From Murderous to ‘MORG’: Mormonism Meets the Press

It’s difficult to escape the sense that something is still missing from press coverage of Romney’s Mormonism.

Witness the Sunday New York Times above-the-fold front page article “Romney’s Faith, Silent but Deep” by Jodi Kantor, a long story that presents the candidate’s Mormonism as rules-oriented, wholesome, and prayerful.

That same day the Washington Post investigated the potential impact of the 1857 Mountain Meadows Massacre—an attack by Mormons in southern Utah on a wagon-train from Arkansas—on the 2012 campaign.

This split between Mormons imagined as murderous bearded polygamists and clean-cut company men reflects a larger division in coverage of Mormonism this season between the sensational and the sanitized.

And it’s no wonder that political journalists and religion scholars alike are expressing hunger for something more.

Yesterday, in USA Today, religion scholar and author Steven Prothero lamented Romney’s own failure to engage the “Mormon moment,” blaming the quality of coverage on the general politicization of religion in the public sphere: 

Not so long ago, Romney would have had to explain Mormon theology to voters in some detail. But now that religion has collapsed almost entirely into morality, all he has to do is assure us that its values are compatible with our own. I do not want liberals or evangelicals to use this election as an excuse to attack the Mormon faith… But I am chagrined to see our public square stripped of real religious conversation. Has the religious right pushed so hard to reinvest our politics with religion only to turn our religion into politics?

Prothero ends his essay with the expectation that he and others will continue to have questions about the Mormon faith this year and that “lots of people will doubtless step up to answer [those] questions.” Says Prothero, “One of them ought to be Mitt Romney.”

That’s doubtful. Whether by dint of his pragmatic personality or by official campaign strategy, Romney continues to studiously avoid open discussion of his religion, preferring instead to stress only the elements of his faith that align with campaign priorities. (Clayton Christensen, another Harvard-affiliated, business world-molded Mormon leader has emerged lately as a Romney media surrogate.)

Romney’s reticence can be understood as a feature of the late twentieth century LDS corporate culture that formed and rewarded him. Late twentieth century corporate LDS Church culture strongly emphasized disciplined messaging (also known as “correlation”) as well as individual obedience and cultural conservatism (call it “retrenchment”) in the service of institutional growth. It’s worth noting that correlated, retrenched corporate Mormonism (insiders sometimes call it the “MORG”) is not the only way to do Mormonism, but it is the way Mitt Romney has practiced Mormonism and it is the brand of Mormonism that found institutional ascendancy in the late twentieth century.

It’s worth noting too that late twentieth century corporate-institutional Mormonism openly discouraged and even stigmatized critical inquiry into Mormon experience. In 1981 a high-ranking Church leader admonished Mormon scholars that “some things that are true are not very useful.” Critical inquiry within a faith tradition lays the groundwork for critical dialogue about religion in the public sphere. Without a contemporary tradition of internal debate, Mormons like Romney may find ourselves less prepared to participate in a robust public give-and-take about our own faith.

There are, of course, some outstanding examples that countervail this general trend.

Peggy Fletcher Stack of the Salt Lake Tribune has been providing thoughtful and nuanced coverage of Mormonism for decades, while more recently McKay Coppins of BuzzFeed has emerged as an invaluable source on the faith angles of Romney’s candidacy. Matthew Bowman (who recently wrote about the emergence of the LDS corporate culture), Kathleen Flake, Kristine Haglund, and Ben Park are among the LDS scholars whose expertise on questions of Mormon history and culture should be featured in the press.

But it seems that the problem the press faces now is knowing what constitutes an informed and critical question about Mormonism: how to inquire probingly about a religion that is so young, so unfamiliar, without appearing anti-religious or anti-Mormon. What are the questions to ask?

Perhaps it’s worth remembering that Mitt Romney represents one variety of Mormonism: a late twentieth century corporate institutional Mormonism focused on growth. Every corporate growth strategy has winners and losers, and there are losers in the institutional history of Mormonism too. Who lost? How were they treated? Where did they go? How do the winners of late twentieth century corporate institutional Mormonism (like Romney) relate to the losers?

If that sounds too much like a story about Bain Capital, let me translate these questions into religious terms. Conflict between individual conscience and institutional mandates is a timeless religion story—think Abraham, Augustine, the Reformation. How individuals process and manage such conflicts discloses important information about the nature of their faith, their methods of decision-making, and the quality of their moral deliberation. Is there any moment at which Mitt Romney found himself in conflict with his own Church? 

We know, for example, that Romney (like many other Mormons) celebrated the Church’s lifting of the 1978 ban on black ordination. How did he feel about the ban before that time? Did he experience a conflict between individual conscience and institutional policies? How did he understand the value and the costs of the Church’s segregation? How did he manage it? What did he learn about authority, fairness, and conflict from this important period in LDS history?

This is the rugged interior landscape of faith—scholars call it “interiority.” Regular people call it “soul.” I know that Mormonism has soul, and I’m quite certain Mitt Romney does too. But if Romney really is just a by-the-book decision maker who always finds himself in perfect harmony with the priorities of large corporations—religious or financial—voters should probably know that as well. 

Perhaps this is the place for serious journalists to dig in.