Covering the nuances of religious belief in the news media is no easy task. But it’s even more difficult when the doctrines of a faith group are reported and compared against some other set of beliefs, often with an overtone of conflict or controversy. In those cases, the very real impact of doctrine as a guidepost in the lives of believers is almost always lost.
GetReligion columnist Mollie Ziegler suggests a similar idea. Referring to the recent Pew Forum discussion entitled “Mormonism and Democratic Politics: Are They Compatible?” she wrote that “journalists either don’t understand or explain how Mormon believers reconcile the [controversial] issues for themselves.” Ziegler acknowledged the challenge journalists face in “explaining how Mormons perceive themselves.”
What journalists find even more difficult to understand and explain are the core and constant doctrines that members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints say inform their daily lives — doctrines members view as free from controversy.
Church member Richard Bushman made this point at the Pew discussion. One journalist at the discussion noted that for Mormons, and members of other faith groups, a church is a “very, very vibrant community … and helps people get through both emotional and real physical needs.”
Though speaking for himself and not as an official representative of the Church, Bushman replied that for Mormons, “this sense of a whole life pattern, being a part of a community and a part of a pathway is integrated with the doctrine.” Mormons, he said, “have this common set of stories and understandings that they’re able to refer to.”
Bushman identified two of those core and constant doctrines — a “story of human existence” that begins in a life before mortality and answers “the classic questions of whence, why and where”; and new scripture like the Book of Mormon that not only is an additional witness of Jesus Christ but also shows that “the great events of Biblical history can occur anywhere.” Church President Gordon B. Hinckley has often talked about essential doctrines and declared his own belief and reliance on them. It’s these core and constant doctrines that Mormons often find absent in media discussions of their faith — doctrines that are the foundation of Mormons’ individual lives and that produce a stability that makes life not only manageable, but happy.
Core doctrines of the Church deserve to be reported on their own merits and with regard to how they impact individual lives, and not just as “controversial,” contradicting, or competing with the beliefs of other faith groups. As Ziegler observed, some Church members may remain “unhappy with media coverage” because they so seldom see those doctrines viewed in any other context.
Part of the Pew discussion showed that there is a better way than this “conflict approach” to explaining Mormon doctrine. Doctrine can be discussed in light of what it means and particularly what it does to believers — without controversy. Journalists and pundits should consider this in such a light. The Church may need to explain more clearly just how doctrine becomes a bedrock of daily living. It’s a formidable task, but one worth the effort for all involved.