Tuesday, March 13, 2007

My Email Exchange With a Boston Globe Journalist

I had a brief email exchange with a Boston Globe columnist that wrote a pretty unflattering article on Mitt Romney titled "A Mormon president? I don't think so." My quibble with him wasn't so much what he said about Mitt, but how he purposefully confused polygmists in Utah with members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons).

The church has gone to great pains to promulgate prophet Wilford Woodruff's 1890 declaration condemning polygamy, deemed to have superseded Smith's earlier, contrary revelation. HBO, which continues to broadcast "Big Love," a series about a polygamist who lives outside Salt Lake City, apparently didn't get the memo.

Nor did PBS. "The Mormons" estimates that 30,000 to 60,000 fundamentalist believers practice polygamy. Whitney has footage of 11 happy children passing plates around the dinner table, with three mothers and a father in attendance. Heather has three Mommies! Sorry, I couldn't resist.

Now, clearly Mr. Beam doesn't understand how the LDS church works. Anything declared to be doctrine of the church by the President (think of him as the Pope) and sustained unanimously by the rest of the leadership and the general membership is the OFFICIAL DOCTRINE OF THE CHURCH--end of story. It's not a suggestion or a friendly reminder. Anyone who goes against official doctrine will be disciplined, and often excommunicated as in the Catholic church. So anyone caught practicing polygamy would no longer be a member of the LDS church if they didn't renouce it. Hence, they are no longer a "Mormon," a term historically applied to members of the LDS church.

The so-called Mormon fundamentalists (a term invented by the media) that practice polygamy are really a mixture of different groups. Some of them are groups started by people excomunicated by the LDS church after 1890, others are independent groups or individuals that figured being a polygamist was just swell. Each group has their own name for their group or church e.g. the fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ, the Apostolic United Brethren, etc. The first group may call themselves the "true Mormons," but since they number about 10,000 members, is it really fair for the media to lump them in with the 12 million international members of the LDS church (most reside outside the U.S.)?

So when Mr. Beam snarkily writes that some fictional character in an HBO series "didn't get the memo," he's implying that all polygamists in Utah are Mormons regardless of what is actually LDS official doctrine. Apparently PBS believes that too, according to Beam's account of their documentary "The Mormons." Believe me, I'm going to watch that documentary and if PBS doesn't distinguish between Mormons and non-Mormon polygamists, they will get a long letter from me. Be very afraid PBS!

You might be thinking, well what's the big deal if people confuse polygamists with Mormons? If you didn't know already, I am LDS and I'm not ashamed of it. I enjoy sharing my faith with others that are interested in what I believe and I don't mind correcting misperceptions. But it gets a little tiresome telling someone for the umpteenth time, "No, I'm not a polygamist and that practice was banned in my church over 100 years ago" or hearing for the millionth time an Mormon polygamy joke. Polygamy has never been a part of my life and it hasn't been a part of LDS culture for several generations. It's more of a historical footnote--interesting, but incredibly alien. It would be like associating an old Catholic practice like indulgences with modern Catholics. Can you imagine if you are Catholic, people constantly cracking jokes about how Catholics pay money for their sins? Or how about accusing Jewish people of stoning adulters?

I think part of the reason why the LDS church is constantly associated with polygamy is that many people in the media are too intellectually lazy or dishonest to bother making the distinction. Sometimes, it's an honest mistake. I wrote Mr. Beam with the assumption that it was an unintentional oversight (I always give people the benefit of the doubt at first). But it became clear to me that Mr. Beam had his own agenda regarding Mitt Romney and Mormons.

Here's my first email to him:

Mr. Beam,

I wish you and others in the media would be a little more thoughtful before you smeared me and my fellow religionists as polygamists. I'm getting a little tired of people asking me if I have several mothers. The polygamists you mentioned in your article are in NO WAY affliated with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints a.k.a. the Mormon church. Polygamy has not been official doctrine of the church since 1890. Anyone that practices polygamy is immediately excommunicated. Just because these polygamists call themselves Mormon fundamentalists does not make them Mormons. It would be like me deciding to call myself a Baptist fundamentalist because I believe in some of the same things Baptists believe. The next time you write about Mormons, please clarify the difference between actual Mormons and these so-called Mormon fundamentalists if you're going to bring up polygamy. This will lessen the confusion.

