The Religion ‘Double Standard’ on MSNBC

Following an interview on Friday’s Morning Joe we are reminded once again of the liberal media bias when it comes to media coverage of religion.  During an interview with author Matthew Bowman of “The Mormon People: The Making of an American Faith,” the MSNBC anchors attacked Mormonism, leaving us to ask if such criticism would ever occur for other faiths outside the Judaic and Christian traditions.

Co-hosts Mika Brzezinski and Willie Geist, along with Time's Jon Meacham, continuously brought up the "public misconceptions" about Mormons such as polygamy and "strange religious rituals."  Brzezinski opened up the conversation stating that there are still so many misconceptions about the faith, a statement that would not pass her or any other MSNBC talking heads' lips if the subject was, for example, Islam. [See video below. MP3 audio here.]

Geist added to the Mormon "fear" by conveniently adding, “it’s not always said explicitly but we hear it in political conversations, you can read it online when people are talking about Mitt Romney or when they talked about Jon Huntsman, that there’s something weird, something odd about Mormonism.”

Just imagine the public condemnation in a post-9/11 world that would arise if any journalist ever suggested that people around this country think there is something weird or odd about Islam.  The media would have their head, and their job would be in jeopardy.  But when it comes to Mormonism or other religions, there is a complete double standard.  What's more, by even making such a comment, Geist plants in his audience's minds the "question" of Romney's religion, something that might well not have been considered but for the constant media speculation that it will be an issue.

Bowman noted that a recent popular musical comedy portrays Mormons as "still not a group to be taken seriously, not a group of people who can actually look and say, yes, this is somebody I might want to elect president."

Remember the outrage poured out on former presidential candidate Herman Cain when he said he would never appoint a Muslim to his Cabinet?  No such outrage would ever occur if someone said they would never elect someone who was Mormon, except, yeah, MSNBC just did.

Below is the relevant transcript from the broadcast:

Morning Joe
8:19 a.m.

Joe Scarborough: What was it like being a Mormon missionary for two years overseas?

Mitt Romney: Well, It was a dramatic experience, a great shift in what I'd known.  I'd been in America. Well I spent five months in a city called Le Havre, France, five months there. I think the population was about a quarter of a million people. In five months we knocked on doors from morning until quite late in the evening. We didn't convert one person in five months. So, If you understand rejection, you know that's a pretty, pretty high level of rejection and you get used to it. And you say, okay, you know, what do I believe, what's important to me, and you don't measure yourself and your success by how other people react but instead by how you're doing and how you feel about the things you care about.

Mika Brzezinski: That was Mitt Romney on our show in December talking about his Mormon beliefs. And joining us now, Matthew Bowman, author of the timely new book “The Mormon People: The Making of an American Faith.”  It's very good to have you on the show.

Matthew Bowman: Wonderful to be here.

Mika: Uh wanna hear about the book.  Uh, you look at uh, first of all the numbers of and the rise of the religion. 14 million Mormons in the world, and yet still so many misconceptions about the faith. What do you think the leading one or two are?

Bowman: You know, a lot of people use the word "cult" to describe Mormonism, and that's really a misnomer. Cult is a word that means a religion I’m not uncomfortable with.  It’s not a word academics take seriously.  And it's really a pejorative. It's a political rather than a sociological or an academic word. Mormonism simply is a new religion. And uh, like Catholicism, 100 and, or I’m sorry, 1,500 years ago, um, it has a lot of suspicion.

Mika: Where does history and misconception intersect when it comes to multiple marriages or polygamy?  

Bowman: Polygamy is a kind of a radical marriage practice and it's rooted in how Mormons understand the notion of community. Mormons believe that you can be married for time and all  eternity, that heaven is actually a great intersect network of families. And polygamy is no different than other radical marital practices or practiced during the reformation during early Christianity during other Christian movements.

Willie Geist:  It's not always said explicitly but we hear it in political conversations, you can read it online when people are talking about Mitt Romney or when they talked about Jon Huntsman, that there's something weird, there’s something odd about Mormonism.

Bowman: Yes, exactly.

Geist: It’s, there's a huge undercurrent of that whenever people talk about Mormonism. From what you know from all your studies, is it really any more weird than any other major religion?

Bowman: It's not weirder. It's simply newer. People have accused Catholicism of being a cult, people have accused Judaism of being a cult. These are words that were attached to religions that are really in the mainstream of American life today for hundreds of years in the United States. And Mormonism, I think, is about 70 years behind Catholicism.

Geist: So, where do you think that "weird" label, which is probably unfair, where does that come from? Is it the polygamy first?

