Explain it to me better: A Response to CNN on Mormonism

For a reason that is hard to understand, there have been Mormons that are impressed with how a short CNN web segment explains the Mormon religion. They might not agree with everything on the video, but the respect for it runs strong. Perhaps Mormons are grateful for any perceived neutral or positive presentation of the religion. Perhaps they are happy for any secular mention considering the lack of outraged response to the blasphemous and disgusting “Book of Mormon” musical. A growing and influential religion deserves better than what has come out of obscurity, although a lack of respect and understanding about religion in general is part of today’s society.

The short report by CNN religion editor Dan Gilgoff is bad enough to deserve a critical review. This isn’t even “Mormonism for Dummies,” but just dumb. It doesn’t touch on more than the most basic of basics; some of that only half of the information necessary for understanding. There isn’t much detail to go into to pull from, but that is part of the problem. Superficially it might not have been wrong, yet so far as contexts and relevance it leaves out a lot of important information. This hampers its worth for those who want to know more.

The web segment starts out well enough. He covered the current cultural presence of Mormon candidates and the musical. The idea that people are curious is not substantiated. The press has discussed public perceptions and printed hardly groundbreaking articles, but nothing of real substance.

After introducing the name of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, better information should have been added about the founding prophet. For accuracy sake, they should have called him Joseph Smith Jr. in the first instance of his name, while making it clear that the visions came on or near his family’s farm. It wasn’t his during the pivotal religious experiences.

The story of the coming forth of the Book of Mormon, the scripture, wasn’t too bad. At least he hadn’t followed the more common and misleading press habit of leaving out Moroni altogether that heightens the “treasure seeking” aspect of his life. Problematically, the significance of the vision of God and Jesus Christ is never explained. Listeners would have been more informed by at least explaining that Joseph Smith became concerned over the religious rivalry of his day. Mormons believe he experienced his visions in response to his prayers for enlightenment.

The explanation of how the Book of Mormon was translated has a subtle lack of truth. It would have been better to leave out “hieroglyphics,” because its never explained that way, even by the scripture. Not even what has been considered by Mormons an example of the writings can be considered hieroglyphic in nature. He should have just said “reformed Egyptian” and leave it at that. Of course, Joseph Smith claimed he translated those plates by the Power of God; a very important distinction.

The report missed an opportunity to really explore the Mormon concept of God, regardless of the shortness of time. A few well placed words can go a long way. God might be described by Mormons as of human form, but there is more than immortality that is a distinction. He has a Glorified and Exalted body of transcendent properties. Reducing God to a mere bigger, better human, either by Mormons or others, shows a lack of perspective for who Mormons worship as our Father in Heaven.

Touching on what Mormons avoid eating and drinking while avoiding giving a brief reason why showed a lack of reporting skills. It would have been nice to explain that the restrictions come from a revelation about how the body should be treated, specifically in relation to food. The mention of continual revelation could have been a nice bridge into the “Word of Wisdom” as its called, giving a practical example of the prophetic process.

The garment section made little sense, although at least it didn’t mention “magic” as a main purpose of their existence. How can something be an outer representation of an inner commitment, but still be covered up? The reporter, although respectful to the subject, might have been equally confused and so said what he did. Adding the description of “personal and private outer representation” could have made it easier to understand.

Where the discussion of the history of polygamy goes wrong can’t be pinpointed. There are historical and theological inaccuracies floating around the too quick explanations. Maybe the subject is too complicated for a brief outline that can’t go into a more nuanced presentation. Some of the missed information includes the Mormon desire for Utah statehood with polygamy standing in the way, arrests and incarceration of religious leaders by government enforcement of anti-polygamy laws, and the ending revelation itself that warns of the total destruction of the LDS Church if it continued.

The missionary section was good enough for what he said. It would have been even better to explain, once more, the prophetic nature of the LDS Church in the context of mission callings. In fact, the lay leadership aspect of the church was skipped over entirely. What Mormons mean by prophets and revelation is a highly misunderstood concept by those outside the Church, and some who are members.

