This week, the Reverend Welton Gaddy, president of the Interfaith Alliance, a national association of 185,000 progressive people of faith, criticized Fox News for its recent segment ridiculing Mormon beliefs. In a letter to Fox News Memphis reporter Ben Ferguson, news anchor Darrell Greene, and station manager John Koski, Gaddy expressed his concern over the way “religion” was being made an “electoral tool” in a segment that “seems simply to make a joke out of a major religion’s doctrine.”
“To the benefit of absolutely no one, your segment simply perpetuated misperceptions and misunderstandings of the beliefs of the Mormon faith,” wrote Gaddy. “Every religion, every belief system has aspects that could seem unconventional to non-adherents, and even to some adherents.”
Today, I spoke to Reverend Gaddy about the letter and the larger stakes of civil discourse about religion during the 2012 election season.
First, thank you for speaking up in criticism of Fox News. I believe you are the first faith leader to go on record against this particular instance of anti-Mormon expression. Tell me a little bit about the Interfaith Alliance.
We are a national grassroots organization that looks at the intersection of religion, politics, and government through the lens of religious freedom. We try to challenge religious extremism and warn people against an entanglement between government and religion, and we use times of electoral campaigns as teachable moments for a proper relationship between religion and politics and religion and government.
How did your letter come about?
We saw in that segment the kind of biased reporting that seemed completely insensitive to another religion’s basic images, values, and theology. It is not that we agree or disagree with a particular religion. We simply understand that if one religion is vulnerable to such attacks, all religions are.
Have you gotten any response?
I have not. I have no response from the station. I had one or two responses from people who were not pleased that I wrote a critique of the segment.
A lot of Mormons are bracing for the 2012 campaign season, anticipating more distorting caricatures of ourselves and our beliefs: magic underwear, planets, Garden of Eden, you name it. What are the larger stakes—not just for Mormons, but for everyone—when minority religions are ridiculed, especially in connection with electoral politics?
I’m not in any way trying to compare Mormonism with Islam, but the same thing has happened to both religions. People who have a very short-sighted view of religious freedom assume that a minority religion can be attacked in a way that a majority religion cannot be. I say a short-sighted view because if any religion is vulnerable to that kind of attack, every religion is. Our interest—people have a hard time understanding this—is not that we don’t want religion to be in the news, or that we don’t want religion to be a factor in people’s lives—we do. It’s the protection of religion and its integrity that motivates us.
Some Mormons tend to feel like we are singled out for special negative attention: that casual anti-Mormon sentiment is among the last acceptable prejudices. From where you sit, is that true?
You know, the strange thing is that minority religious groups have never been free from undue criticism and attacks in our nation. Incredibly, people who were persecuted in Europe for being minorities came to these shores and once they were in the majority began to criticize minorities. The First Amendment came about because of minority religious groups like Baptists, Jews, Unitarians, and secularists who insisted on religious freedom. Mormons should be aware not as a means of pacification but for understanding that Jews have gone through this in this land and still do to a certain extent. Roman Catholics experienced the same kind of thing. There is a sick sense of majoritarianism in this land that makes it very difficult for minority religious people to feel at home.
I’d suggest that Muslims in America may have it worse than Mormons.
Absolutely. What’s tragic about this is that two Mormon candidates for president are having to answer questions about the Mormon Church rather than having time to talk about why or why they would not be good people to be elected. Certainly there are times to talk about the faith of a candidate, but not in terms of a kind of interrogation. The emphasis on faith is only a part of personal identity. It has nothing to do with their capacity to lead.
Mormons tend to assume that political and religious conservatives are our natural allies. Yet conservative evangelicals are also among our greatest antagonists in the public sphere, and they do not typically speak up to challenge anti-Mormon expression as you have. What opportunities do you see for collaboration between progressive people of faith and Mormons?
I would say to the Mormon community that Interfaith Alliance should be one of their best friends in terms of arguing for a full acceptance of the rights of Mormons in this country. We in the last election cycle were very up front about the injustice of Governor Romney being attacked because of his Mormon faith. I grew up a Southern Baptist so I know that just because people share conservative values and conservative theology does not mean that they are automatically accepting of each other. We have to come somehow to understand that the call for acceptance is not an acceptance of each others’ beliefs but of each others’ rights to believe.
You state that Mormonism is widely misunderstood, despite LDS Church-led efforts to rebrand the faith such as the national “I’m a Mormon” campaign. How can we promote better understanding?
I actually think the LDS Church is being very responsible in trying to identify itself in an understandable way. I think ironically the Church is going to benefit from the popularity of the Book of Mormon musical on Broadway. And beyond that, Mormons simply need to persist in demonstrating that they are good citizens in this country who believe in the Constitution and want to be supportive and helpful in the nation. I think what we saw on that segment from Memphis was a reporter who was completely out of touch with what Mormonism is and with the rights that all religions have in this nation. I was repulsed by his insensitivity and almost comedic treatment of the Mormon Church. No religion deserves that in this land. He is not going to be as cryptic and as critical in analysis when evaluating other religions’ doctrines as he was evaluating Mormon doctrine. At the end of the day, that was all about politics, it wasn’t about religion.