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Mormon Media Observer: Coverage of Mormonism in campaigns sometimes unfair to evangelicals too

Published: Monday, Aug. 1 2011 5:00 a.m. MDT

One of the odd results of the coverage of Mitt Romney’s presidential campaigns, it seems to me, is that it has not only highlighted The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in ways that might easily be construed as unfavorable and even unfair, the media portrayals have also cast evangelical Christianity in ways that might be considered as equally unfavorable and in some ways, more so.

While it is true that some evangelical Christians have chosen to vote against Romney simply because he is a Mormon, it is also true that many evangelical Christians have voted for him.

In some states, like Iowa, those voting against Romney in part because of religion four years ago had an impact on the election results, but in other states, such as Florida, Romney did reasonably well among all kinds of churchgoing people. Romney, in fact, won a plurality of voters who attended church weekly in the Florida primary and ran second among those who attended more than weekly, according to CNN election exit polling. Certainly some of those were evangelicals. Many evangelical leaders reached out to Romney, allowing him to speak on their campuses. He was treated with respect by them.

It also seems true — though my data are sketchy at best — that Mormons were probably less likely to vote for evangelical Mike Huckabee than evangelicals were for Romney. I perceive that many who voted for Romney did so out of affection for his religion, not opposition to Huckabee’s Christianity. I perceive that evangelicals who sometimes voted for Huckabee — or who may vote for Rick Perry should he run — often did so not so much out of opposition to Mormons, but more out of affection for the religion of those candidates.

While I condemn — as I did last week — any who rely on bigotry and distortion about religion in deciding who receives their votes, what I would emphasize is that when reporters paint an incomplete picture that evangelicals are biased against Mormons, it is a picture that can be not only unfair to Mormons but to evangelicals as well. It makes Mormonism look unusual and evangelicals look bigoted.

Scholars like Peter Kerr have argued that the portrayals of evangelical Christians in the American news media have tended to be somewhat bigoted over the years.

It is easy to see, therefore, how the framing of Romney’s campaign in 2008 as overcoming evangelical opposition — and failing — reinforced existing tropes about evangelicals. In many ways, the portrayal of Romney in 2008 was an unfair reinforcement of old stereotypes.

Consider for a minute the media portrayal of John F. Kennedy’s 1960 campaign. If people think of the story of Kennedy’s 1960 election and the opposition to Kennedy’s Catholicism, what do they remember? Likely, they remember some evangelical opposition to Kennedy led by Norman Vincent Peale and Kennedy’s iconic September 1960 speech to the Houston Ministerial Association that helped overcome that supposed opposition.

In fact, what seems generally forgotten — though I admit to no public opinion polling supporting this assertion — is that Kennedy received vast opposition from many elements of what has become America’s Democratic coalition. The liberal groups favoring separation of church and state expressed public concern about his ability to remain independent of his Catholicism. For a time, the Rev. Martin Luther King Sr. was opposed to Kennedy, until Kennedy reached out publicly to King’s imprisoned son, Martin Jr.

Harry Truman and Eleanor Roosevelt expressed deep opposition to Kennedy’s Catholic background at times as well.

Whether they mean to our not, news media sometimes reinforce existing stereotypes and subsume other relevant facts that might challenge those stereotypes. It isn’t always fair.

As we watch the 2012 campaign unfold and watch media cover evangelical opposition to Romney, remember that while these portrayals may seem unfair to Mormons, they may also seem unfair to evangelical Christians.

Lane Williams teaches journalism and communication at BYU-Idaho. He is a former journalist whose scholarly interests include Mormon portrayals in the media, media and religion and religion and politics.

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