The race section falls flat by the standards of even the polygamy portion of the report. There is no context even using the uncomfortable ban on blacks holding the Priesthood. It is so U.S. centric that he left out more than half of the members are now living outside the United States, with a large portion of Latinos and African blacks comprising the religious population. If time constraints were the problem, this should have been left out entirely because of its problems.

Having said all that, the CNN interview with Prof. Richard Bushman is a good read. Of course, this is partly because a real and intelligent Mormon was given a chance to speak more than a few words. What he said about Mormon personal faith, “the process of just believing is not so simple . . . I caught a glimpse of a higher form of human flourishing, something forceful and ennobling which I can only call sacred . . . For me ‘just believing’ meant turning the light on, not turning it off,” needs expanded. Coming to a “testimony” of the Gospel as taught in Mormonism is far more complicated than a single “burning in the bosom” that is mis-characterized and often mocked. That will be left for another day.

22 thoughts on “Explain it to me better: A Response to CNN on Mormonism

  1. Heber J. Grant admonished those members of the church who criticized the 1940 movie “Brigham Young.” The movie was full of inaccuracies, but President Grant was slower to take offense, and realized that the overall message of the movie was positive, especially when compared with other media approaches to the church at the time.

    Those members of the church who are impressed by CNN’s coverage have apparently taken President Grant’s advice to heart.

  2. when we leave the inaccuracies alone, then they will become the de-facto facts. In the days when Mormonism was lucky to get any exposure that was positive and only had influence in Utah, the Pres. Grant approach was good advice. This is no longer the 18th and early 20th Century. To be silent now when our voices can be heard more clear and open is to wish for a return to obscurity, putting our destiny in the hands of others. The enemies of Mormonism would love that.

  3. “when we leave the inaccuracies alone, then they will become the de-facto facts.”

    I think that is exactly the point that Ardis was making in her critiques of “17 Miracles” and “Joseph Smith’s Last Dream.” She has been criticized as attacking productions, the primary purpose of which is to strengthen testimonies. If it isn’t true, it isn’t true, and people are basing their testimonies, or at least part of their testimonies, on inaccuracies.

    Jettboy, I think your criticisms are valid for the point you are trying to make, but I think your main problem is that what you wanted the CNN article to do, and what it was intended to do, are not the same things. The article could have provided more information and more nuance, but it seems to have been intended to be more an overview than an in-depth exploration of the Church. As an overview, I think it does a fair, even-handed job.

  4. Jettboy,
    Thanks for the post. I enjoyed it. I am new to blogging and the Millenial Star.
    I have a difficult time saying exactly what I mean and it is amazing what a few well placed words will do to clarify things. I think time was an issue for Dan but you were able to convey a better message with just a few well placed words and phrases.
    You stated, “What Mormons mean by prophets and revelation is a highly misunderstood concept by those outside the Church, and some who are members.”
    What did you mean by some of its members? It got me thinking that maybe I am one of them.
    What is your idea of prophets and revelation? I am very opionated on this and I would love to hear your prospective.

  5. @ Jettboy, Or: people are intrigued by a short snippet on CNN and they go do real research into the church’s history and doctrines. I lean toward trusting people to use good judgment and not trust absolutely everything they see a journalist tell them. If they’re really interested, they’ll go to the library or Google it. If not, they’ll forget the whole thing anyway, inaccuracies and all.

    In all, I don’t think the video was inaccurate. I think what you go into in this article is merely a difference of style and opinion (for the most part, calling the writing on the plates hieroglyphics was inaccurate for instance). For example, it’s not as if everyone in the church refers to him as Joseph Smith Jr either, even in General Conference. It hardly matters if a journalist calls him what most of the members call him anyway. In addition, you complain about him leaving out the context of statehood and anti-cohabitation laws as if it’s just obvious that this was the reason for the revelation, but I’m sure there are plenty of Mormons who would argue that God does not make decisions and give revelations about his church under duress. It is your opinions that it should have been included, fine, but that doesn’t make someone else’s opinion to leave it out is “wrong.” The arguments above are mostly about word choice which, in my opinion, don’t change the meaning that much. Your critique is mostly a matter of style, not substance.

