A heated digital discussion following last week’s review of Dick and Joan Ostling’s Mormon America on this site brought up a set of pointed questions about religion and journalism.


Commenter Amanda P. wrote: “If you are interested in Mormonism, visit mormon.org and get your answers straight from the Church itself. This book is NOT an ‘objective’ point of view.”

To which commenter Henry James replied: “Re: the ‘mormon.org’ suggestion. [That] is an official Mormon web site, hardly the place to go for ‘objective’ information. [That’s] like going to MerrillLynch.org for the objective information on their regime change.”

As an old-school journalist (i.e. one born before 1980), RW’s sympathies lie with Henry James on this point. A reporter cannot cover the war on terror, for example, only by quoting Pentagon press releases. Rather, a reporter has to get out there and dig up hard information, seeking multiple points of view and documentary evidence when possible.

This was the approach of the Ostlings, it seems to RW, as they drew on the works of both Mormon, non-Mormon and ex-Mormon scholars in researching their books. They demonstrated that the church squelches alternative points of view among members, sometimes using excommunication or other punishments. The Ostlings write that, of course, “ecclesiastical censure as such is nothing unusual. Most religions have some form of discipline on the books, usually to deal with moral misconduct.” They continue:

The LDS Church, however, is unusual in penalizing members for merely criticizing officialdom or for publishing truthful — if uncomfortable — information.

If freedom of information is at question, then, the call to refer back to official church websites for an objective perspective rings somewhat hollow. Mormon.org, for example, does not mention anywhere the Mormon scholars the Ostlings interviewed, who were excommunicated in the 1990s for their academic work on the faith.

“Islam is Peace”

But if you really want to understand a faith, shouldn’t believers themselves offer the most definitive answers for curious outsiders? Do religious groups have a right to “media self-determination?”

The answer, in RW’s view, is yes and no. Following 9/11, for example, American Muslims have come forward to explain, time and again, the basics of Islamic faith and how terrorism is contrary to Islamic teachings. Such assertions from Muslims, however true, tend to exasperate fellow Americans largely, RW believes, because these “explanations” of the faith do not answer the central question of how 19 Muslim men could believe God wanted them to perpetrate the crimes of 9/11. Americans aren’t so interested in the details of Ramadan fasting or Muslim charitable giving — they need to know about the connection between Islam and terrorism.

Who Gets to Answer: “Are Mormons Christians?”

Just so, non-Mormon Americans have some central questions about Mormonism. One of the most oft-talked about is the question, “Are Mormons Christians?” And here is where the clash of perspectives between inside believers and outside observers really starts to generate sparks.

Both Mormon leaders and individual believers are quick to say they are Christians — they believe in Jesus Christ as Lord and await His Second Coming. Shouldn’t that be the end of it? Aren’t people allowed to define themselves? Again an analogy from Islam: Groups such as the Ismailis and Ahmadiyyas consider themselves Muslims, even while Sunni and sometimes Shia Muslims reject that idea and sometimes even persecute these groups. How should a reporter or other outside observer handle this question? Do you take a faith group at their word, do you listen to their rivals, or do you try to average between the two points of view?

One thing that both sides on the Mormon discussion should realize is there are no simple answers to these questions. Critics who assert that Mormons are not Christians must acknowledge the right of people to define their own beliefs; indeed, self-definition is an underpinning to American religious freedom. But just so, Mormons must realize there is a limit to the authority of self-definition. A believer insisting that “Mormons are Christians, period,” is somewhat like a Muslim believer saying, “Islam means peace, period.” In other words, there are some other issues to address. And one of these is the fact that the very idea of the “restored priesthood” in the Church of Latter-day Saints negates the validity of other Christian churches.

The Ostlings recount this story in their book:

A Mormon guiding a friend through the Salt Lake City visitors’ center in Temple Square asked, with tears in her eyes, ‘Why do so many people say we are not Christians? How can they, when the Savior is central to our faith?’ The friend paused and then responded, ‘But do you truly regard non-Mormon believers as fully Christian?’ The Mormon, seemingly unaware of the quid pro quo in her answer, exclaimed, ‘But that’s because we have the priesthood!’

Perhaps the most interesting new contribution to this are-Mormon-Christians discussion came last month from Richard Land, a leader of the Southern Baptist Convention, who said he considers Mormonism “the fourth Abrahamic religion-Judaism being the first, Christianity being the second, Islam being the third and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints being the fourth.” Land, who is supporting GOP presidential hopeful Mitt Romney, is a sympathetic outsider, trying to build a bridge to Romney across which his fellow evangelicals can walk. Will Mormon leaders and believers accept his definition?