Bowman:  It could be the polygamy. I think actually many of the accusations thrown at Mormonism are quite similar to those thrown at Catholicism. They have a hierarchy. There is some spiritual leader who tells them what to do and they all obey it. They have odd rituals. They have strange theologies. These are all things that Protestants said about Catholics when John F. Kennedy ran for president.  

Geist: I was going to say that sounds like every other religion I know.  Jon Meacham.

Meacham: I have to disclose that I edited, uh Matthew.  

Mika: How did Matthew do?

Meacham: He did very well.

Mika: Okay.  

Meacham: Handsome book.  Handsome book.

Bowman: unclear [Deckalegous]

Meacham: [unclear]

Mika: And actually a pretty important one given the conversations of our time and some of the barriers we broke in our last election. And in this one we had two Mormons in the Republican field.

Meacham: Absolutely. And one of -- the impetus behind it, and we'd love to hear you talk more about this is, it is a Native-American faith, and what, what does Mormonism tell us about the country and what do you think the fact that both Romney and Huntsman were in the race and one is doing quite well and the other one’s not, the other one did not but had nothing to do with his faith.

Bowman:  Yeah, yeah.  You know...

Meecham: What is particularly American about Mormonism?

Bowman: Mormonism expresses a lot of what Americans like to believe about themselves. Mormonism was an amateur religion. It was a religion founded by people who had no training in a religious theology or organization or anything like that. Mormonism is a religion that's still very egalitarian.  It is a religion I think that is very optimistic about human potential and human possibility. All of these are things that really express what Americans like to believe about themselves. At the same time, however, Mormonism has a lot of characteristics that Americans are wary of and leery of like this issue of hierarchy, like violations of traditional marriage or practices.

Meacham: Secrecy.

Bowman: Secrecy as well, yeah. You cannot be a secretive faith and be in the American public sphere. Americans just will not tolerate that.

Geist: What is all the pop culture discussion of Mormonism over the last year tell you.

Mika: And the Broadway play.

Geist: The play right.

Bowman: Big Love.

Geist: I think it was -- yeah. It was "Newsweek" had a cover that said "The Mormon Moment.”

Mika: Right

Bowman: Absolutely

Geist: It talked about Mitt Romney and the Book of Mormon and Big Love and the TV show on TLC as well. Is that helpful to the Mormon faith or does is just make sort of a caricature out of it?  

Bowman: You know it's nothing new interestingly enough. This sort of thing has been around for a long, long time. Zane Grey and the writers of "The Purple Sage" a hundred years ago, a best selling Western novel, that depicted this authoritarian secretive hierarchy built on assassination in Utah. Um, Arthur Conan Doyle, “A Study in Scarlet,” the very first Sherlock Holmes story had the same thing, Mormons were a secretive faith, governing Utah through fear and intimidation. Jon Krakauer’s book "Under the Banner of Heaven" is a direct descendent of all of these. And I think the musical is very interesting because it's really rubbed that fear off. The musical does not think Mormons are threatening. It does not present Mormons as a danger to Americans, but it still does have the sense that Mormons are naive and strange and very happy and very, very nice, but still not a group to be taken seriously, not a group of people who can actually look at and say, yes, this is somebody I might want to elect president.

Mika: So where does that come from? That perception?

Bowman: Uh, the niceness?

Mika: Yeah. And the naivety.

Bowman: You know, Mormons since the middle of the 20th century have really absorbed a lot of American corporate ethos. In the '50s they did this very intentionally. They looked to American corporations as a way to organize themselves as a way to integrate into American life. And they did a very good job of that. The white shirts, the clean-cut haircuts, the sort of...

Geist: No drinking.  

Bowman: Yeah, the no drinking, the clean living. All of this really made Mormons fit in very well in the '50s, But not so much today.

Mika: Was it weird to be writing about such a great group of people with clean living and then working with Meacham? I'm just wondering, you know. Was that like a contrast?

Bowman: He would actually make an excellent Mormon.

Meacham: That is high -- take that. That's a high compliment.

Mika: That’s very good.  

Meacham: I appreciate that enormously. Do you have high church Mormons?

Bowman: You do actually.  

Meacham: Okay, that’s great.  As long as there's incense I’m fine.

Bowman: Yes, there can be some incense.  

Mika: Well this is absolutely fascinating. Matthew Bowman. The book is “The Mormon People.”  I think a great time for everybody to read this book.  Thank you very much for coming on the show. Great job.

2012 Presidential Campaigns & Elections Morning Joe Mika Brezezinski Joe Meacham Willie Geist