Mormon Mitt Romney goes to church — with reporters!

(Article originally published on Get Religion by Bobby Ross Jr.)

Mitt Romney’s surprising decision to allow reporters to follow him into church Sunday drew a slew of major mainstream media coverage.

The New York Timesopened its story this way:

BOSTON — Mitt Romney read Scripture from his iPad as he juggled his 2-year-old grandson on his lap.

He made sure to accept a small piece of white bread and cup of water, representing the flesh and blood of Jesus, from a member of the clergy who looked like he was about to accidentally pass him by.

And with a knowing nod, he encouraged his wife, Ann, to leave the pew and join the women’s choir in a rendition of “Because I Have Been Given Much.” (She did.)

On one level, it was a typical Sunday morning for Mr. Romney, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee and a devoted churchgoer. But on another level, his Sunday observance was an extraordinary  moment for a candidate who zealously protects his privacy and rarely talks about his Mormon faith.

Now, at this point, I should acknowledge that I am not GetReligion’s resident experton Mormonism. In my secular religion writing career, I did a feature on a day in the life of Mormon missionaries and covered a sermon by retired Atlanta Braves star Dale Murphy at a Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In more recent times, I toured the Mormon world headquarters in Salt Lake City. But like most Americans, I have much to learn concerning the intricacies of the Mormon faith.

I mention my background only as an explanation of the elementary-level questions that came to my mind as I read the Times report. Among those questions: Why the sacrament of water instead of grape juice or wine? Maybe I’m the only person with that question, but I wish the story had addressed it. Also, I wish the pool report had been more specific on exactly what Scripture(s) Romney read on his iPad? Was the Scripture(s) from the Bible or the Book of Mormon or both?

The report did offer some specifics on the candidate’s wife, Ann Romney, joining the church women’s choir in a rendition of “Because I Have Been Given Much”:

At one point, volunteers were invited to join the women’s choir in song. Mr. Romney glanced at his wife, and gently and wordlessly suggested she do so. Mrs. Romney and her daughter-in-law both stood, walked to the front pulpit and along with about 40 others — nearly all the women in the congregation — began singing “Because I Have Been Given Much,” a popular Mormon hymn about using one’s blessings to help other people. The lyrics include this line: “I shall divide my gifts from thee with every brother that I see, who has the need of help from me.”

All in all, the Old Gray Lady offered a fairly straightforward account of Romney’s time at church. The sourcing on the decision to bring reporters (“his advisers said”) was extremely vague, but that seems, rightly or wrongly, to be the nature of most attribution in campaign stories.

The Washington Post inserted Romney’s Sunday church experience into a lengthy investigative report on the candidate’s years as a church leader in Boston:

On the presidential campaign trail, Romney has sealed off his experience as a Mormon prelate, only rarely and vaguely mentioning his church leadership. On Sunday, Romney, who often goes to Mormon services when on the road, read scriptures from an iPad, received the sacrament of white bread and water and sang hymns with his family as he attended church near his lake house in New Hampshire. And for the first time since becoming a presidential candidate, he invited the media to watch, indicating that he was willing to put aside reservations about the political consequences of his faith and start allowing some access to that private space.

(Romney, by the way, is not the only person of faith taking his iPad to church these days.)

For those more familiar with the Mormon faith than I am, I’d be interested in your reaction to the Post story: Was it fair to Romney? Did it accurately portray the typical inner workings of the church? How, if at all, might the story have been improved?

The Associated Press, meanwhile, used Romney allowing reporters into his church as a peg to explore the candidate’s decision to open up “a little” about his religion. Godbeat pro Rachel Zoll’s story impressed me as a quintessential piece of concise but quality journalism by AP — filled with revealing details about Romney’s faith background and expert analysis by qualified sources.

CNN, on the other hand, took a more sensational approach, delving into polygamy and asking “if powerful church leaders could somehow control a Mormon president.”

From the CNN transcript:

GARY TUCHMAN, CNN: The Southern Baptist Convention calls the church a cult. Many Americans say they don’t even consider Mormons Christians. An article in the online magazine “Slate” brands the religion’s founder Joseph Smith a con man. In fact, he was Elder Russell Ballard’s great, great uncle.

My question: Does the Southern Baptist Convention really call the Mormon church a cult? Yes, a Texas pastor made headlines last year for labeling Mormons a cult. Yes, Southern Baptists obviously have major theological differences with Mormons. But did the convention as a whole endorse the “cult” terminology? CNN might want to consider a little more nuanced reporting on the subject. To its credit, the CNN report did include interviews with Romney and Elder M. Russell Ballard, a member of the church’s Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.

Finally, for those who enjoyed tmatt’s scoop the other day on “Mitt Romney, consumer of sinful ice cream,” this just in: Religion beat specialist Peggy Fletcher Stack of theSalt Lake Tribune reports that Mormons, like Mitt, can indulge in caffeine ice cream. Enjoy!

Salt Lake Temple image via Shutterstock

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