. . . Waiting to hear about John McCain’s VP choice, we thought we would reprint one of our longest, and most read and quoted pieces. In April of ’07 Kenneth Woodward, under the guise of expertise, authored a piece in the NYTimes on Romney and Mormonism that was nothing short of scandalous. At Hugh Hewitt’s request, on April 10, 2007 we “fisked” it. Lowell started the ball rolling:
Well, maybe that should be the clueless and arrogant elitism of Kenneth Woodward, Newsweek’s retired religion editor. All three defects appeared in Woodward’s New York Times op-ed yesterday.
Most people who follow the issue of Mitt Romney’s religion and its impact on his candidacy have already read Kenneth Woodward’s Times piece, The Presidency’s Mormon Moment. As a Mormon, or a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the “Church”), I had become accustomed to Woodward’s writing about my faith. His work seemed to me consistently negative, often simply mistaken or at best distorted in important respects, and frequently unfair.
Apparently I wasn’t the only Mormon who thought so. As I wrote yesterday, Jan Shipps is the foremost non-Mormon scholar of Mormonism. In 2002 Shipps wrote about press coverage of the Church during the during the 2002 Salt Lake Olympics. In a revealing aside, she reports that Woodward, while writing a Newsweek cover story on the Church’s impact on the Games, couldn’t get even one member of the LDS First Presidency or Quorum of Twelve Apostles to sit for an interview. Presumably the LDS leaders were gun-shy because of Woodward’s poor history of writing about Mormons.
That’s kind of like a reporter on the Congressional beat who has burned so many members of Congress so many times, no congressman or congresswoman will talk to him.
So I came to Woodward’s op-ed with low expectations. When I first blogged about it yesterday, I didn’t even bother to question the biggest howlers in his piece. Ironically, only after I saw the outraged reactions of my Evangelical co-blogger John and Hugh Hewitt (also a non-Mormon) did I realize how poor a job Woodward had done.
When I briefly called in to Hugh’s show toward the end of the day, he urged us to “do an annotated edition of the Woodward interview.” Well, we’ll improve a little on Hugh’s idea and annotate portions of both the New York Times op-ed itself and Hugh’s interview. Remember those three themes: (1) clueless (2) arrogant (3) elitist.
The New York Times Op-ed
Quoted below are some of the more galling paragraphs from Mr. Woodward’s piece:
“Among the reasons Americans distrust the Mormon church is Mormon clannishness. Because every worthy Mormon male is expected to be a lay priest in voluntary service to the church, the demands on his time often leave little opportunity to cultivate close friendships with non-Mormon neighbors. A good Mormon is a busy Mormon. Those — like Mr. Romney — who serve as bishops (pastors of congregations) often find it difficult to schedule evenings at home with their own families.”
It’s hard to know where to begin with this one. As a Mormon, I always smile when people like Mr. Woodward tell me what my life is like. My non-Mormon friends and neighbors will probably find it surprising that I don’t have time for them. Jesting aside, it is true that we Mormons develop fast friendships within our faith community. Beyond that, a gross generalization like Woodward’s is simply impossible to respond to.
“To many Americans, Mormonism is a church with the soul of a corporation. Successful Mormon males can expect to be called, at some time in their lives, to assume full-time duties in the church’s missions, in its vast administrative offices in Salt Lake City or in one of many church-owned businesses. Mormons like to hire other Mormons, and those who lose their jobs can count on the church networks to find them openings elsewhere. Mr. Romney put those same networks to effective use in raising part of his $23 million in campaign contributions.”
“To many Americans.” Which ones would those be? I suspect that means, “To Ken Woodward.” It’s a little hard to imagine someone remarking, during a lunchtime conversation, “You know, that Mormon Church really does seem to have the soul of a corporation, doesn’t it?”
Now, I’m not a journalist, I’m a mere attorney, and maybe I have too much respect for the idea that assertions need some factual support, and simply citing “many Americans” as support doesn’t suffice. Don’t journalists– even those writing op-ed pieces– think so too?
As for the basic assertion here, the Church has a lay ministry, so we all have to serve in order for the organization to survive. Some teach little children in Sunday School, some serve as Scoutmaster. A very few serve in the top-level positions to which Woodward refers. The business about the “church networks” finding us jobs– well, we wish that were true. We do have an employment service that charges no commission to prospective employers, but that service is open to all comers, Mormon and non-Mormon, and the applicants eventually have to get past the interviews and actually convince the employer they’re qualified.
