Mormon Media Observer: Several articles about the church still deserve mention

Published: Tuesday, Nov. 29 2011 4:25 p.m. MST

Foliage in the plaza with the Salt Lake Temple in the background in Salt Lake City Wednesday, Oct. 26, 2011.

Ravell Call, Deseret News

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Like most Latter-day Saints, I have had callings that have enriched my life. Whether it be Scoutmaster or nursery worker, each call has its joys and challenges. I remember each with fondness.

Yet one often stands out. For a couple of years, I was a ward mission leader just outside Washington, D.C. We lived in Prince Georges County in the wonderful College Park Ward. For those familiar with Washington, Prince Georges is, relatively speaking, the more diverse and also less wealthy of the counties in suburban Washington.

So, the variety of people I met was amazing. Several had emigrated from war-torn regions in Africa and came to America as refugees with horrible stories that really changed my life as I tried to listen and understand them.

Many were the only believers in their family.

At the time, I was in graduate school, and I had had one amazing experience after another with my studies. I had met some terrific people and studied with men and women I had long admired. I was living a dream academically.

Those experiences in graduate school, as it turns out, have largely been forgetten relative to the experiences I had working with the elders as a mission leader. These religious experiences and feelings have stuck. I counted people from more than 20 nations with whom I met.

I remember the late-night climbs up stairs in public housing to preach and to speak with those immigrants with whom I worked, living as some did a floor or two above a lobby with its urine-smelling, darkly lit space.

I remember the poverty and sacrifice to make it to church each week. I remember wanting to be better because I knew them.

All of that came back to me in a recent blog post at CNN. The church is more diverse than it ever before. CNN and the new "I'm a Mormon" campaign showed that. I am better for the experiences I had trying to understand the cultural challenges facing church members.

I became more convinced than ever of the world-changing potential in the church. It isn't just helpful to the descendents of a few people trapped in the Western mountains of the United States, but it also speaks to modern laborers from the Cote d'Ivorie to Sierra Leone and from immigrants Nigeria or Rwanda. It is a world-changing movement.

Each month it seems there are so many articles about the church that it is hard to keep up. But a few need quick acknowledgement. Therefore, this column is a hodge-podge, a catch-up.

Some, like the blog at CNN, seem largely positive. Then there was Laurie Goodstein's excellent front-page piece, which also seemed quite favorable.

Others, like the now much-discussed editorial in The New York Times about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, by Harold Bloom was less favorable, certainly.

Maybe a few thoughts about Bloom are in order. For me, the Bloom piece is among the more startling articles about the church run in recent years. To be sure, it builds on what he has written about Latter-day Saints before in his book, "The American Religion." He still calls Joesph Smith an authentic religious genius, but seems to imply that other church leaders are little more than politicians seeking money.

Reading Bloom's descriptions of the church is like trying to catch your reflection on the surface of a lake on a windy day. It's fleeting and distorted. I don't recognize the Mormonism he describes.

Look at his adjectives and terms he uses. (Please read his entire article for a full context. I believe these quotes capture much of the overall tone of his presentation, but please be your own judge.) He writes: “labyrinthine Mormon hierarchy”; “the Salt Lake empire of corporate greed”; “the oligarchs of Salt Lake City betray their religious heritage”; “the deliberate dwindling of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints into just one more Protestant sect”; “There are other secrets also, not tellable by the Mormon Church to those it calls ‘Gentiles,’ oddly including Jews”; much of Joseph Smith’s legacy “had to be compromised in the grand bargain by which the moguls of Salt Lake City became plutocrats defining the Republican party. The hierarchy’s vast economic power is founded upon the tithing of the faithful, who yield 10 percent of their income to the church”; and “The patriotism of Mormons for some time now has been legendary: they help stock the C.I.A., the F.B.I., the military.”

I mean. Really?

Doesn’t such writing make this LDS faith appear to be a cabalistic, vaguely militant group, hiding its true, sinister motives from those around them, while its leaders sit taking advantage of their followers for political ends?

A few weeks ago, a Texas-based minister, the Rev. Robert Jeffress, called Mormonism a cult during an introduction he gave for Texas Gov. Rick Perry, thereby condemning Perry's rival, Mitt Romney. This statement seemed to reach wide opprobrium from the nation's press.

Many editorial pages seemed to denounce it as a form of bigotry, and prominent people rose to the defense of the Latter-day Saints.

Not so with the column by Harold Bloom. Few seemed to criticize it.

It's not hard to believe that the American news media often seems to pick the side of the secular world. The treatment of Jeffress as a contrast with the prominent display of Bloom provides evidence of this.

From the standpoint of a secular atheist, the Jeffress/Mormon story is sort of a “two-fer” anyway. These secular writers get to demonstrate the old stereotype that some Southern Baptists are a bunch of bigots while at the same time reminding people that Latter-day Saints are supposedly members of a cult. Bloom’s article fills in the gaps in explaining how it is a cult.

Lastly, there is Bloom's assessment that modern Latter-day Saints strive for education. This is true, but Bloom's assessment of LDS leadership runs counter to the idea that Latter-day Saints are well-educated.

If the church leaders were interested in running some sort of cult, why would they educate their people? Wouldn't it be better to keep the people down and uneducated, so the fables — if that is what they were — about the origin of the church and of the Book of Mormon wouldn't be questioned?

Bloom's argument faces these fundamental ironies, it seems to me, and his work needs some rethinking for this reason and others.

On balance, however, this new generation of LDS coverage remains, in my view, far more favorable than what it was in 2007-08 when Gov. Romney first ran for president. CNN's blog really demonstrates that, regardless of the underlying tone of Harold Bloom.

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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