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Mormon Media Observer: I agree with Keller, but only a little

Published: Monday, Sept. 5 2011 3:08 p.m. MDT

I agree with Bill Keller.

Before you jump down my throat, let me say it is only a little bit.

Let me tell you what part of his frustrating column I do agree with.

As most know, Keller, the former editor of the New York Times, wrote a column last week about the news coverage of religion.

He started by making a seeming comparison between religious belief and the belief in space aliens. I wonder if he realized the degree to which such comparisons would offend religions believers.

Of course it offends. He should have known better.

His off-handed description of Mormonism was unfortunate and, well, dismissive.

And that he made a factual mistake that deserved correction was not to his credit. Furthermore, his proposed questions about faith seemed awfully one-sided, slanted toward a conservative candidate of faith.

All that having been said, there is an argument buried in all that fluff that is worth considering.

Let’s assume Keller believed something that can’t be proved: that space aliens have visited the Earth.

Now, let’s assume that Keller were running for president.

Should a journalist tell us that fact?

Think about it.

If a reporter says that a candidate believes in space aliens – and leaves it at that – the only possible consequence is to make the candidate seem something less than rational.

Given that we want our presidents to be rational, this is an invidious, pointless comparison because, frankly, virtually everyone holds to a belief that can’t be proved and can seem weird to others.

Whether it be space aliens or certain types of environmentalism or mysticism or, yes, even certain religious beliefs, there is something that is idiosyncratic in the beliefs of virtually all people, including the lives of our presidential candidates. Just telling us that a candidate believes in aliens or psychics — with no context — is a way of diminishing and de-legitimizing those candidates.

But when reporters accept the fact that all humans see through a glass darkly and do hold beliefs that can seem strange to others while being perfectly rational to themselves, writers can connect belief to a more concrete world.

Let’s say some reporter said a Latter-day Saint believes in the visit of Elijah the Prophet. Such a story might make a candidate seem weird.

But if a reporter described how that belief gives many Latter-day Saints respect for family and for history, then this kind of focus on how beliefs shape policy can help voters understand candidates and make religion a respectable part of public dialogue because the result of those beliefs — whatever those are — is intelligent and interesting and valid.

So why don’t we conjure a journalistic rule that says most religious beliefs should be off-limits in campaign coverage, expect insofar as they inform policy.

If our hypothetical alien-believing candidate Keller became more likely to spend money on NASA or on the SETI Institute, those policies aren’t irrational, regardless of why Keller proposed them.

Sensible people can disagree with them, but they are legitimate issues. It doesn’t really matter where a hypothetical candidate Keller got the idea for the budget change. Sure, if a reporter respectfully noted Keller's beliefs in space aliens, well, so-much the better.

Religion is filled with numerous ideas and doctrines that might shape policy.

Clearly, a religious believer who loves the Sermon on the Mount might believe government has a responsibility to help the poor.

Catholics often believe in just-war theory. Some Catholics believe in liberation theology. These clearly can influence policy.

There are threads about environmentalism, terrorism, patriotism, American exceptionalism, sexual practices, poverty and corruption in the doctrine, history and belief of my Latter-day Saint faith.

These ideas shaped a Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman Jr. and Harry Reid certainly in differing ways.

Why wouldn’t intelligent voters want to know what those ideas are? Why couldn’t a reporter treat these ideas with respect?

While I found much in Keller’s column off the mark and offensive, really, he has one important point: journalists can and should discuss the faith more, but I agree with him only insofar as he applies his standard equally to all candidates and that it is built around how those ideas shape policy, and only insofar as those ideas capture the true essence of a religious faith.

It isn’t much, but I do agree with Keller on that narrow point.

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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