Thank you.

My email might have been a little cranky, but seriously, what was with the "Heather has 3 mommies" jibe?

His response was:

My brother Episcopalians who have sworn loyalty to African bishops still call themselves Episcopalians. I could call them whatever I like, but it's their self-definiton that matters.

I was surprised by his disingenuousness. What does confusing polygamists with LDS members have to do with the Episcopalian squabble over ordaining women and homosexuals? Apparently, he's sore about some Episcopalian congregations leaving the Episcopal church in the USA (ECUSA) and joining with some other Anglican churches in Africa. But the point is that they are all still part of the Anglican Communion. And I'm sure if he were writing an article about the ECUSA, he would be sure to differentiate between the two groups. And I could call myself the Queen of England, but unless I fit the actual definition of queen and I in truth rule over the country of England, it doesn't matter one bit what my self definition is.

So I wrote back:

The example you give isn't really relevant since the Episcopalians haven't officially split over their differences on their theology. In the case of Mormons and Mormon Fundamentalists, they split over a hundred years ago on the point of polygamy. Thus it isn't fair to lump them together. It would be like lumping Greek and Russian Orthodox sects together because at one point they were one body.

I guess this wasn't entirely accurate since Episcopalians decided to recognize non-American bishops as their leaders, but like I said, they are still part of the Anglican Communion. However, I must have irked Mr. Beam somehow as all he wrote back was this:

Maybe you talk about LDS, and I'll talk abt my religion.

Ooh! Testy!

I thought about writing a flaming response back, but though better of it.

Mr. Beam,

I'm not a journalist--you are and you are the one that wrote about the LDS church and the polygamist groups. If I were a journalist and I wrote an article on the Episcopal church, I would try to be as fair and accurate as possible. If an Episcopalian wrote me noting an inaccuracy in my article, I would do my best to correct or clarify it. All I'm asking for here is that you clarify the difference between the LDS church and all of these other polygamous sects.

Your article states that there are about 30,000 to 60,000 polygamists in Utah. Well that is small number compared to the over 12 million members of the LDS church, none of whom practice polygamy. The polygamous groups each have their own churches which go by distinct names, e.g. The Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, The Apostolic United Brethren, The Latter-day Church of Christ. Whether they label themselves as Mormon is immaterial since the term Mormon has traditionally been applied to members of the LDS church.

Maybe you've never been the victim of religious bigotry--I have. I found it to mostly be the result of misinformation largely perpetuated by the media. Several times, I've had colleagues surprised to learn that I was LDS because I seemed so normal compared with the stereotype perpetuated in the media that Mormons live on polygamists ranches with long braids and dresses to the ankles. One reason that I appreciate the Fox News channel is that whenever the issue of polygamy comes up, they make the effort to clarify that the LDS church is not affiliated with these polygamous groups. It doesn't take much to do this, just one sentence.

I think that you are probably a fair-minded person that would rather see less bigotry
in our society. If you are so inclined, I simply ask that you issue a small clarification or if that's not possible, keep what I said in mind the next time you or your colleagues write about Mormonism.

I didn't get a response from Mr. Beam this time. I guess he was just too busy and I was just too annoying with my demand for fair treatment. Maybe I shouldn't have brought up Fox News. Just the mention of the far-right propaganda channel must have really burned him up.

What I learned from this exchange is that some journalists could care less about what the truth is, as long as it fits with their clever little punchlines or smears someone they dislike. Alex Beam clearly does not like Mitt Romney and along with some in the MSM would like the term polygamy to be associated with him as much as possible so that he has no chance of winning the Republican nomination. How else does one explain the Boston Globe and other media outlets publishing an article entitled Romney Family tree has polygamy branches? Well, some of my ancestors were Quakers, but that doesn't have any bearing on me now. Journalists that use these types of attacks don't care that this perpetuates religious bigotry, but I guess bigotry is ok as long as it only affects religious conservatives.

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