In Woodward’s April 9 interview with Hugh Hewitt, Hugh raised Woodward’s “to many Americans” language. This exchange (in blue type below) ensued:
HH: . . . What do you base that on?
KW: Oh, come on. What do you want me to say? 562,000 Americans, as opposed to 57, 14…you know…
HH: Just a level, just a level, just sort of a rough number.
KW: Yeah, yeah, I think that’s the image of it, and that’s the way I put it. I think you know that.
HH: No, but I mean, how many is many? I’m sure that some people believe that. But at what point…what do you think? How many, what percentage of Americans do you believe believe that?
KW: I don’t know. Am I supposed to know?
HH: Yeah, I think you write something in the New York Times, you ought to have something to back it up.
KW: Hey, look, you know, you’re kind of unbelievable. Look, what did you want me to do? Run a survey before I did it? Of course I used many. I could have used some. I think that’s true.
HH: Could have used a few.
KW: And you’re really picking at something. I mean, you know, you’ve got a bug up your butt about something, I don’t know.”
Does anyone else detect some real annoyance on Woodward’s part at being held to account this way? I wonder if he was ever subjected to such scrutiny during his 38 years as Newsweek’s religion editor?
Back to Woodward’s op-ed:
“Moreover, Mormons are perceived to be unusually secretive. Temple ceremonies — even weddings — are closed to non-Mormons, and church members are told not to disclose what goes on inside them. This attitude has fed anti-Mormon charges of secret and unholy rites.”
[This is a very old anti-Mormon argument; we commented on it in detail here.]
“[T]he candidate should take the time to set the record straight. . . . But Mr. Romney must be sure to express himself in a way that will be properly understood. Any journalist who has covered the church knows that Mormons speak one way among themselves, another among outsiders. [What?] This is not duplicity but a consequence of the very different meanings Mormon doctrine attaches to words it shares with historic Christianity.
“For example, Mormons speak of God, but they refer to a being who was once a man of ‘flesh and bone,’ like us.”
[Well, no. We believe God, the Father of us all, now has a body of flesh and bone. We do believe God is an exalted man, and that’s a complex doctrine I can’t do justice to here. But I won’t quibble about small stuff like that. When Catholics talk about the Stations of the Cross, I must admit I am not sure what they’re talking about either. Even so, I know it’s important to my Catholic friends, so I leave it alone.]
John inserts himself briefly: I have read several books on Mormon theology and the best of them, one by Robert Millet out of BYU and the other co-authored by Stephen Robinson (Mormon) and Craig Bloomberg (creedal), admit that creedals and Mormons often use the same words in different ways. However, in my experience is this does not lead to “talking differently” inside and outside, but rather a whole lot of ground-laying when talking at all.
Besides, this is really a thinly-veiled accusation of lying. It is a particularly egregious accusation because its real purpose is to lend credence to attacks on other fronts that might otherwise be considered trivial, like the whole hunting thing. This is a truly ugly form of bias and bigotry. We really should be better than this as a nation.
And now – back to quoting Woodward and Lowell:
“[Mormons] speak of salvation, but to them that means admittance to a “celestial kingdom” where a worthy couple can eventually become “gods” themselves. The Heavenly Father of whom they speak is married to a Heavenly Mother. And when they emphasize the importance of the family, they may be referring to their belief that marriage in a Mormon temple binds families together for all eternity.”
[Yes, that's part of it, because we believe the family unit can be eternal. Most people find that to be a very appealing idea. It is not some kind of code; it's simply what we believe.]
“Thus, when Mr. Romney told South Carolina Republicans a few months ago that Jesus was his ‘personal savior,’ he used Southern Baptist language to affirm a relationship to Christ that is quite different in Mormon belief. (For Southern Baptists, ‘personal savior’ implies a specific born-again experience that is not required or expected of Mormons.)”
[That’s news to me. See if you can read this chapter from the Book of Mormon– well-known to committed Church members– and come to the same conclusion. Hint: It discusses how “to gain salvation, men must repent and keep the commandments, be born again, cleanse their garments through the blood of Christ, be humble and strip themselves from pride and envy, and do the works of righteousness.”]
‘Especially at Regent University, Mr. Romney should avoid using language that blurs fundamental differences among religious traditions. Rather, he should acknowledge those differences and insist that no candidate for public office should have to apologize for his or her religious faith.”
