Prior to the attacks of Sept. 11, a regular feature of my radio program was a segment devoted to spotting Mormon-bashing among the elite media as the Olympic games approached.

I am not a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, but PBS sent me to Salt Lake City in 1996 to interview Elder Neal Maxwell for the series and book “Searching for God in America.” I have been back on a few occasions since, both to work for the local PBS affiliate in Salt Lake City and to lecture at Brigham Young University’s law school.

My friendship with and respect for Elder Maxwell has increased and deepened over the years, even as my recognition of the theological differences between my Presbyterian beliefs and LDS beliefs has sharpened.

Because I have taken the time to study the history of the Mormon Church in America prior to reporting on it, I am well acquainted with the struggles of the early church years. Without question, the early Mormon Church was the target of official persecution of the sort that no one in modern America would condone.

The early Church practice of multiple marriages was abandoned a century ago, and although the Mormons remain opposed to alcohol use, they share this tenet with many other religions. To the average secular observer in the media, then, the LDS should be just another religion. But it has drawn and continues to draw a distinct hostility from mainstream media. As the Olympics approach, the criticism and snickering will increase. Listen for it. You will certainly hear it.

Sometimes the prejudice is subtle. Sometimes it is so boldly breathtaking as to make a reader blink. Sunday’s Los Angeles Times provided an example of the latter sort of drive-by hit piece.

Titled “Mormons to let the Games Reign,” this front-page, above-the-fold article carried a sub-headline: “Church has lowered its profile, but Utah ‘theocracy’ will be seen and felt nonetheless.” Utah is not a theocracy and, of course, the real “theocracies” in the world are in especially low esteem today. So, right out of the box, a theme is established – the Mormons are like the Taliban and Iran’s mullahs. “Theocracy” is a powerful word with a negative force unequaled by many others. Note that it is in the headline.

Judge for yourself whether the article is the sort that would appear about any other world religion. Be sure to note that the very first person quoted in the article is a critic of the Mormon church, Stephen Pace, who is described as a “head of a citizens group concerned about the public cost of the Games and one of the church’s critics.” Mr. Pace uses the “T” word again: “The church has never shown much of a gift for having a light touch with anything. Utah is a theocracy. The reason they don’t go overboard in their excesses is that you have this complication called the U.S. Constitution.”

After cataloging the number of Mormons in elected and appointed office, the reporter adds this helpful conclusion: “Mormon leaders are not reluctant to weigh in on political issues. Some say the line between church and state is blurred.”

The reporter finds another source to agree with the premise, and then, in paragraph 13, the Church spokesperson gets to respond. But the response has nothing to do with whether or not Utah is a theocracy, but on the relationship between the Olympics and the Church. So the reporter, Julie Cart, established a thesis – that Utah is one of those bad “theocracies” – and then doesn’t allow the LDS to respond. That’s really rotten reporting, and an example of agenda journalism of the worst sort. But not unusual. Get used to it. The Mormons certainly have.

But civil libertarians ought not to tolerate such slanders as “theocracy” thrown loosely around the front page of a formerly great newspaper. The First Amendment guarantees “free exercise” of religious beliefs, and the front line of religious freedom is usually found where state and local governments, backed by powerful lobbies for secularism in newsrooms, routinely obstruct the expression of religious belief via zoning codes or, in school districts, via suppression of student clubs organized around faith.

In the four months since Sept. 11, hard-line secularists like Thomas Friedman and Anthony Lewis of the New York Times have wasted little time in urging the delegitimization of all people of faith who hold beliefs that argue for their absolute truth. Lewis went so far as to compare Attorney General John Ashcroft to Osama bin Laden in the same sentence. The fundamentalists of the left have used the tragedy of the fall to renew their assault on faith in America. The Mormons are a handy target, because they are both visible and different.

Which is why all people of faith are called on to reject appeals to prejudice of the sort that the Los Angeles Times tossed off without so much as a backward glance. If the Times can get away with labeling Utah a “theocracy,” then surely ever other newspaper in America can do the same. If the Times can frontload a front page article with critics’ quotes, then every media organization in the country can do the same if the issue is Catholicism, Pentecostal practice or any of the debates within denominations over gay ordination, the role of women, etc. In short, since the Times has no qualms about rolling the Mormons, don’t expect any different treatment from the same paper or newsroom culture when your religious beliefs enter the target zone.

The triumph of sneering agnosticism is pretty much complete within elite media these days. As sociologist Peter Berger once observed, if India is the most religious country in the world, and Sweden the least, then the U.S. is a nation of Indians ruled by Swedes. To which I would add a corollary: Elite media is 99 percent Swedish.

There is no easy road back to media appreciation of people of faith, or even recognition of genuine religious tolerance as opposed to cheerleading for absolutist secularism. But the first few steps come with the defense of other faiths that are not like our own, which raises the responsibility level for non-Mormons as the Games get under way.

When you see or hear the media take a swipe at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, call ’em on it. The vast majority of Americans despise bigotry – even when it’s dressed up as journalism.

 


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