Strange New Respect? New York Times religion reporter Laurie Goodstein celebrated the Mormon faith of fierce Trump critic and retiring Arizona Republican Sen. Jeff Flake. The online headline was the goopiest: “Flake’s Speech Bore Marks of Mormon Faith, Not Just Politics.” The text box was pretty gushy too: “In standing up to President Trump, standing ‘for what you believe in.’”
Suddenly, the NYT approves of Mormonism and religion in politics! That’s quite a change from what the paper thought in 2012, when Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney put that religion in the spotlight.
Goodstein wrote on Thursday:
As a child growing up in Snowflake, Ariz., a town that his Mormon pioneer great-great-grandfather helped found in the 1870s, Senator Jeff Flake learned to sing a popular children’s hymn, “Choose the Right.”
He had no trouble recalling the hymn’s words on the telephone Wednesday, a day after he took to the floor of the Senate to deliver a stinging rebuke to his party and president, and to announce that he would not run for re-election in 2018.
His decision was political and pragmatic, he acknowledged: he faced a tough primary battle and trailed in the polls. But his revulsion at President Trump also appeared to reflect his Mormon faith. It is a faith that puts a premium on decorum and comity, one that was born in America but is increasingly international and multicultural, and one whose young people often wear rings engraved “CTR” as a reminder of the hymn, which begins, “Choose the right when a choice is placed before you.”
Mr. Flake came out early in the presidential primaries as an opponent of Mr. Trump, and unlike many in his party, he has remained a vocal critic, despite representing a state where the president is still popular. Although he has generally voted with Mr. Trump and the Republican majority in the Senate, he chastised his party on Tuesday for acquiescing in the lying and divisiveness that he said had come from the White House.
Max Perry Mueller, an assistant professor of American religion at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, said he heard so many religious overtones in Mr. Flake’s speech that he plans to set aside his next planned lesson for the American religious history class he teaches, and instead have his students deconstruct the senator’s remarks “as a Mormon speech.”
Professor Mueller said the speech reminded him of the cadence, tone and themes that Mormon leaders often use when addressing the church’s vast general conference meetings in Salt Lake City, calling on members to refuse to accommodate the immorality of the larger world.
“That speech reflects a Mormon understanding of human agency and participation in history, that humans bring about change, and move the world towards perfection,” said Professor Mueller, the author of “Race and the Making of the Mormon People.”
In the telephone interview, Mr. Flake spoke of his deep involvement with his church, of serving as a missionary in South Africa and Zimbabwe in the 1980s, and of rarely missing a Sunday service with his family in Mesa, Ariz., over his 17 years in Congress.
But he emphasized that he did not want to imply that he received any direction in his political choices from his church or its leaders. Doug Andersen, a spokesman for the church, said it had a longstanding policy of political neutrality and would make no comment.
After all that strange new respect for Mormonism, let’s take a look back at 2012, when the paper had a quite different view of the faith, a hostile and paranoid one. A February 2012 online “Room for Debate” feature on Mormonism, inspired by the prospect of Mormon Mitt Romney winning the GOP nomination, had this offensively flippant response from a contributor: “I wouldn't buy the underwear just yet.” Another responder wrote: “....[the Mormon Church] has used its mobilizing genius to pursue political goals, and individual Mormons have obeyed like sheep.”
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A May 2007 Times story on Romney criticized an offensive remark by Al Sharpton (surprise!) that implied Mormons weren’t real Christians strangely focused on Sharpton’s defense, not the anti-Mormon remark itself, with reporter Michael Luo allowing Sharpton to unleash more attacks on the faith as racist and backward. (For some reason, former Democratic Sen. Majority Leader (and Mormon) Harry Reid was exempt from this kind of scrutiny.)
And a hostile November 2008 front-page story bemoaned how Mormon donations allegedly put Proposition 8, a California law banning gay marriage, narrowly over the top.