Mormon Media Observer: Looking for American tolerance

Published: Monday, Jan. 21 2008 12:00 a.m. MST

In January, 1987, my wife and I were working in staff positions in the U.S. Senate in Washington D.C. when we attended a service at the Washington National Cathedral to commemorate the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Amid the grandeur of the gothic architecture, the voices of a choir echoed and attendees listened to the interfaith readings that represented the universal goodness and equality of humankind. A rabbi read from the Torah, an imam from the Koran, a pastor from the New Testament and an LDS leader from The Book of Mormon. As idealistic college students, it was an image and an associated feeling of peace we remembered as a model for a tolerant America. It was an America to which we felt included.
Fast-forward to 2008. In many quarters my faith is under attack as Americans consider a Mormon for president, and I wonder about that inclusion. One recent author said he felt marginalized if Mitt Romney is denied the presidency simply — or primarily — because of his faith. Another has explained that it seems like it is �open season on Mormons�.
The LDS rhetorical landscape today is filled with mean-spirited words. Words like �cult,� �un-Christian,� �weird� and �racist� grate on anyone�s inclination toward civility and tolerance. However, many LDS members take it in stride, a recent AP story shows.
Along with the oft-referenced polls that say many would not vote for a Mormon president, there is a more troubling misunderstanding about religious freedom in the United States. Just 56 percent of Americans believe that the freedom to worship as one chooses extends to all religious groups, regardless of how extreme � down 16 points, from 72 percent in 2000, according to the �State of the First Amendment 2007� report released in September 2007. Americans seem to have a problem with religious tolerance and a basic understanding of the religious freedom clause of the First Amendment.
And it seems to persist in the Mitt Romney campaign. Three political science professors argue that saying Romney is flip-flopping is merely a cover for anti-Mormon sentiment (see also here.)
In the context of the intolerance of the presidential campaign, I�ve been yearning for that feeling I had that evening 21 years ago in the marbled sanctuary in Washington. I think I found some of that in a recent review of media opinion (please note that the review here centers on opinion writing which is expected to have a bias rather than news reporting which is expected to be balanced).
For example, consider the recent work of Denver Post columnist Gail Schoettler and Chloe Oliver in the Hattiesburg (Miss.) American. Schoettler said that the media needs to get past the trivial in the coverage of presidential politics, while Oliver reminds readers that �those who propose to save us from a monster must be careful as they employ their tactics. Otherwise, they may become the monster they seek.�
It�s heartening that religious writers have expressed similar sentiment. Although it didn�t get much traction among Mormons at the time it was published in December, I stumbled upon this column by Abraham H. Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League.
Foxman wrote: �As we said during the 2000 campaign with regard to Senator Lieberman, candidates should feel comfortable explaining their religious convictions to voters. At the same time, however, we believe there is a point at which an emphasis on religion in a political campaign becomes inappropriate and even unsettling in a religiously diverse society such as ours. Anyone who legitimately aspires to the presidency of the United States must be prepared to set an example and be a leader for all Americans, of all faiths and of no faith.�
In its house editorial, the January Christian Century magazine said Christians should seek a candidate with virtues for governance: �Some Christians worry that a Latter-day Saint in the White House would give a public relations boost to Mormonism. But if indeed Romney were elected and proved to be a president who pursued peace, served justice and remembered the poor, and if his presidency thereby lent prestige to Mormonism, we would have to say that the boost was in some sense deserved. That event too would have to be seen as part of the paradoxical way that God rules the political sphere.�
In a lengthy New York Times magazine opinion, Noah Feldman, tried to explain �What is it about Mormonism?� The column is an abridgement of a speech Feldman gave in November 2007 at the Mormonism and America conference at Princeton University. He also did a recent interview on anti-Mormon bias on Salt Lake City-based KUER-FM.
Hendrik Hertzberg, who wrote a recent column in the New Yorker magazine mocking LDS beliefs, should have read Feldman�s analysis before he sat down at the computer and wrote: �And the dogmas of Mitt Romney�s sect are breathtaking.� Certainly, �breathtaking� has a lot to do with one�s experience. Sure, the unfamiliar may seem unusual, but those with open minds don�t dismiss it out of hand but rather seek to understand it.
Compare Hertzberg�s take to Feldman�s writing. �Still, even among those who respect Mormons personally, it is still common to hear Mormonism�s tenets dismissed as ridiculous," Feldman wrote. "This attitude is logically indefensible insofar as Mormonism is being compared with other world religions.
�There is nothing inherently less plausible about God�s revealing himself to an upstate New York farmer in the early years of the Republic than to the pharaoh�s changeling grandson in ancient Egypt. But what is driving the tendency to discount Joseph Smith�s revelations is not that they seem less reasonable than those of Moses; it is that the book containing them is so new. When it comes to prophecy, antiquity breeds authenticity. Events in the distant past, we tend to think, occurred in a sacred, mythic time.�
So we come full circle to religious tolerance. It�s not about making judgments about each others� faith or even lack thereof. It�s respecting all faiths and beliefs in the context of a tolerant and civil nation. The news media has a responsibility to set this tone of respect.
The New York Post treatment:
Mormons aren�t the first ones to be part of the blaring, gotcha tabloid headlines of the New York Post. It is still interesting to see �Mormon� in such large type. �THE MORMON THE MERRIER� ran over the story about Mitt Romney�s primary win in Michigan.
Religion doesn�t matter: This column by a student journalist in Alabama should make LDS members think twice about what they say to others, however well-intentioned. A judgmental comment turned a baptismal service into a negative experience for this young woman. Even so, she was ready to forgive.
LDS writer disputes evangelical predictions: Carrie Sheffield, an LDS writer based in Washington, suggests in an American Spectator article that a Mitt Romney presidency would not make much difference in membership growth of the LDS Church.
Mormons take Manhattan: The New York Observer takes a look at New York City Mormons. �And so the Mormons of New York have made it their mission to make the good people of Manhattan understand not only the tenets of their religion, but also that they�and their smiles�aren�t going away,� the article says.
LDS open doors to Muslims: A St. Louis Post Dispatch columnist talks about how a Muslim, a victim of hate graffiti, was offered the use of an LDS chapel for Islamic services.
Heartburn over political cartoon: There is no shortage of heartburn over political cartoons dealing with the LDS Church. Readers of the Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Wash. registered their concern with a cartoon that linked lobbying with religion. See the complaint and response here.
Allowing Mormons to respond: The Daily Pilot in Southern California recently gave space to Thomas L. Thorkelson, the director of Interfaith Relations for the LDS Church in Orange County, Calif., to respond to Mike Huckabee�s now famous quote to the New York Times magazine.
Raising the bar on blog comments: National news organizations are trying to figure out how to raise the bar on comments posted on blogs and news sites. I hope the readers of Mormon Media Observer stick to the topic of religious tolerance and not slip into the anti-Mormon/Mormon vitriol that seems to pass for real dialog. This is not the place to debate LDS beliefs and doctrine. Rather, it is the place for discussion that furthers the understanding of how to talk to one another and respect one another despite our deepest differences.
(Joel Campbell is an assistant professor in the Department of Communications at BYU. He was a reporter and editor at the Deseret Morning News for 15 years and has also worked in corporate communications. He holds a master's degree from the Ohio State University and a bachelor's degree from BYU.)

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