There is a certain logic to all of the LDS articles about Mitt Romney over these past few years that goes something like this:
Journalists observe that Romney has a "Mormon problem," that is that there remains a large group of people unwilling to vote for Romney simply because he is a Latter-day Saint.
The logical chain then prompts the question, "Why?"
The answer in many articles is often something simple like some evangelicals think Mormons are cult members.
But this prompts the question of why they think Mormonism is a cult.
Often, journalists and other writers go with something simple like "Mormons and evangelicals disagree about the nature of God."
Often, they stop there.
But something has changed in recent weeks in the tone of the coverage of the LDS faith. They seem more serious and more engaged.
Granted, this is only my impression, but I find hints of a deepening engagement to this serious question: Just what is it about Mormonism?
To be sure, I have quibbles about much of what is written in these pieces and important disagreements with it, but I have found a few articles that explore in a little more depth the heart of the Latter-day Saint religious experience — for example, revelation and the Book of Mormon.
When Romney ran four years ago and reporters wrote about the Latter-day Saints, they often highlighted glib things about my faith. The most striking thing for me was that reporters mentioned the Book of Mormon with less frequency than they mentioned the long-abandoned practice of polygamy.
This neglect of the Book of Mormon is a long-standing problem. You might find people mentioning the golden plates but not what the Book of Mormon actually teaches.
Sometime, when you have the chance, look up common Book of Mormon terms or verses in the nation's press. You will find almost no mention of what they have to say. In the 30-plus years of the LexisNexis database, I found no mention of Gadianton, for example, in the major publications they use. I found fewer than five references from 2nd Nephi. (And the majority of these seemed to be calculated to make Latter-day Saints look racist.)
Indeed, I remember reading once of a journalist who summarized the content of the Book of Mormon by saying it describes that Christ will reign from Missouri. Never mind that the Book of Mormon says nothing about Missouri.
Many reporters, as it turns out, don't seem to care what the Book of Mormon actually says, save a few obligatory references to Christ in America.
But I see hints that there is a greater desire to engage seriously the Latter-day Saint thought in these articles.
I cite two recent examples:
First, celebrated journalist Sally Quinn, in the terrific On Faith Blog, discusses in depth the doctrine of modern revelation, including the quotes from 1 Kings about how God's voice is a still, small voice.
She writes, "What is it that is most threatening to the average anti-Mormon? Many Mormons are bewildered. They don't understand why, if God spoke to prophets 2,000 years ago, he is incapable of speaking to them again. They believe that God speaks to anyone he wants to speak to and that revelations continue in modern times."
Quinn's work seemed fair-minded and, again, the first time I have seen such a clear explanation of this core belief of being a Latter-day Saint — by an outsider.
Second was a column about how Latter-day Saints are "obsessed with Christ" in the religiously oriented website First Things. In it, theology professor Stephen Webb describes how the way he teaches about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has evolved from one of condescension to one of respect:
"I have come to repent of this view (of condescension), and not just because I came to my senses about how wrong it is to be rude toward somebody else's faith. I changed my mind because I came to realize just how deeply Christ-centered Mormonism is."
Webb writes, "I came to this conclusion when I read through the Book of Mormon for the first time." He said he already knew a basic outline but, "When I actually read this book, however, I was utterly surprised."
Next, Webb and I part company because he describes the Book of Mormon as dull and unmoving, but the conclusion he draws from its dullness is that "nobody stands out but" Jesus Christ. In his view, it is so totally about Jesus that no other character rises up. And that is how the book is Christian.
In his essay, Webb tries too hard to find a way of appreciating the Book of Mormon without truly exploring whether Joseph Smith was a prophet, but, in fairness, his approach seems generously trying to place Latter-day Saints at the Christian table.1 comment on this story
While I disagree with some of his seeming premises — you have to come to an answer about whether Joseph Smith was telling the truth — I truly, really appreciated that someone, somewhere was talking with respect for the Book of Mormon and trying to place it as a place of respectable discussion.
I hope we will see more of this in the coming days, more discussion of what the Book of Mormon actually teaches and what revelation is to a Latter-day Saint — more depth. In my view, these simple articles hint at the possibility of a welcome trend.
Lane Williams teaches journalism and communication at BYU-Idaho.