list.

  • I appreciate those in the media who take the time and make the effort to understand such a complex religion. It would be so much easier, and attention-getting, to just pick out some fact that sounds different and hold it up to ridicule. The way that each reporter chose to write the story sometimes tells a lot more about the reporter than it does the religion.

  • Thanks for sharing these even-handed reports on Mormonism. Keep up the good work. We would all do well to learn about others by asking them and not their critics.

  • Bless the hearts of all those who took the time to go to the official source for our beliefs! Thanks for posting this collection of these articles.
    Sometime I have found myself between groans and laughter over the hurtful and ignorant articles.
    — just this morning I saw one saying ” who knows what is in the Mormon Bible?” — since the KJV is the LDS standard along with the Book of Mormon – (both of which anyone can receive from LDS shipping free even!)
    The very question is ignorant. Sad!

  • A lot of these were really interesting – it’s amazing how differently some people view our religion when they don’t know a lot about it, so it’s nice to have people taking the time to check out the facts!

  • I had seen most of those articles and it was a very nice recap. NBC did a good enough job with the hour long broadcast but I do believe the Temple Open House article was the best. She did a wonderful job of explaining her own experience.

  • How about incuding the study done early in the year by David T. Smith that showed that 34.8% of Americans indicated that were less likely to vote for a Mormon presidential candidate. The Study was largely ignored. Perhaps if Republicans had paid more attention to this story, there would have been no Mormon Movement and Obama would have been defeated.

    The study indicated that many Evangelicals would stay home. This definately happened.

    Instead of celebrating the articles that stoked the egos of the Mormon leadership, we should look at the articles that correctly identfied the failings of the Mormon church and how those failings ruined Romney’s chances.

    Of course, one of the critiques of FAIR is that they have a hard time dealing with the truth.

  • @Lorren Vissor:
    “How about incuding the study done early in the year by David T. Smith that showed that 34.8% of Americans indicated that were less likely to vote for a Mormon presidential candidate.”

    Why do you think that should appear in a list of the top ten best stories? It’s not even a story about Mormonism, but about anti-Mormon bigotry.

    @Lorren Vissor:
    “Instead of celebrating the articles that stoked the egos of the Mormon leadership, we should look at the articles that correctly identfied the failings of the Mormon church and how those failings ruined Romney’s chances.”

    It’s not obvious to me how uninformed prejudice on the part of others manages to become a failing on the part of those who are the targets of that prejudice.

  • I am most familiar with the Rock Center piece. I feel it was a high water mark for the main stream media to come so close to a balanced portrayal of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but they clearly hit below the belt when they sensationalized sacred garments. Nevertheless, the awesome view of the Church’s Bishops Storehouse in Salt Lake City overwhelmed the the tasteless parts of their show. How could anyone look at all those commodities (food, water, shelter, tools, etc.); all of which is destined to be freely given to those in need without regard to religion, race, sex, nationality…just need. If that isn’t the bullseye of profound Christianity, what is?

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