  6. Jettboy – I don’t see anywhere here where you actually lay your finger on an ‘inaccuracy;’ just stuff like leaving “Jr” off of the end of Joseph Smith’s name, which is not an error but a preference. The closest thing to it is your objection to the word “hieroglyphs,” but Martin Harris (to cite only one example) said that the ‘Caractors’ transcript he was given had “Egyptian” letters on it. What are some of the “historical and theological inaccuracies floating around,” as opposed to stuff that you wish was covered but wasn’t?

  7. Jettboy, I appreciate your concerns raised in your post. I remember a particularly unfavorable (but reasonably accurate) portrayal of the church in Time Magazine while I was on my mission in the 1970s.

    There is surely a challenge for a non-believer to communicate accurately what a believer sees in the church. We would have similar issues if we were reporting Catholicism.

    It also seems like part of your concern is that you believe that this should have been an NPR report instead of a CNN video — that is, longer format, more in depth rather than a soundbite summary.

  8. I just wanted to add I think the interview with Bushman is good based solely on how he responded. The questions would make many members squirm because they are filled with bits of the truth that anyone who doesn’t want to look like a liar (by just denying it and giving the question no place to go) would have a difficult time answering on the spur of the moment. Bushman does a great job of answering in a balanced way.

    However, you can “read” a lot into an interview by not only what the respondent says, but what questions are asked and how they are asked. Clearly, the intent of those questions was to either:
    1. Make Mormons look weird by agreeing to wacky beliefs, which are not central at all, you might as well interview a catholic and talk about nothing but exorcisms and somehow expect those things to represent Catholicism.
    OR
    2. Make Mormons look like they not only believe wacky things, but have a hard time telling the truth when confronted about it.

    Fortunately, he answered very well, which put the unseriousness of the topics at hand in their place and then addressed it politely. You might say the only reason why those questions were asked is because the musical mentioned them and there was nothing uncharitable on the part of the questioner. However, I think if you really wanted to give someone the stage to set the record straight, you wouldn’t just ask solely about the things those mocking the church said, but give them at least a couple questions where they can discuss their core beliefs and motivation.

    This last element I think is what the media rarely gets. Many or most of them don’t really seem to understand the motivations of faith other than just happy wishful thinking about heaven. The Gospel of Jesus Christ, as represented by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as a lot to say about the purpose of life, the purpose of trials, interconnected nature of faith/knowledge/experience, etc. etc. And it’s not just found in various essays and extrapolations but from scripture and direct prophetic revelation — all things that we don’t have to take anyone’s word for it but can have confirmed individually to us by himself (through the spirit). What an amazing thing!

    And yet the media just thinks Kolob, dominion over planets, and polygamy is interesting. These are not the reason why anyone joins the church… not their motivations… so why focus on it? (Answer – makes us look weird or confirms their beliefs that religious people are weird)

  9. I also wanted to add, I’m glad Prof. Bushman and I at least have similar opinions on the nature of the song I Believe from the musical
    http://bycommonconsent.com/2011/06/13/i-believe-we-just-won-9-tonys/#comment-225110

    I think that song, which is lauded as being “sweet” by many are either being extremely charitable to the point of endorsing deception about a testimony or they haven’t discerned the corrosive nature of the implication of that song. Hopefully, it’s not the case that they haven’t really experienced a true conversion experience, but just also went through the process of repeating to themselves how much they believe until they believed it — if the latter is the case, it’s no wonder why some people get hung up on the “I know” vs. the “I believe”. Some (I hope most) of us really do “know” and it’s it’s just a result of repetition in front of the mirror every morning.

