SALT LAKE CITY — McKay Coppins made a name for himself as a political journalist covering Mitt Romney's presidential campaign in 2012.
What set the young journalist apart was his faith.
Coppins, a BYU graduate and a returned missionary, was the only member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on the traveling press tour. As other reporters realized Coppins' religious connection to Romney, they began peppering him with questions. As he delivered the answers, Coppins' peers nicknamed him "Mormon Wikipedia."
"In addition to being a political reporter, I knew my role as a Mormon explainer could be valuable to the campaign conversation,” Coppins told BYU's The Daily Universein 2014. “I tried my best to merge those two.”
Since then, the 31-year-old has become a political journalist for The Atlantic. He has published a book, "The Wilderness," and regularly offers political opinions and analysis on various television news programs. Over the years, his articles have appeared in such national publications as The New York Times, The Washington Post, Newsweek and others.
Given his unique perspective in the national media and activity as a young Latter-day Saint husband and father, the Deseret News recently asked Coppins to share some his views and observations as a millennial member.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Deseret News: In your writing and media work, how do you maintain balance with a young family, your Latter-day Saint faith and your career?
McKay Coppins: Like anyone, it’s hard to manage the various demands of life on any given day, especially in this current political and media environment where there's news breaking every two hours, it seems like, and your editors always want you to weigh in. To a certain extent, I can't control when I have to work.
But to the extent that I can, I try to set aside certain days and certain times where I tune out politics, work, Slack, email, Twitter and all of that. On Saturdays, for example, I really try to make that family time. My kids have gotten used to scolding me when I take my phone out on Saturday. Whenever they call me on it, I immediately say, "OK, fine," and I try to make that family time. Obviously, I try to batch as much of my calling and church life into Sunday.
I don't think I have a good answer to this, except that you have to try to remember your priorities, which obviously, my family comes before anything. That's always what I try to do.
DN: How many kids do you have?
MC: Three kids — a 5-year-old, a 3-year-old and now a 5-month-old. We're really in the thick of it.
DN: How has being a father changed your approach to life?
MC: It’s a good question. After our most recent child was born, I took several weeks off for paternity leave. Our company offers a really generous amount of time off for parents. I found that backing away from work, from the news cycle, did give me a certain perspective.
My kids weren't in preschool or anything, I was with them all day. I remember once watching the news. I had some kind of political news on and my oldest daughter Ellie is watching. She's like, "Dad, why aren't they nicer to each other?"
It was a good reminder. My work as a political journalist is inherently adversarial. I'm supposed to be holding people in power, holding their feet to the fire. I write these long profiles of political leaders. I'm supposed to be skeptical and critical where it makes sense and where it's appropriate. But I think being a father has made me a little softer, at least in terms of trying to approach even that with a certain amount of generosity and kindness. That's something that my kids remind me of a lot more than anything.
DN: Critics say The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ principles and beliefs don’t match society’s agenda — how do you balance that in your life?
MC: I don’t write about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints all the time, but I do sometimes. One of the things in writing and researching the church and talking to people is you realize how much diversity there is within the church. There are core principles, obviously, that are embedded in this faith and in this church, but I find you can apply those principles to any number of political ideologies, any number of interests and hobbies and belief systems. There's an argument to be made that there are elements of the church that do apply to society today. I've tried to make a project out of exploring both the tensions and the relationship between modern secularism and Mormonism. I think there are a lot of areas of common ground and a lot of things that both groups and communities can learn from each other. I don't see it as a sharp divide. I see it as a place where there's a lot that Mormons can learn from modern secular society, and vice versa.
DN: What do millennials view as the strength of the church?
MC: An observation that is commonly made about the millennial generation at large is that we aren’t "joiners." More than any generation before us, we don't tend to gravitate toward clubs, civic groups, churches or community organizations that bring us together with our neighbors. I think that's one thing the church does offer to millennials.
