The New York Times Sunday Review has a Mormon Problem

The New York Times Sunday Review should be embarrassed about the quality of its writing on Mormonism. While Times readers can rely on excellent coverage of the faith of the presumptive GOP nominee from religion reporter Laurie Goodstein, over at the Sunday Review, since last fall, we’ve witnessed a parade of gratuitous and ill-informed bloviation.

This week, the source is cultural critic Lee Siegel. Siegel once decried the rushed, snarky, bullying tactics of “blogofascism,” but this Sunday he indulged them freely in the Times with an opportunistic swipe at the very obvious “whiteness” of Mitt Romney.

Should Romney be engaged on the racial dimensions and consequences of his politics and policies? Yes, and with seriousness and rigor.

But in attempting to link Romney’s whiteness to Mormon theology, Siegel showcases profound ignorance of contemporary Mormonism.

He writes, “There is no stronger bastion of pre-civil-rights-America whiteness than the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Yes, since 1978 the church has allowed blacks to become priests. But Mormonism is still imagined by its adherents as a religion founded by whites, for whites, rooted in a millenarian vision of an America destined to fulfill a white God’s plans for earth.”

Fact check, anyone?

The LDS Church’s regrettable denial of the lay priesthood to men of African descent is a matter of historical record. (For a detailed discussion of the ban, its origins, and its termination, please read here and here.) 

But Siegels’ characterization of Mormonism as a “white God’s” plan “for whites” would come as news to millions of members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Asia, Latin America, and Africa who have claimed Mormonism as their own.

Missionary proselytizing certainly entails its own racial problematics, and one will find in the annals of Mormonism as much racial chauvinism as you’ll find in the history of any other conservative American denomination. But Mormons do not view conversion as a project to redeem other peoples from benightedness. It has historically been viewed as the fulfillment of a of a millenarian prophecy that the “gospel” will be taught to “every nation, kindred, and tongue.” As it turns out, Mormons envision the millennium in technicolor. 

That vision and the belief that American indigenous peoples held a central place in Mormon sacred history motivated Joseph Smith to initiate contact with American Indian nations in the Church’s earliest years. LDS missionary efforts in Hawaii and the South Pacific followed soon after. (Today, between 20 and 30% of the nations of Tonga and Samoa are LDS.) People of Asian, Asian Pacific, Latin American, and indigenous American descent have never been restricted from ordination, a fact Siegel blithely ignores. Church membership in the U.S. is still predominately white, a reflection of the ethnicity of the religion’s founders (and their prodigious birthrates) but global Mormonism is an entirely different story—and that’s a change LDS people welcome. 

In his ignorance, Siegel follows Harold Bloom, who weighed in with an astoundingly incoherent and “dread”-ful jeremiad against Romney’s Mormonism last November. And Maureen Dowd, who continues to outsource her columns on Romney’s Mormonism to purveyors of smack and sensationalism, like Bill Maher and the authors of the latest Romney tell-all biography.  Polygamy reference? Check. Gratuitous exposure of Mormon ceremonial clothing? Check.  Implications of sinistererness? Check. 

Not in recent memory has the nation’s paper of record published well-conceived, well-executed commentaries on the faith of the presumptive GOP nominee by people who actually understand Mormonism and its fascinating position in American political life: experts like Kathleen Flake of Vanderbilt (who is LDS) and Sarah Gordon of the University of Pennsylvania (who is not). 

It continues to be acceptable editorial practice at the New York Times to talk about Mormons as if we are not participants in national conversation—as if we’re not even in the room.  Celebrity cultural critics with little to no working knowledge of Mormonism have access and license.  Experts need not apply.

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Joanna Brooks is the author of The Book of Mormon Girl: A Memoir of an American Faith (Free Press / Simon & Schuster, 2012) and a senior correspondent for Religion Dispatches.