**Your Questions for the Ostlings**

RW is currently seeking an interview with the Ostlings for this site, and she will gladly pose to them questions that readers suggest below in the comments section.

ReligionWriter also wishes you a happy Thanksgiving holiday.

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Even if you aren’t (interested in Mormonism), ReligionWriter still wants you to read Dick and Joan Ostling’s newly updated Mormon America because its multifaceted look at the LDS church will force you to reflect deeply on some of the most enduring puzzles of religion, such as:

How can intelligent people adhere to a faith that so defies reason? Yes, all religions require, at some point, a leap of faith: that Jesus was immaculately conceived and raised from the dead, or that the Buddha lived and achieved Enlightenment under his bodhi tree.

But to believe in the teachings of the LDS church (or its many splinter factions) presents even more immediate and vexing problems. To detail just two explored in the book:

Joseph Smith, Mormonism’s founding prophet, dabbled in the occult, was charged with various crimes, and, when pressuring a young woman to become his polygamous wife, told her she risked damnation if she refused. Not such an appealing figure when studied closely.

Then come damning critical looks at Mormon scripture. In 1835, Smith bought an Egyptian mummy and some papyri from a traveling exhibitor. Smith claimed to “translate” the hieroglyphics, some six years before the Rosetta Stone was cracked; he said the papyrus was actually the Book of Abraham, penned by the Prophet Abraham himself. Modern scholars of hieroglyphics have read reproductions of the papyri and, those that have deigned to comment on it, said it was simply a common burial papyri and not Abrahamic scripture of any sort.

If it’s almost too easy to punch holes in Mormon truth claims — and the Ostlings comprehensively lay out these challenges, and how the church has dealt with them over the years — it is not easy to explain why the faith has grown and thrived since its founding more than a century and a half ago.

Although the Ostlings don’t attempt to resolve this paradox of faith and reason, they do point out again and again how individual Mormons confront — and are encouraged by the church to confront — intellectual or factual challenges to their religion: by reading the Book of Mormon and other Mormon scriptures for themselves, praying for guidance and receiving direct confirmation from God that Joseph Smith was a true prophet and that the LDS church is the true church. That circular reasoning known as “having a testimony” is impossible to crack: “I know it’s true because I know it’s true.”

Serious Reporting on a Fascinating Faith

In case you don’t know, Dick Ostling is the godfather of religion reporting in the United States, on the beat for 40 years with the Associated Press, Time Magazine, the McNeil-Lehrer News Hour and CBS Radio. His co-author and wife Joan has also had a long and accomplished career in journalism. Point being, the book reflects the seasoned insights of professionals who have covered these issues for years and is a welcome change from many non-fiction investigative books by journalists who rely too much on “telling anecdotes” and portraits of individual characters to make their main points.

Indeed, pull up your theological socks, because the Ostlings don’t shy away from the heavy religion questions, devoting two entire chapters to the theology of Mormonism and how it compares to Christian creeds. If you are clueless about Mormonism — and wonder why in 2006 35% of Americans said they wouldn’t vote for a Mormon — then it might help to understand that Mormon creed holds that God has a physical body, is married and was once as human as we are now. That’s just one example of where Mormon theology differs radically from that of other Abrahamic faiths, all of which hold that God is infinite and uncreated.

The Ostlings dive deeply into this and other theological questions, and they are not just quoting experts: It seems they’ve read every article appearing over the last 30 years in the independent Mormon publications Sunstone and Dialogue, not to mention major scholarly and popular books on the church and its history.

The book also does an excellent job of describing the entire Mormon universe, covering not only the well-known LDS church, but also the many religious organizations that have splintered off from it, including the fundamentalist polygamy-practicing sects and groups that split off earlier in Mormon history, such as the now-renamed Community of Christ. And why do these other groups matter?

For one thing, they are an example of how schism tends to give birth to schism — that as Joseph Smith boldly struck out on his own religious path, so others followed in his footsteps, albeit on their own paths. For another, they show how the LDS church has been extremely successful over the years in consolidating power — a feat that is more impressive when you realize they have many competitors from their own religious universe, not just from long-hostile non-Mormon groups.

