Featuring Mitt Romney's head on the body of a leaping Mormon missionary, Newsweek's cover story this week – titled "The Mormon Moment" — has some Latter-day Saints leery about what the feature might say concerning their faith.
"Don't judge the story by its cover alone," said Newsweek reporter McKay Coppins, an active Mormon who worked closely on the project. "I think members of the (LDS) Church will find that the package treats Mormonism fairly."
Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints might take issue with some of the wording in the article, like calling the temple ceremonies "secretive," or making casual reference to the LDS temple garment, which members consider sacred.
Yet some Latter-day Saints will likely be pleased with the article's positive message reflected in its headline: "Mormons Rock!: They've conquered Broadway, talk radio, the U.S. Senate — and they may win the White House. Why Mitt Romney and 6 million Mormons have the secret to success."
"The article is refreshing and very positive," said LDS scholar Phil Barlow, a professor of Mormon studies at Utah State University. Indeed, the piece, which offers a secular defense of Mormonism, reads at times like a sales pitch for the faith.
Written by author Walter Kirn along with Coppins — a former contributor to the Deseret News and Mormon Times — Andrew Romano and David A. Graham, the article points out a general reluctance among LDS politicians to discuss their faith in public.
"In recent weeks, Newsweek called every one of the 15 Mormons currently serving in the U.S. Congress to ask if they would be willing to discuss their faith," the article states. "The only politicians who agreed to speak on the record were the four who represent districts with substantial Mormon populations. The rest were 'private about their faith,' or 'politicians first and Mormons second,' according to their spokespeople."
The authors argue that this hesitancy is unwarranted because there is a strong pro-Mormon argument to be made that "centers on the distinctive values and characteristics that have come to define Mormons outside the church walls – in their communities, in their careers, and in the culture at large." The article posits that the LDS Church's unique culture and theology create a proven formula for producing American "winners." Featuring interviews with various successful Mormons in business, academia and politics, Newsweek says there is a strong case for the church and that LDS politicians should start making it.
"The thrust of the article," Coppins said, "is that Mormonism's history of persecution, along with its doctrinal emphasis on education and eternal progression, results in a church full of highly motivated, successful people. When you look at it from a sociological standpoint, that's really one of the church's greatest achievements."
Not all LDS would agree.
"The article has merely selected various straws in the wind that evidence Mormonism's growing visibility in the broader culture," said Ralph Hancock, a BYU professor and president of the John Adams Center for faith and public affairs. "The LDS Church's success must be measured by its own standard and not by assimilation or success in mainstream culture."
Though more positive about the piece, Barlow also lamented the article's general neglect of LDS teachings of service, faith, charity, self-reliance, centrality of freedom, responsibility, family and industry, which he said "are all important sociological factors in understanding how Mormonism shapes successful people."
Yet ultimately, as LDS Church spokesman Scott Trotter noted in a statement, "Those hoping to understand the Church and its teachings will want to supplement their reading with other material."
The article is yet more evidence that the LDS Church is in the spotlight of national media. This is the first time a Mormon has been on the cover of Newsweek since the magazine featured a profile of Mitt Romney in October 2007. That article also concentrated on Mormonism, but in the context of Romney's presidential candidacy. The last time the LDS Church was the focus of so much attention from Newsweek was in 2005 in a piece titled "The Mormon Odyssey," written during the 200th anniversary year of Joseph Smith's birth.
"Mormons always hear about the church coming out of obscurity," Coppins said. "I think it's safe to say that the LDS Church might not have that problem anymore."