WASHINGTON, D.C. — News reporters and editors from around the country were urged to allow members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to define themselves rather than to exclusively look to sources outside the church for definitions of what it means to be a Mormon or to explain LDS doctrine or history.
"Define us by who we are and by our central beliefs rather than who we are not or by obscure or irrelevant beliefs," Michael R. Otterson, managing director of public affairs for the LDS Church, said during a Thursday morning session of a conference called, "Politics and Religion: Getting it Right in 2012."
The one-day conference is sponsored by the Poynter Institute, a non-profit school of journalism located in St. Petersburg, Fla. According to the institute's website, "the Poynter Institute is a school dedicated to teaching and inspiring journalists and media leaders. It promotes excellence and integrity in the practice of craft and in the practical leadership of successful businesses." The conference attracted some 30 journalists, and featured presentations from industry leaders and significant sources.
"'Getting it right' is not an easy thing to do in (covering) the world of religion," Otterson acknowledged at the start of his presentation. But, he said, "it is possible to get it right if we acknowledge two things: the importance of going to the source, and the pitfalls of stereotyping."
Otterson identified for the journalists what he considered the five most common stereotypes of members of the LDS Church — that they are not Christian, that they belong to a cult, that they are insular and secretive, that they are weird and that they practice polygamy.
"Ask a Mormon, and he or she will agree readily that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is not part of 'traditional Christianity' or 'historical Christianity,'" Otterson said. "(But) that is not the same as saying that Latter-day Saints are not Christian."
Otterson explained that members of the church are troubled when they are described as not Christian "because that suggests we are not followers of Jesus Christ, and Christ's divinity is a foundational belief in our faith."
Otterson was joined during the session by Michael Cromartie, vice president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center and director of Evangelicals in Civic Life. He recommended to the journalists that whatever group they are reporting on, try to find out what they are like at their best, and what they are like at their worst.
"Then compare," Cromartie said. "That's where you'll find the truth."
For example, he said, "the more you get to know Mormons, the more you like them. But if all you know about them are the parts of their doctrine that some people might find questionable, your perspective is limited. Then you get to know them and you find that they are good people, people you'd like to know — and you might even consider having one of them as president."
Cromartie described as "unwise" and "imprudent" remarks made by Baptist pastor Robert Jeffress in which he classified the LDS Church as a "cult."
"Jeffress doesn't represent the norm of the evangelical community," Cromartie said. "He was clearly making a case for his candidate (Gov. Rick Perry of Texas). How much better it would have been if he had said, 'We welcome the opportunity to talk to Gov. Romney — we've wanted to have this conversation.' Instead he made comments that even disturbed many evangelicals."
Cromartie said he is looking forward to seeing some new research coming out that will show that evangelicals are less resistant to voting for a Mormon. "I think evangelicals have come to a place where they realize that they are not voting for a pastor-in-chief or a bishop-in-chief but a commander-in-chief."
Still, he said, "it is incredibly important" for reporters to explore a candidate's religious beliefs. "Those beliefs say a lot about the candidate's foundational worldview," Cromartie said. "To not probe religious values would be avoiding a lot of important stuff that underlies that person's views and values … (Religion) says a lot about who we are as persons; you can't separate personal, emotional, philosophical, theological views from how they might be manifest in public policy."
Otterson agreed that there are two areas in which a candidate's religion could be considered relevant to a political discussion: how their religious beliefs might shape public or foreign policy, and how a candidate's faith has molded and shaped their character.
"But," he said, "I don't think it is legitimate to then question or challenge the legitimacy of their denomination . . . We are a pluralistic society, and you don't disparage or attack other faiths simply because they are other faiths, or suggest that it is appropriate to have religious denomination as a test for office."
Otterson stressed the LDS Church's ongoing policy of political neutrality.
"We will not endorse any political candidate, LDS or otherwise, and I don't want to say anything that would imply support for a candidate one way or the other," he said. "But I don't think the candidate's theology should be an issue. There are huge problems out there — millions of people without jobs. Are we really going to make this about theology?"
Cromartie agreed. "What's important is the kind of choices the candidate will make as president," he said. "How will the candidate approach the job philosophically? What kind of Supreme Court justices will the candidate appoint? If those kinds of things are aligned, that's what matters — not theology."
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