How to Talk to and Write about Mormons: A Guide

Greetings, journalist!

No doubt you’ve noticed that for the next few months, you will be hearing a lot about Mormons. And you will probably have to write about them. This is a problem, because it appears that nobody in the mainstream press knows how to write about Mormons, or to talk to them. This guide seeks to rectify that.

Things You Should Know About Mormons Before You Write About Them Or Talk To Them:

1. Mormons are rational about their religion

You may notice that almost every article about Mormons mentions sacred or magical underwear. Or maybe multiple wives. Or golden plates or peep stones in hats or treasure digging. What a crazy religion, you may say to yourself. I can’t believe millions of people in America believe this! This is so ridiculous!

Therefore, it is common to talk about how Mormons are deluded, naive perhaps, superstitious, or maybe even a little crazy or backwards. People love to focus on the tall tales of Mormonism, often to the exclusion of everything else. Maybe it’s because this is all new to you. Whenever you write articles about Christians, most journalists do not feel compelled to insert a paragraph about how Christians believe that a Middle Eastern peasant was killed and then came back to life, and that millions of Christians every Sunday participate in sacraments where they symbolically eat their God’s flesh and blood. There is no need to do so with Mormons.

Mormons regard themselves as very rational. When you run into a Mormon, whether or not you are interviewing him or her on purpose, ask why that person is Mormon. They will often speak of an experience where they feel the mundane and divine intersected. They may talk about our health code, which has been shown to produce happy, healthy Mormons. They may talk about Mormonism’s strong core family values and practices, which has been shown to produce relatively happy and strong families. They may talk about how Mormonism “makes sense in a logical way” that many Christian sects cannot or simply ignore.

The vast majority of Mormons have very good, personal, well thought out reasons for why they adhere to the faith. Questioning and gaining that personal reason is almost sacrosanct and required. You may not agree with their reasoning; however, it is important to weigh whether or not this is relevant to the story at hand. Use judgment and caution when assigning value judgments to other peoples’ faiths.

Above all, if you mention that Mormons believe that they can become gods with their own planets in the afterlife without mentioning much anything else, do not be surprised if Mormons openly deride your article. It is most likely because your piece lacks any journalistic rigor.

2. Mormons are strongly anchored around traditional families

Mormons love families. This you cannot overemphasize. We pay thousands of dollars to run commercials that do not push any of our specific denominational doctrines or ideas, but instead depict humorous family moments. This is a thing we kind of do. Lots of people like that about us.

Almost every political issue the Church (that is, the official Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) takes a stance on points back to this iron-clad belief in the family. Gay marriage? Defense of the traditional nuclear family. ERA in the 1970s? Preservation of old, conservative family values. Even subjects traditionally tied to economic or cultural reasons such as illegal immigration can (and will) be tied to the family (we believe that above all, even illegal immigrants deserve to keep their families intact, thus we espouse a more charitable and lenient policy compared to the rest of the Religious Right in America).

If you played Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon with a Mormon, except instead of Degrees you used Political and Theological Arguments and instead of Kevin Bacon you used Traditional Family, it would be a very easy game.

3. Mormonism has a cheatsheet when it comes to its beliefs

A lot of articles recently attempt to explain what Mormons believe and it often comes across as scattered, poorly researched, and barely coherent. There is usually an attempt to talk about who Joseph Smith was, or something about the Book of Mormon being about ancient American Hebrews, and then maybe a little bit about secret temples. Occasionally, it will highlight differences between Mormonism and “mainstream Christianity,” which says very little outside of declaring that fact. This is not only a disservice to Mormons, who are a minority and don’t have a lot of power in dictating media discourse about them — it is simply lazy journalism and you should be ashamed.

You should be doubly ashamed about this consistent inconsistency in quality when you realize (and most people already painfully know) that Mormonism is a strong, proselyting religion. We have tens of thousands of missionaries scattered across the globe trained to talk about Mormonism who rarely get interviewed. On top of that, we have a document called The Articles of Faith, thirteen points of doctrine which Joseph Smith drafted and was ratified by the Church as canonical scripture. It is available for free on the Internet, like Wikipedia.

When writing about Mormon beliefs, it is recommended one reads this document at least once. Instead of going to outside resources or touching on a few highlighted cultural oddities, it is recommended that journalists do their job and actually get to know what they are writing about before writing about them, and then to proceed with accuracy and fairness in mind.