[But isn't Woodward asking that Romney do just that? Does Woodward really believe that once Romney makes an "explanation" of Mormon doctrines, that will be the end of the matter, the way Kennedy's speech ended discussion of his Catholicism? Call me cynical, but I can imagine a story about Romney's "explanation," complete with quotes from leaders of other faiths, disagreeing with him or accusing him of revising "real" Mormon doctrine to make it more palatable. Of course there would be quotes from other Mormons claiming he got the doctrine wrong, and the obligatory quote from something Brigham Young or Joseph Smith is claimed to have said on the same subject 150 years ago. The discussion would be a confusing mess, and voters would be no better prepared to vote for or against Romney than they were before the explanation.]
“Finally, there is the question of authority in the Church of Latter-day Saints, and of what obligations an office holder like Mr. Romney must discharge. Like the Catholic Church, the Mormon Church has a hierarchical structure in which ultimate authority is vested in one man. But unlike the pope, the church’s president is also regarded as God’s own “prophet” and “revelator.” Every sitting prophet is free to proclaim new revelations as God sees fit to send them — a form of divine direction that Mormon missionaries play as a trump card against competing faiths.”
If Woodward had read Hugh Hewitt’s book, or this very blog, he would know that Romney has specifically addressed that very subject:
“Would you ever expect a call from [LDS Church] President Hinckley or his successor?” I asked.
“No,” he emphatically replied. “Absolutely not. And I’d also note that when you take the oath of office, that is your highest oath and first responsibility. That’s true when you become governor, it’s certainly true for anyone who becomes president. When I placed my hand on . . . the Bible . . . when I was sworn in as governor . . . my highest and first responsibility was to honor my oath of office and follow the Constitution and protect the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. For those sworn into national office, their highest obligation is to the nation. It would be inappropriate for Church officials to contact me and it would be less than appropriate for me to take guidance from any institution other than caring first for the oath of office.”
How many times does Romney have to say that? Hugh’s book, by the way, is a quick but informative read. Woodward ought to get himself a copy. Back to Woodward’s op-ed:
The issues above are real to many people . . .
There he goes again with that anonymous source!
The Hugh Hewitt Interview
Hugh had Woodward on his show for the better part of an hour yesterday. The entire interview is here, and I recommend it to you. Mostly it consists of Hugh trying to get a straight answer out of Woodward, and we can’t really blog about it very effectively.
As I listened to a podcast of the interview this morning, I noticed this exchange for the first time:
HH: Do you have any Mormons who are friends of yours?
HH: Close friends?
KW: Yeah. . . . The Mormons I would tend to meet with would tend to be journalists and academics. I mean, I used to go…are you familiar with the Sunstone, the Mormon magazine?
HH: Yes. . . .
KW: All right. I’ve addressed their conference a couple of times, so you can get a different kind of Mormon at those places.
So the Mormons Woodward knows well are journalists, academics, and those who attend Sunstone conferences. There isn’t space here to describe everything I think that means, but I suspect that even members of those three groups would readily tell you that they are far from representative of most Mormons. For example, the majority of them would, I’ll wager, be much bigger fans of Harry Reid than Mitt Romney. Also, on the pages of Sunstone you will very often find criticism of the Church from what might best be described as a “liberal,” or left-leaning, point of view. In fact, the journal’s then-editor once described Sunstone to me as the voice of the “loyal opposition” within Mormonism.
That’s Woodward’s “focus group” for understanding what Mormons are like and what we really think, and it shows: Woodward said he read his comment about the Church having “the soul of a corporation” to some of his Mormon friends, and they “laughed.” Well, it’s no surprise that Mormons in that demographic group would laugh at such a comment. Some of them whom I know personally have been expressing that very sentiment for years.
(Full disclosure: I was a Sunstone staffer 30 years ago during my student days. I’m afraid I was a real slacker, and did little for the cause; I quit after a year or so because of my personal discomfort with the journal’s tone, content, and direction.)
Beyond that, this excerpt may be the most telling of the entire interview:
HH: No, but I think it’s a fairly bigoted piece that does great injury to…
KW: Well, you obviously have made that point. And I think you know, I think you’re wrong, that’s all.
HH: And so if a bunch of Mormons wrote you that they were offended by it, would you take into account…
KW: I expect someone to, yeah. I expect them to do that. I expect somebody will.
