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Being Mormon in a Mormon moment

Published: Sunday, Sept. 4 2011 12:40 a.m. MDT

Richard L. Bushman, the Howard W. Hunter Professor of Mormon Studies at Claremont Graduate University (Calif.), speaks at the Neal A. Maxwell Institute's weekly lecture series honoring the centennial of the late professor Hugh W. Nibley's birth.

Michael De Groote, Mormon Times

PROVO — Richard L. Bushman put the big headphones on his head for an interview with NPR in New York City. His biography of the founder of Mormonism, "Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling," had just been published by Knopf and because 2005 was the 200th anniversary of Joseph Smith's birth, Bushman was in high demand for interviews with the media.

"I thought NPR would ask about, 'What's the significance of this guy?'" Bushman said.

Instead, the interviewer asked Bushman to recount every detail about Joseph Smith's first vision of God the Father and Jesus Christ.

He then asked Bushman incredulously, "How can a person like you believe all these things?"

"I felt like I had been booby trapped, like he had ambushed me. I was a little upset. I gave a reasonable answer and we went on. But then I realized that for him that IS the question. Here I am, a Columbia University professor, supposedly a rational person, and yet I believe Joseph Smith had gold plates. That was when I recognized I had to be willing to expose myself, not just be a source of information, but be, in a way, a witness and an example of a believer," Bushman said.

That experience is becoming more common for high profile members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints with what many in the media are calling a "Mormon moment," a convergence of interest generated by two Mormons running for president, the Tony Award-winning musical "The Book of Mormon", the HBO series "Big Love," Mormon author Stephenie Meyer's "Twilight" series of vampire books and even a proliferation of Mormons on reality television shows.

"I rarely meet a reporter that I think is digging up dirt to do (Mormons) in," Bushman said. "I genuinely feel that there is real curiosity."

And that curiosity is making an important and subtle shift, according to Terryl Givens, a University of Richmond professor of literature and religion who has studied how the media has portrayed Mormons throughout history.

"I am actually delighted that for really the first time in the history of the LDS Church the media seems to be making a concerted effort to try to get a more authoritative viewpoint on Mormon history and experience," Givens said. "Rhetoric about Mormonism has been dominated by the critics on the one hand and the apologists on the other. It seems that we are entering something of a golden era now where it's possible to find a more moderate set of voices from both within and without the church."

Bushman was on the cusp of that change in 2007 when the Pew Forum's biannual Faith Angle Conference on religion, politics and public life asked him to speak about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints instead of author Jon Krakauer, who had written a book that was critical about the church's history.

Bushman said the experience was great — and that he made several friends in the press that day — one of whom later dubbed Bushman "The Mormon Explainer."

Over time Bushman has developed ways of speaking with the media that earned him that nickname. Recently he was asked by Jay Kernis, a Senior Producer at CNN, to respond to lyrics from "The Book of Mormon" musical — specifically, the song "I Believe." Bushman said Kernis's essential question was "Do Mormons really believe this stuff?"

When he wrote his first draft response, Bushman showed it to his wife Claudia, who is also a historian. She told him, "You are too defensive. Be generous."

He rewrote his answers.

"It is much better if you speak candidly and generously," Bushman said, "that is, not trying to nail the people you are talking about."

Bushman said he tries to find new ways of saying things to avoid sounding stale. He tries to be transparent — especially when it comes to controversial questions.

"I had a man ask me, 'Well, what are the weak points in the case for the Book of Mormon.' And I was quite willing to state that, because if you can't say that there are any arguments against the church, no one is going to trust you. If all you can see is the positive, you are not going to win anyone's respect," Bushman said. "If there is a real problem you have to be quite up-front about it,"

Givens said the media still seem to focus on controversy or opposing viewpoints in their coverage of the LDS Church. "It strikes me that nobody would say, doing a special on the Amish, 'Well, we want to get both perspectives on them. We want to look at all sides of the Amish question.' Or 'We want to look at both sides of the Presbyterian controversy.' And yet, when it comes to Mormonism, there's always an assumption we have to look at both sides, the pros and the cons."

But both Givens and Bushman are impressed with how things have improved — particularly in the way the press is covering the campaigns of Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman. "The difference between 2008 and now is really huge," Bushman said. "We were getting some very vitriolic pieces in 2008. I don't think there have been many lately. … Mormonism is referred to, but it's not the big thing anymore. In a way, we are eroding the prejudices against Mormonism. Having two candidates, in a way, legitimizes it: Mormons are going to do this, get ready for it. Personally I think that we have made big headway."

Bushman also feels he has made headway in the way he interacts with the media. Part of that progress may be in a phrase he sometimes likes to repeat to himself before beginning an interview: "Today I will be a follower of Jesus Christ."

But Bushman realizes that notwithstanding "The Mormon Explainer" nickname, he is only one of several people — like Givens, who are approached by the media to explain their faith.

"I think it's going to happen to more and more Latter-day Saints. If it isn't the Washington Post calling, it will be your local radio station or maybe your partner at work or your neighbor," Bushman said. "So we all are having to find a way to speak about what matters to us. And that is a terrific experience for anybody."

Richard Bushman's rules for talking with the media

1. Be generous, not defensive.

2. Acknowledge problems.

3. Find new ways to say things.

4. Remember reporters want to get it right.

5. Don't try to prove, try to tell the truth.

6. Who you are is part of the message.

7. Speak from the heart.

EMAIL: mdegroote@desnews.com, TWITTER: www.twitter.com/degroote

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