One of the things that makes Latter-day Saint millennials different from a lot of their generational peers is that by being active members of this church, they're inherently participating in what has become a fairly unique community and frankly a democratic institution, right? These are people who are going to a church every Sunday and holding lay minister callings. They're tightly networked within a group of people who bring cookies over when somebody has a baby and who are available to help when there's a medical emergency or somebody is moving. More and more in our society, those networks are falling apart. I think that's one thing that the church has to offer, not just to millennials, but especially to this generation.
DN: What does the average church member need to know or understand about millennials?
MC: Hmm. Probably a lot.
I think there's a pattern, and this doesn't just happen within The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It happens throughout American society, where every new generation is greeted with a rash of hand-wringing and panic — "Oh, the kids aren't right. Look at these new trends and attitudes. They're just not the way it was when I grew up. They're going to lead to the downfall of civilization." Right? You hear that a lot. You look through history, that's almost always proven. You can find this worry and anxiety in every generation.
Now apply it to the church. I think that there's always a concern that a new generation embracing certain elements of modern society, certain elements of their broader generation and communities. There's this concern that they're all going to leave the church or they're going to pollute or corrupt the doctrine or the gospel or whatever. I don't think we have to worry too much. The people around my age or a little younger are serious about their faith, their principles and ideals. They're figuring it out.
I also think the church at large, not to say the institutional church alone, but members of the collective church could do better in tailoring our programs and various other elements in our organization to this new generation, making sure that we're not making this faith completely irrelevant to their needs and to the way that they're looking at the world. I think that's an ongoing tension.
DN: What are misconceptions because of "wrong branding" of millennials?
MC: When I worked at BuzzFeed, we were very much seen for a while as the news outlet website that embodied the millennial culture. I caught all kinds of flack all the time for being part of the corruption of a generation or whatever. I always thought that was silly. But one of the most common ideas about millennials is that there's an entitlement and laziness that makes them not want to work hard. That's part of this trend I was talking about earlier where their hard work and passion manifests itself in ways that are unfamiliar to their generational elders, so they don't recognize it. But the millennials I know, for the most part, obviously we're talking about sweeping generalist terms here, are very idealistic, they're passionate and they have causes they believe in. They are especially open-minded, tolerant and really value things like inclusion. Those things don't have to come at the cost of other values that our parents and grandparents had. So I think that some of the hand-wringing is a bit much.
DN: What have you observed generally about millennials and their political views?
MC: I think younger Latter-day Saints are increasingly disillusioned with partisan politics. I think that they are very motivated by causes that they believe in, by certain issues. But both political parties in this most recent presidential election for example, nominated two of the most unpopular presidential nominees in history. The campaign was one of the most brutal and ugly in history. I think what you see is a lot of young Latter-day Saints who grew up conservative and probably for the most part have center-right political leanings. Again, this is generalistic. But they are not feeling at home in the Republican Party of Donald Trump, so they're looking for a way to express their political views outside of institutional party structure.
I think there's an argument to be made that whatever your political leanings, you should be active in a political party that most closely resembles your views because that's how they change, right? If you believe that Donald Trump is toxic to the Republican Party and you're a conservative, maybe you should be active in trying to drive out the pro-Trump forces or fight against them, or fight for the kind of conservatives that you believe. If you are liberal-leaning Latter-day Saint and you think the Democratic Party doesn't represent your ideals, then get involved in the Democratic Party. There is an argument for that, but I understand. I cover politics. I'm more cynical about it than anyone at this point. I totally understand my co-religionists not wanting to engage anymore with partisan politics, but I don't think it will fix the problem.
DN: As a political journalist, you’ve crossed paths with and written about President Donald Trump. How has that interaction impacted your career and life?7 comments on this story
MC: I think my unique experiences with Trump have given me an insight into this president's psyche and how he sees the world — which is obviously quite useful for a political writer. I used to think that he and his people would never want to deal with me again after the fallout from my original profile back in 2014. But I've found that since Trump never really forgot about the story, it's given me an opening to do a kind of reporting I might never have had otherwise. When you're reporting on the White House, it's better to have a president not like you, than not know who you are.