4. Mormons are used to being persecuted

Recently, a friend told me about how a high school teacher refused to believe that Mormons were heavily persecuted in the 1800s. Most people are shocked when they hear the details of this persecution. Unfortunately, this was A Real Thing. Lots of Mormons died. Lots more were tarred and feathered or beaten or whipped. Even more lost their homes and property. Eventually, because the US Federal Government refused to intervene on the Church’s behalf, a lot of Mormons literally fled out of the United States into “unclaimed” Indian Territory, which is now present-day Utah. Mormons have not been treated even remotely fairly by American mainstream culture until roughly the 1950s and 1960s, a mere generation ago. Because of this, Mormons are very jumpy about how others view them.

If, when you approach a Mormon, they appear hostile, agitated, or ambivalent towards your presence or questions, it is important to understand this deep-rooted distrust of the outside world. While you should not compromise your journalistic mission and decline to ask hard questions, an understanding and acceptance of past treatment Mormons received will help you interact and write about this still relatively unknown denomination in the United States.

To use a cliche, they are perhaps more wary of you than you are of them.

5. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints stopped practicing polygamy in 1890

Apparently, people still think this is something Mormons do, despite the fact that LDS Mormons have not practiced in literally over a century. Polygamy is very much like Sarah Palin — no real relevance to current discourse or political events, but obsessed about by the media.

On top of this, Mormons have a very complex relationship with that marital practice. The closest analogy to a “mainstream” American may be slavery. White Americans have not practiced slavery for a while now. Still, many obsess about it; they talk about it incessantly, and bring it up when it bears little comparison to the subject at hand. Some people refuse to move past it, while many others refuse to even acknowledge it.

If you must talk about polygamy, understand you must talk about it tactfully. Avoid any opportunities where people can accuse you of sensationalist journalism. Tread carefully, and soberly. Above all, interview and talk to many Mormons about this subject, as viewpoints on polygamy vary wildly from member to member, just as one would expect if one brought up the history of slavery in America at a dinner party.

6. If you are not a Mormon, you are woefully ignorant about Mormonism

I have met many, many, many good people who are not Mormon. I have talked to a lot of them about Mormonism. Outside of one good friend who almost joined but decided ultimately in the end it was not for him, all of them had very little knowledge about Mormonism’s core beliefs and doctrines. America is well known for its religious illiteracy — multiply that by a large factor when it comes to Mormons.

Show humility when it comes to writing about our religion and when you talk to us. We like talking about ourselves and what we believe in; it is hardwired into our faith. Say you don’t know much about Mormonism, and we’ll fill in the rest. Everyone has their own opinion, so interview multiple Mormons. This may sound like hard work, but since you are getting paid for this piece you’re writing, don’t complain and just do it.

7. Just because everyone else around you is taking shortcuts doesn’t make it okay for you

It’s okay. We’re used to being the punching bag of American pop culture. Big Love upset us, especially its lack of respect for sacred Mormon traditions, but outside of (polite) angry letters, we won’t do much. The Book of Mormon musical sure makes us look like a bunch of (really really nice) dummies, and we’re used to that, too. So if you decide to take short cuts and write a terribly researched puff piece purporting to explain what Mormons believe and contribute to the general willful ignorance America exhibits concerning us, we’ve come to expect that, so it probably will not upset us that much.

However, understand that this lazy journalism contributes to the tense relationship American Mormons have with the rest of America. Prop 8 showed the rest of the country that while we may be a relatively small denomination, we have grown to such a size that we can wield disproportionately powerful regional influence. An honest, authentic, earnest dialogue needs to be opened up with the rest of America and Mormonism, if we are to learn to coexist peacefully next to each other without death threats, vandalism, and occasional clashes.

As the self-proclaimed, unofficial Fourth Branch of the Government, you, the Press, must engage journalism in a way beneficial to our burgeoning democracy. We are part of that democracy. If you wish to continue to misrepresent us, we will not do much to stop you. Honestly, we’re just glad you’ve stopped burning down our houses and chasing us out of the states we live in. We, for the most part, understand that this continual “bad” journalism is most likely a result of sloth and laziness, not out of any kind of malevolent agenda to slander us. But hopefully, sloth and an easy paycheck after a perfunctory skim of Wikipedia is not why you became a journalist. We do expect better, but perhaps we’re foolish to have such faith in you.

However, this blogger believes in you.

 

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4 Comments

Filed under politico, religion

4 responses to “How to Talk to and Write about Mormons: A Guide

  1. Wow, Ted. I sense a tiny bit of bitterness coming through here. Not in all of it, mind you. I actually agree with quite a few things that you said. Some of this sounds like you’re kind of sick of hearing about the Church out of the mouth of anyone who isn’t a member. Don’t get me wrong, I agree about the press doing their homework. However, I felt like some of these points were saying, “You pretty much don’t know what you’re talking about unless you check with a slew of Mormons first.”

