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Kid-glove treatment

Campaign 2012 | The New York Times takes a pass on challenging Mormonism's truth claims

Issue: "Effective Compassion," June 16, 2012

If Mitt Romney's political allies were afraid that mainstream media like The New York Times might at some point aim their condescending, cynical, and even vicious guns at Romney's Mormon connections, they must have been surprised at Jodi Kantor's piece on May 19. Charitably titled "Romney's Faith, Silent but Deep," the 2,000-word article might well have prompted some readers to check up and see whether Kantor was herself a native of Utah. It's been a long time since anyone identified as an evangelical Christian politician or activist has received such kid-glove treatment.

The Kantor piece in the Times suggests that Romney's faith might best be summarized by asking the question: How could students apply the lessons of Mormon scripture in their daily lives?

Indeed. Who could object to so innocuous an approach? The Romney portrait in the Times is of a man "whose faith is his design for living." More specifically, that faith encourages him to be "industrious," to exercise "zeal," to be helpful in "ironing out conflicts," and to "abhor debt." Hardly anything wacky there. Even in its explicit expression, the Romney faith leads him to such out-of-the-mainstream-but-still-tolerable activities as singing hymns and praying for divine guidance while on business trips.

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Read the whole article, and about the worst you'll discover about Romney is that his "spiritual life revolves around personal rectitude. In Mormonism, salvation depends in part on constantly making oneself purer and therefore more godlike." Even the note that Romney, like other Mormons of his status, trades in his street clothes for white robes when he goes to his temple, is offered as a straightforward informational tidbit rather than with a sneer.

So what goes on here? What is prompting the Times-the paper that never fears chewing up a conservative on the slightest pretext-to go so easy, at least in this one major profile, on the presumed conservative candidate for president in this year's all-important election?

All we can do is speculate. But here's a thought to wrestle with.

When a person's religion is reduced to little more than a compilation of good works that everyone agrees are legitimately part of his resumé, it's pretty hard to beat up on such a person and/or his religion. Who can knock thriftiness or self-discipline or generosity? And the Mormon faith is, for better or for worse, typically defined in such a manner. They're such good folks, non-Mormons often say of their Mormon neighbors. They're just the very best kind of people you could possibly have living next to you.

Limit things to such a backdrop, and a good, morally upright, clean-living Mormon might well have as good a chance as any good, morally upright, clean-living Christian of getting fair treatment by The New York Times-and the rest of mainstream America.

But that's quite different from taking a close look at the truth claims of that person and/or his religion. Evangelical Christianity, for example, is what it is largely because of its claims (1) that the Bible is absolutely true and trustworthy and (2) that trusting in the work of Jesus is the only legitimate way for humans to be reconciled to God. Those are all-important truth claims-so audacious that they also become objectionable to many in the mainstream consideration of things.

A huge majority of the American public has no idea what Mormons claim to believe. If those holding to the Mormon faith were to place their distinctive truth claims front and center, the public response would be probing, negative, and nasty.

But the Mormon approach in general, and the Romney approach in particular, seem to minimize the public proclamation of truth claims, asking outsiders instead to judge them on the basis of their works and performance. At least for now, it seems to be working. Jodi Kantor and The New York Times, which may not be the best forum for examining truth claims, appear to have settled for such an arrangement. But I personally doubt that so timid an approach can withstand the vicious rigors of an entire presidential campaign.

Email jbelz@worldmag.com

Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.

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