HH: And that won’t bother you?
KW: Not particularly, no. Not unless they’ve got a good argument to make, better than yours.
HH: At what point do stereotypes begin to drive religious bigotry in ways that hurt the society at large?
KW: I don’t know, because I don’t indulge in those kind of stereotypes?
HH: So what’s the difference between Mormons hiring other Mormons and Jews hoarding money? Both stereotypes. What’s the difference?
KW: Well, I don’t think Jews hoard money.
HH: So it’s just…
KW: But I do think…I know Mormons hire other Mormons.
HH: So it’s the Gospel according to Woodward?
KW: And it’s not a negative…hey, you know what? It’s not negative. It’s not negative. It’s perfectly understandable, okay?
HH: And if Mormons told you it was negative, would that matter to you?
HH: So it is the Gospel according to Woodward. . . . Are you open to the argument that maybe this was tremendously offensive to Mormons?
KW: I’m open to the argument, yeah. So what?
HH: All right. So what? I guess not. . . .
KW: I know what you think.
HH: If you went through and substituted Jew for Mormon, it would be one of the most…
KW: Oh, that’s too simple-minded. It really is too simple-minded.
HH: Why, because…
KW: There are groups…have you ever been around the Greek Orthodox?
HH: Why, are they secretive, too?
KW: They are an ethnically based Church. And it’s to be expected. Not secretive…
HH: Well, what do they do that’s…
KW: Not secretive.
HH: Are they secretive?
KW: Not secretive, no. You supplied the word, I didn’t.
HH: So what’s…
KW: Greeks, Greeks feel more comfortable with other Greeks. Greeks often, unfortunately, I’ve seen this in the orthodox world, are…they’ve had a considerable rubbing against, say, the Russian Orthodox, all right? It’s part of the history.
HH: Can you give me any…
KW: Just there. It’s there in society.
HH: Can you give me any…
KW: You seem to find this extraordinary news. I don’t.
HH: How about Irish Catholics? Give me a couple of things to go by on those?
KW: Well, they used to be, but not much anymore, because…
HH: They were drinkers, right?
KW: They’ve lost a lot of…
HH: We drank a lot.
KW: The lot of…their clannishness. Well, we did at Ignatius. [That's Woodward's Catholic high school in Cleveland. –Ed.] I don’t know about other places.
Well, you get the picture. Again, I have a hunch that Ken Woodward is not accustomed to close, probing, real-time analysis of his work, or challenges to his conclusions. Maybe he retired from the MSM just in time.
John adds: OK, my first comment is frustration – I am on vacation for crying out loud! This blog has a very narrow portfolio, why does stuff have to break while I am on vacation!?!?! I guess that is why God invented laptops and hotels with high speed connections. Now to get serious.
First of all, I think Woodward was born in the stone age and has stayed there. Consider this from the April 9 interview with Hewitt:
HH: What I want to talk to you about are some of the statements made in your New York Times piece today, as whether or not you personally subscribe to them. For example, Kenneth Woodward, do you personally believe that the Mormon Church is clannish?
KW: I think as a generalization, that’s true. And I don’t mean is so much negatively. If you can remember when Italians couldn’t get into an Irish union, never mind blacks getting into a white union, preserving jobs for their friends and so on, that’s a kind of thing that I’m talking about. I’m thinking about…but more importantly, look at their history. You know, they were people forged on an exodus, with a huge amount of intermarriage, a strong sense that the world was against them, and also, a Church as welfare state, the food in the basement, that kind of stuff. Now they do look after each other. I was talking to a friend of mind, a classmate, who was a National Security Advisor in Nixon’s administration. And we were talking about just that thing. They’ve got people in at a certain point, and certainly after a while, more Mormons were coming in and so on.
Our nation has spent the better part of the last century trying to overcome precisely the prejudices that Woodward seems to intimate were somehow benign and non-problematic. I find his appeal to history, even Mormon history, fascinating. It is after all very old history and yet he makes the appeal several times in the interview with Hewitt. Here is just one other example:
HH: All right, how about this line. To many Americans, Mormonism is a Church with the soul of a corporation. Do you believe that, Kenneth Woodward?
KW: Do I believe that?
KW: I think that’s a pretty good description. I bounced it off a few Mormons, and they laughed and said yeah.