    Calling people “woefully ignorant” about Mormonism seems like a bit of a stretch. Yes, nonmembers are missing key spiritual information about our faith that can only be discovered through thoughtful study and prayer, but that’s not what they are reporting on. They are reporting the facts, which, like you stated, can be researched well and presented in a way that doesn’t make us all want to roll our eyes or pitch hot coals at someone’s face. And if Mormons can be so rational & educated about their faith (which I wholeheartedly agree with, by the way), then why can’t nonmembers be rational & educated about what they find?

    That’s just my two cents. 🙂

    [PS… This right here made me LOL so hard that I almost cried –> “Polygamy is very much like Sarah Palin — no real relevance to current discourse or political events, but obsessed about by the media.” Oh dear Ted, how I love you.]

    • Ted

      There is probably bitterness, yes, but hopefully not too much!

      My big beef with the media is that they can report “facts” about us just fine, but they have a difficult time constructing a narrative. Here’s an example of what I mean. If the press treated Jewish people the same way that they treat Mormons, they would report on them somewhat like this:

      Judaism, explained

      1. It is estimated that there are 13 – 18 million Jews in the world. A little over 5 million Jews live in the United States.

      2. Jewish people believe that God has chosen them as His people and will guide them to prosperity.

      3. Jews celebrate a series of holidays throughout the year, which consist of rituals such as not eating anything “leavened” (fermented with yeast), sitting in tents made of branches, and lighting menorahs (specially designed candlestick holders).

      4. Many Jews died in The Holocaust during the Nazi regime. About six million of them were murdered in this way.

      5. Christians have sometimes persecuted Jews because of religious differences.

      …and so on.

      Either they are cherry picking salacious facts, or they are just pulling out random ones and struggle to make any sense out of them. Suppose someone who knew nothing of Judaism came across this list. This list tells them nothing essentially important about Judaism or makes any real rational sense. They just come away with some facts that make them feel like they know enough about the religion (when they will, in fact, know very little about it at all), or just confused about what Judaism is all about.

      Like I said, America is woefully religiously illiterate. But it doesn’t help that for the first century or so of our existence the media actually did a maliciously horrible job telling our story. Now, they try to tell our story because we’ve become nationally relevant, but they’re just taking all kinds of short cuts and contributing to the already massive misunderstanding people have about our religion. I’m not saying that this only happens to us; the press (and most Americans) are generally inept at explaining other peoples’ religions in general. But I feel that the press (and I refer to it as a monolithic institution while I acknowledge it is not always like that) in general really don’t care about us and so they do a pretty poor job explaining to the world what we actually believe in.

      I think most people are “woefully ignorant” about us. I stand by this. Take any random non-Mormon on the street and ask them what Mormons believe in and you’re gonna get a really jumbled up answer. Sure, they might get some data points right, but the general curve of the graph won’t match (if they can even map any kind of curve at all from point to point). But then again, do this with almost any religion and people will not understand. So I suppose I am just bitter about America’s religious illiteracy just in general, and the willful ignorance the press seems willing to display towards us aggravates me even further. Insult to injury.

    • Ted

      Also, I love really astute and thoughtful commentary from non-Mormons, mostly because I find the difference in perspective fascinating. I’m actually one of those people who, from what I’ve heard about the Book of Mormon musical, still wants to see it. I think it’s great people think we are really, really nice people with other peoples’ best interests in heart, even if they think our beliefs are really wacky. Everyone’s religious beliefs are a bit wacky. At least we’re not the wacky jerks. We’re the wacky nice guys.

      Just wanted to throw that out there. I actually welcome outside observation and criticism because as a life-long Mormon, sometimes I’m too steeped in my own scope of thought to see some of the problems (and also good things) we experience, but the mainstream press rarely offers any of that. We usually get a puff piece about how great we are at business (not a compliment, in my opinion) or we get some regurgitation of facts that Wikipedia does a better job making sense of piecing together (outside of op-eds, we really haven’t received much hostile press recently).

  2. matt

    Very well written, I would add

    8. Stop interviewing and using ex Mormons as sources, most or all of which are extremely bitter and hostile toward the church for one reason or another, through fault of their own. They are relatively very few but many of those have been excommunicated from the church and are now hell-bent on slandering and persecuting the church. Stick to official representatives or websites for info about beliefs, or at minimum members in good standing with the church ( which really just means the collective body of active member trying to live up to the standards they believe in)

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