  10. it’s it’s just a result of repetition in front of the mirror every morning.

    should be
    it’s not just a result of repetition in front of the mirror every morning.

    funny repetition :)

  11. Paul, half-truths even if false information isn’t included are to me inaccuracies. In some ways I agree that an NPR report (not that I trust them either, although that is a good analogy) would have been far better than this CNN snippet that leaves far more questions than answers or useful information. Its in a segment called “explain it to me,” and then doesn’t. You might say I prefer an Encyclopedia over a Dictionary when it comes to complicated subjects.

    “it’s not as if everyone in the church refers to him as Joseph Smith Jr either, even in General Conference. It hardly matters if a journalist calls him what most of the members call him anyway.”

    This seems to be a big criticism of my review. The inclusion of this is arguably of little or no concern. I guess it goes back to my belief that its better to tell a lot than not tell much. Notice I didn’t use “Jr” when I mentioned the prophet after my first time following my own advice. This is an introduction and therefore, well, introduce. At least they didn’t call him John Smith like so many others.

  12. Let me help you out here.

    It is nearly an election year and a Mormon is the front runner.
    Subtle bias of the drive-by media. What did you expect?

    It is going to get worse. I think Mitt would be a great president.
    But I think the LDS church is going to get ridiculed terribly.
    In retrospect, this irreverent musical & CNN snippet will be mild.

    I prophecy that late night TV will have idiots parading around.
    In garments and temple cloths, 5 points of froddership, etc.

  13. Cup half empty is a victim’s way of going through life. This is, after all, an article and not a multi-volume book on Mormon doctrine and culture.

    So, there are inaccuracies. It is our responsibility to supply the corrections. So, on the Word of Wisdom he neglected the ‘why’. We are here to add that insight and context.

    I have people asking me about the Church, because they are hearing so much regarding it from so many sources. The fact that people are asking questions and commenting favorably on us is a positive thing. It engenders discussion, wherein the righteous may be guided to seek out more (and more accurate) details.

    Any press is good press IF you respond and use it correctly. That’s how the Church responds to such things as the BoM Musical, or 2 LDS presidential candidates. Good for us. We don’t have to be victims anymore. We can see the blessings that are coming to the Church via these many inaccurate but positive events.

  14. Well, there ARE certain things written about the Church that demand a response. The Newsweek article written before the Olympics in Salt Lake was particularly horrible (it included a picture of Joseph F. Smith with the beard claiming it was Joseph Smith the founder of the Church). This CNN piece is not nearly that bad.

  15. I just watched the CNN web segment. Jettboy is off the mark. He misconstrued it, and in his analysis he misrepresents the plain and accurate, though basic, statements made by the narrator in the segment.

    Jettboy misrepresented the CNN piece much more than the CNN piece misrepresents the church.

    Just about all of Jettboy’s points are off base. He even misconstrued the narrator’s plain meaning of “outward” (outside of the body, versus an inward “internal” committment, as mentioned in the segment) when he talked about garments.

    I think Jettboy is so off the mark and so inaccurate in his portrayal of the CNN segment, I beg the M* moderators to view the web segment themselves, and then consider deleting this whole thread. This post is just way below M* standards, and is an example of not treating others fairly.

    To borrow a quote from one of the LDS members who reviewed the BoM Musical, this CNN web segment is not an attack, and does not need to be defended against, especially in the confrontational “they’re picking on us again” tone of the OP.

  16. I don’t think he is picking on us. I’ll say that clearly right here. What I do think, however, is that Mormons have been treated so unfairly for so long that accuracy and context even in short introductions needs to be especially careful down to the details. Take this as a personal opinion and everyone is free to disagree with me; and so far everyone has been. In my opinion it should have never been done.

  17. Jettboy,

    You are definitely allowed to have your opinion, but as I tell my kids when they whine without any true reason: Waaaahhhhh! ;)

    Let’s not be so oversensitive that we shriek at every shadow, or as some radicals who scream “racism” every time someone in their group is looked upon unfairly. We are the 4th largest church in America. We have LDS in Congressional leadership, as Ambassadors, and Cabinet Secretaries. We have too much influence in the world today to be whining about CNN’s decent treatment. No one is driving us from Nauvoo. Nor are they preventing us from voting. Nor are they shooting at us and hanging us in the village square.