Is the LDS Church worrisome?

The tone of Mormon America is, like most works of journalism, objective, and the Ostlings strive to present multiple points of view on each issue. They do not turn away, however, from calling it like they see it. At the conclusion of their chapter on “Dissenters and Exiles,” for example, which is largely about intellectuals excommunicated from the LDS church in the 1990s, the Ostlings write pointedly:

For those in charge of any human institution, open debate can be irksome. In a religious institution, especially, uncertainty about belief can bring serious spiritual consequences. But there is always a high price to be paid when certain questions are not to be asked, when certain questioners are not welcome, and when certain leaders are not to be questioned.

The Ostlings describe the LDS church, on a detailed factual basis, as “authoritarian and secretive,” recounting how church-sponsored BYU severely restricts academic freedom, and how the church administration does not release facts and figures that are public knowledge in most other religious groups. “The Mormon administrative style is inspired by corporate America with its top-down authority and information controls, not democratic America,” write the Ostlings.

But wait, doesn’t this sound familiar? A homogeneous group of old men running a secretive and authoritarian religious organization that commands the loyalty of many millions of devoted followers? If you’re thinking the Vatican, you guessed right, and that comparison demonstrates that a religious group can indeed be secretive and authoritarian without necessarily being dangerous to themselves or others. (And compare that to the relatively democratic order of global Sunni Islam, where scholars must compete in an open marketplace to win adherents, and there is no central administrative structure — this very freedom has allowed nefarious guy #1, OBL, to hold himself up as a self-appointed leader.)

Is secretiveness in itself bad? Does it matter if no one will ever know what Mitt Romney’s tithing payments subsidize? (In chapter seven of the book, the Ostlings attempt to lay out the basics of the LDS financial structure, based on the shards of information collected around the barriers of secrecy — in spite of excellent work on their part, the picture remains murky. And speaking of that, Mitt Romney’s 10% tithing payments to the church must be enormous — will that amount come out in campaign financial disclosures?)

Mormons Abroad: What is the “Next Mormondom?”

The only thing ReligionWriter found lacking in the book was coverage of the Saint’s expansion overseas. The Ostlings apparently did not do any reporting in countries like Brazil that have relatively large Mormon populations. According to the concluding chapter of their book, “the 2007 LDS Church Almanac lists 12.56 million Saints worldwide, of whom 5.69 million (45 percent) live in the United States.” (This figure includes children not yet baptized into the church.) The Ostlings note that while conversion rates might seem high overseas, the attrition rates are high as well, and that LDS evangelism is “particularly sluggish” in Africa and Eastern Europe, where other religious movements are now thriving.

But the bigger questions are how the LDS church may adapt to its internationalization. After all, as scholar Philip Jenkins has written about extensively, the Protestant and Catholic churches are struggling to come to terms with the new Christian reality, in which a majority of believers are non-Western and residents of the poor “global South.” The Ostlings ask:

Why must missionaries wear the required uniform of white shirts and dark suits that mark them as outsiders? Cannot those thinly prepared young missionaries be supplemented by more missionaries of Catholic and Protestant style who spend careers deeply immersed in their foreign cultures? Why impose generic architectural plans from Salt Lake on meetinghouses in far-off places? … Why celebrate Pioneer Day in Bolivia? … Will the Americans atop the LDS power pyramid ever decide that foreigners, now a majority of membership, should be the majority among the apostles?

To ReligionWriter, who recently reported on the question of how national corporations can effectively go global, these questions seem eminently answerable for the LDS church. Given the noted similarities between the church and corporate culture, and given that so many Mormon leaders are business leaders and vice versa, it seems obvious that the church may eventually borrow insights from the corporate world on this question of how to globalize effectively.

Every international corporation must wrestle with the key question of how to balance centralization with local adaptation — Wal-Mart, ReligionWriter learned, pushed a highly centralized approach when moving into countries like Korea and Germany, and, apparently as a result, failed. It seems natural that insights like this from the business world would bubble up through the hierarchy.

But then, as the Ostlings write, insight is much more likely to trickle down than bubble up in the LDS church. It is fitting, then, that they end their book with a quick look at the roster of elderly men who are set to succeed the current LDS president, 97-year-old Gordon Hinckley. All you pope- and presidential-candidate-watchers, get ready for a horse race that will be every bit as interesting and important as those contests. If we are lucky, Dick and Joan Ostling will be there to help us make sense of it.

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