It doesn’t come as a surprise to me that the most prominent story in North American this week with the word “Mormon” in it is about polygamy.
According to the Vancouver Sun, members of the FLDS Church are asking the court in Vancouver to have polygamy decriminalized in Canada because criminal sanctions offend a wide variety of legal rights, not just freedom of religion.
Along with the entire FLDS polygamy issue, this is a significant news story worth reporting and worth watching. Without a doubt, the complex relationship between polygamy and freedom of conscience in democracy isn’t going away any time soon, especially as Old World religions with the tradition of polygamy become more prominent in the United States.
The point here is this: As the issue of polygamy continues to receive on-going coverage, what can be said about its coverage relative to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, whose members abandoned the practice more than a century ago?
In short, it needs to change. Reporters need to dig deeper.
In my research of Mitt Romney’s 2008 Presidential Campaign, I discovered that polygamy remains a prominent thread in the coverage of Latter-day Saints and not just in the coverage of the FLDS. In my study, about 1-in-4 articles in campaign coverage with a Mormon focus mentioned the church’s history of polygamy.
In addition to this striking finding, I also observed that depending on how you set up a study, the mention of polygamy was about as frequent in Mitt Romney’s coverage as it was in George Romney’s coverage when he ran for president in the late 1960s. This is significant because there were legitimate news reasons to mention polygamy when George Romney was running for president.
George Romney was born in the Mormon colonies in Mexico, which were established in the context of polygamy persecution in the United States.
It was a legitimate part of his story because his Mexican birth raised questions about his Constitutional fitness for office. Explaining the issue meant reporters also had to explain why Romney was born in Mexico in the first place, and the polygamy issue naturally came up.
Using these two campaigns as a guide, the point is polygamy, if anything, has become more prominent now than it was half a century ago in the coverage of Mormonism.
So, it is easy to say that polygamy is mentioned too frequently in coverage of the LDS Church.
Certainly there are good reasons to talk about polygamy and the Mormon church. In fairness to reporters, I perceive as Mitt Romney’s campaign progressed, they mentioned polygamy less and less, and they were good to point out that the church abandoned the practice a century ago. They learned.
In recent months, it is also true that reporters, when reporting on the FLDS Church, have often said mainstream Mormons no longer practice polygamy and the two churches shouldn’t be confused.
Also in Mitt Romeny’s campaign, it can be said journalists covered issues more central to Mormonism, such as Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon.
In my opinion, this is an improvement in their reporting from the days of George Romney. These observations, however, don’t change the fact that reporters need to stop finding excuses to write about the history of polygamy in the LDS Church without good reason. It can be compared to reporters writing about a particular organization today while describing its beliefs of a century ago.
For example, the Democratic Party, the champion of the Civil Rights movement, was filled with strident racists 100 years ago, and its historic embrace of slavery can be said to be responsible, in part, for the Civil War. Would it be fair to Democrats to mention their history in 1-in-4 stories about the party? Of course not.
But there is something deeper and more important here. Prominently mentioning polygamy can be a way to avoid taking Mormonism seriously as a belief system. When writers choose to report on polygamy, they can skirt the central claims of Mormonism, such as the Book of Mormon.
Professor Terryl Givens tells of the 1851 quote from Charles Dickens who said, “What the Mormons do is mostly excellent, what they say is mostly nonsense.”
For Givens, the quotation illustrates the accommodation America has seemed to make with Mormonism over the last century. He said while mainstream society can take Mormonism seriously as a cultural contribution with its clean living, football, singing and patriotic American values, the same society refuses to take the belief system seriously.
However, as Mormon prominence in politics and political disputes remains and grows, I observe this accommodation is shaking, and let’s hope journalists take advantage of this opportunity.
Journalists and Americans are forced to examine Mormon beliefs in ways they haven’t had to publicly in recent decades because Mormon beliefs explain the church’s approach to issues. It also shows why some people don’t seem willing to vote for a Mormon candidate.
Writers are therefore forced to confront Mormon beliefs in new ways, and that is a challenge for them.
Here’s my suggestion to reporters: Don’t avoid the marrow of what Mormons believe by talking about the abstract ideas of polygamy or other obscurities in Mormon doctrine. Drink deeply instead. Get beyond the oblique references to the Book of Mormon, and take the time to read it and to ask Mormons how it has shaped their lives and culture.
It is simple, really.
Mormons believe an uneducated but good young man walked out of the woods with a golden book he received from an angel, and in a matter of three months, translated it through the gift and power of God.
It is a book of substance and depth — a prodigal achievement if it were fiction. But Mormons, and I am proud to be one, say the book isn’t a fiction, but instead, evidence of the existence of God and his miracles, a guide to hopeful living and a true gift to a world, which is in sore need of miracles.
The Book of Mormon constitutes the support of everything else Mormons believe. It is the beating heart of Mormonism and its culture, not the 100-year-old practice of polygamy.
In the years ahead, during political controversies and political candidacies, I am not saying that journalists need to be a conduit for a Mormon missionary message as they tread into what Mormons believe, nor am I saying a focus on the Book of Mormon would or should skirt legitimate controversy. But, to use the language of the Book of Mormon, I would exhort journalists to begin to experiment upon this remarkable and important book.
It seems well past time for reporters to understand what it says, how it says it and how it influences the lives of Mormons. In doing so, reporters can easily leave superfluous polygamy coverage behind.
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