    Many are now writing decent things about us, albeit still imperfect. I’m not interested in everyone giving us a perfect treatment. I’m only interested in a fair treatment. And that is what CNN gave us.

  18. Bookslinger, your comment seems a bit over the top. I think there is a wide variety of opinions about what is going on in the media.

    Jettboy, I can see why you feel this. But as one of the members who was glad for the CNN article, here’s why. FWIW.

    I honestly don’t expect the media to get all the details right. I do expect respect and in their reflection of some of our basic beliefs and lifestyle. I’m sort of done feeling like we have to respond to it all. I just don’t think we do, nor do I feel worried about it like I used to.

    I look at this in a relative sense. When compared with other articles (take this one for example), I thought the CNN one was pretty well done. The tone was respectful, and, again, I don’t expect them to get all the details right. But if there is at least some respect and less focus on the tired ol’ stuff, I think the contrasts give people a starting place to maybe realize that they’ll have to do some more digging if they want to really understand us.

    If I were to use my own thought processing to summarize where I think we might see this differently, you are feeling like Alma 29:1, and I’m feeling more like Alma 29:4. I don’t think we can take on every misrepresentation, nor should we try to, imo. (I worry about that just making us sound defensive, and also allowing the media and others to define the dynamic and conversation. I think we should act and not be acted upon here.)

    So I think we just keep on keeping on in most case. We share what is true, and we keep focusing on doing that in a way that can bring the Spirit, and then we trust that people who are honestly seeking will find and resonate with truth. If someone is relying only on CNN to know about Mormons, then they may not be ready to really learn more. There is no shortage of official (and also accurate and uplifting) information online. In my mind, responsibility is also on the consumer of information, not only on the sharers of info. And again, I think the media is only a starting place (if that), and in general, I don’t think that point-by-point responses will do much good.

    And I know I’ve repeated myself…sorry…late, tired, done. ;)

  19. Michelle: Well said!

    Given my conspicuous absence from M* as a commenter, I almost feel like I am a visitor at Church and should introduce myself. ;-)

    jettboy: I like Geoff’s perspective on this. M* (and the LDS Newsroom, of course) is a wonderful place for everyday members to add their perspective and join the ongoing dialogue on Mormonism. Where correction and context is needed, let us add it in a thoughtful and uplifting way.

    Having worked in journalism, when someone approaches a story in the aforementioned manner, they will earn the respect and admiration of the writer, versus an alternate method which will earn future derision and an unwillingness to treat the topics in a respectful manner.

    My father-in-law is a practicing Catholic and I love to discuss news articles with him that come out about his Church. He is always willing to point out inaccuracies in the articles, but is always quick with praise for the points in the story that are accurate and true.

    No news story will ever be 100% accurate. But let’s appreciate the fair and honest way in which CNN attempted to portray Mormonism. And look at it this way: imagine how many doors will now open to the missionaries because of just one story? This story’s impact will be far reaching indeed.

  20. For those who are offended by my objection to the presentation, its a CNN story with some of what I consider problems. Just as perspective, I don’t trust ANY news organization and therefore will be extra hard on them because they are the first line of public discourse and knowledge (sad as that is). Most Mormons are happy to get the crumbs, but I am not satisfied with half done homework and soundbites that make up journalism these days.

    My inspiration for how I treat stories comes from Get Religion and Article 6 Blog that doesn’t give stories an easy pass just because they are “good enough” compared to what has been.

  21. Well, Deseret News called it CNN’s Accurate report on Mormons. That leads to believe that the Church is content with that piece. There is another segment on CNN done as an interview .. in which the answers and coverage sounded off simple, clear and positive. I think the coverage was a good enough explanation from a non-members talking to other non-members about the LDS faith.

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