McKay Coppins: Mormon Twentysomething: Debunking a Mormon/Romney conspiracy theory
It is a truism of modern media that few subjects draw more attention than politics. If you're a savvy journalist or blogger looking to attract page views in today's 24-hour news cycle, the shortcut to success requires slapping some political "analysis" on to whatever story you're covering, like so:
"University releases groundbreaking cancer study: What does it mean for Obama?"
Of course, I've been guilty of this to some extent in my (young) journalism career. And having spent the past few months interning at a national news outlet with a website that has scores of competitors, I understand all too well the occasional need to quickly pick a unique angle and go with it. Which is why I was not all that surprised when the press began buzzing with an interesting conspiracy theory connected with a new LDS ad campaign.
The campaign in question consists of commercials airing in nine middle-America markets. Each ad zeroes in on the life of an interesting Latter-day Saint. Seems pretty benign, right? Not if you ask page view-hungry journalists.
On liberal website Salon.com, Alex Pareene writes, "But … are Mormons just trying to convince Americans that Mormons are 'normal,' so that in 2012 they'll consider voting for Mormon King Mitt Romney? (These ads are running in four or five potential swing states, after all.)" He goes on to quote a church spokesman who insists "this has nothing to do with Mitt at all," but of course, by raising the question, Pareene is clearly hinting that it's a legitimate concern.
And he's not the only one. The idea has been floated in several news outlets. I haven't been able to track this theory back to its root, but I suppose it was bound to come up.
The problem, of course, is that it's ludicrous. Even if you believe that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is sinister enough to claim political neutrality and then secretly coordinate PR efforts with a potential presidential candidate, how would such actions benefit Mormonism? As I've written before, a Romney presidency would open the church up to unrelenting attacks from the left and most likely alienate potential converts who happen to be Democrats. If Romney governed like a true social conservative, the church might gain favor among the Republican base, but it's doubtful that we'd see swarms of evangelicals suddenly endorsing LDS doctrine.
In reality, this ad campaign is about what PR ad campaigns are always about: improving public image. The church's central message to the public has become distorted in recent years, especially in the wake of Proposition 8, and these commercials are intended to remind people that Mormons aren't all crazy, self-righteous cultists.
So, what is the central message the church is trying to communicate? Our full-time proselyting missionaries might answer that question with an Article of Faith or a line from Preach My Gospel, but the people in these commercials are not missionaries, and I think one of them explains it very well:
"This is the bottom line to me. The Mormon church teaches good principles. … I think it makes people better. It'll take a bad person and make 'em good, and a good person and make 'em better."
That may not make for a sexy political story, but it has the advantage of being true.
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