HH: Well, what do you mean by it?
KW: Oh, there is a corporate side to it. I think the communal and communitarian side that was pretty, how would you want to say, pretty radical in the 19th Century. The old Mormonism, if you will, had issued in a very strong corporate style.
Mormons do have a unique and interesting history, but this is now not then. First of all, we addressed much of this history and how the CJCLDS has changed in the five-part series we did on Kathleen Flake’s book on the seating of Reed Smoot to the US Senate 100 years ago. If you are interested, here it is: I — II — III — IV — V. In that series we asserted and demonstrated that the CJCLDS has historical issues that are, first of all, similar to those that most creedal Christian sects have had and that like creedal Christian sects they have worked hard to overcome those issues, meaning what may have been a problem in history, is not a problem now. Bringing it up is a bit like saying Jimmy Carter or Bill Clinton had big issues because they hailed from slave states.
Woodward attempts to excuse his clear bigotry by saying he was discussing what he thought was the common “perception” of Mormons, e.g.
HH: Okay, what about when you write the Mormons…
KW: Well, I don’t see the distinction you’re trying to make between secret and closed. I’m saying when things are closed, this…and what’s the verb in there, huh? Perceived.
There are still people out there that “perceive” blacks as . . . well, I can’t bring myself to write it. Which is, I think, the point. People with those “perceptions” are called bigots and we do not pass on the views of bigots as blithely and non-judgmentally as Woodward did in his op-ed or his interview with Hewitt. I mean, where do we hear from the KKK now? Mostly from Jerry Spinger and his ilk, and mostly because the KKK has descended to the level of self-parody. And yet in this instance those “perceptions” are reported as a matter of course without the ridicule, denial, or incredulity that we see in other cases thereof.
All we get are glowing pieces about Barack Obama; nobody is writing pieces about how the remaining racists in the nation perceive blacks in general and how that could be a problem for Obama. I wonder why?
One last refutation – Woodward contends that “Mormons hire Mormons.” Conveniently, yesterday’s Washington Post published a profile of the Romney campaign’s inside circle. It does not mention the religious affiliation of any of them. There is only one I know for sure is Mormon (Spencer Zwick), but there are several I know for sure are not. So, where’s the beef?
But I think the last paragraph of Hewitt’s original blog post on the Woodward op-ed may be the most telling thing written on all of this to date:
…I wonder at what point will Beltway-Manhattan elite media have to recognize that Romney has been asked often and has answered all of the “questions” raised by Mr. Woodward? It is one of the essential traits of bigotry to refuse to acquaint oneself with the easily available facts about the object of the scorn so as to nurse that scorn more easily.
More than ever this incident demonstrates that the old media is on its last legs and cannot survive. Woodward has clearly been lazy in the preparation of this piece. It seems apparent, particularly from the interview, that he did not do a stitch of original work in the writing of this piece; in his retirement he appears to have relied on his recollections and old notes to cobble something together. His appeals to “old Mormonism” seem a tacit admission to that very fact. Before new media, he could have gotten away with this, but no more.
In isolation, this piece would not seem so bad, but in the Internet age, no piece in a major newpaper exists in isolation. One of the more truly amazing things about this is that the newspaper that considers itself “American’s paper of record” is so far behind the curve here. Woodward’s piece is remarkably similar to the dozens of others we have seen and linked to on this blog over the last year. When everybody read just their local paper such pieces were not part of the news, but instead they were THE news, but now they simply have the appearance of piling on. The Old Grey Lady is reduced to attempting to have the final say instead of THE say.
In other words, the new media has exposed this latent bigotry in a new and vital way. What used to be “conventional wisdom” has in this case been exposed as collective ignorance, a decision to “refuse to acquaint oneself with the easily available facts” and bias. The key question is bias against what? Given Woodward’s history of Mormon bashing, it is hard to know for him specifically, but across the MSM it should be obvious. The bias is against conservatism far more than Mormonism, but they appear not afraid to use Romney’s faith as a tool in that effort.
The other thing that is apparent, particularly in the interview and Woodward’s appeal to “perception,” is that they want to make a case not only that Mormons are wierd, but also that Evangelicals are bigots. They think they have a “twofer” on their hands. And here the new media really shines. They no longer can function as gatekeepers, and we can get the word out that their stereotypes of Mormons and Evangelicals is just wrong. The Old Grey Lady cannot even manage the final say.