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Posted 10 Sep 2001   For week ended September 07, 2001
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Sent on Mormon-News: 05Sep01

By Kent Larsen

Newsweek Cover Takes Flawed, Skeptical Look at LDS Church

NEW YORK, NEW YORK -- The cover story in this week's Newsweek takes a skeptical look at The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as preparations for the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City continue. The article, and a forthcoming article in The New Yorker, led SLOC President and LDS Church member Mitt Romney to complain that journalists were focusing on the Church's connection to the Olympics. But the resulting article, flawed with minor factual errors and logical missteps that drew criticism from the Church, had little to do with the Olympics, using it only as a reason to look closely at the Church.

The article, written by Newsweek's religion editor Kenneth L. Woodward, gives an overview of the LDS Church, its doctrine, history and social practices. It describes notable doctrinal differences between LDS beliefs and those of mainline Christian churches, including differences in the nature of God and of Christ, and the LDS belief in the Book of Mormon. It also gives a history of the LDS Church, and takes a look at the structure of the Church, comparing it to a business corporation.

Woodward also looks at changes in the Church's image, apparently drawing on academic articles about the Church. Citing several changes over the past thirty years, he claims that the Church has changed its image, in order to to focus more on Jesus Christ and less on Joseph Smith and the doctrines that make Mormonism different from traditional Christianity. But Woodward's skeptical tone seems to say that the Church has changed its image merely to win converts.

Even before the article was released, it had already drawn criticism from Romney, who worried in an August 13th message to the Olympic board that the article and similar articles connecting the Church to the Olympics were "divisive and demeaning" and complained that he had found no effective way to end the story. "I presume that this story will ultimately be overshadowed by the Games, but if you have any suggestions, I'd be happy to hear them," he wrote, asking the assistance of the board.

While Romney fretted ahead of the article's publication, LDS Church spokesman Michael Otterson remained unconcerned, "We have no reason whatsoever to believe [the article] is focused on the Olympics," he said. He then added that of the 80 journalists that have visited the Church's public relations office since January, "very few have gone into the so-called Mormon Olympics. This has not been an issue for most of the media. You're always sensitive because you want the Olympics to reflect the entire community. But no, we're not going to worry unduly about it."

But when the article was released, the Church reacted swiftly, spending Sunday writing a letter to Newsweek's editor objecting to the tone of the coverage and for the suggestion that the Church's image change was motivated by a desire for converts. "Ken Woodward cheapens the real motivation of most members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints -- their deep personal conviction that Christ is the divine Son of God," Otterson wrote in the letter. He suggested that Woodward was wrong in suggesting that the Church had 'de-emphasized' Joseph Smith and that the Church was trying to be more 'mainstream,' "It may be that the world's perception of Mormons is what is really changing. Increasingly, Americans are getting acquainted with Mormon associates and neighbors and seeing them as an integral part of the rich and diverse fabric of American life. If that is what is meant by 'mainstream,' we welcome it," Otterson wrote.

Overall, the article's main points, that the Church's image has changed, that its doctrine is substantially different from mainstream Christianity, the description of the Church's history and its current structure, are generally correct. However, Mormon News' analysis of the article shows a number of glaring errors and several weak or inaccurate supporting arguments.

Probably the most glaring error is Woodward's claim that "not since the ancient Olympiads ... have the Games been staged in a locale so thoroughly saturated by a single religion." In fact, the 1960 Olympics were held in Rome, which by most definitions is "saturated" by the Catholic Church. Woodward's article also manages to misstate the title of the Church's recent film, "The Testaments: One Fold and One Shepherd," err in the name of LDS Church President Wilford Woodruff and somehow indicate that Mormons call the rarely-mentioned spouse of Heavenly Father, "the Mother."

More significant are some of the article's weaker arguments. Woodward suggests that the Church changed the film it shows in the Joseph Smith Memorial Building from "Legacy" to "The Testaments" as part of the Church's attempt to change its image, which seems unlikely to LDS Church members given that many of the changes in image occurred before 1990, when Legacy was introduced. He also claims that rhetoric in General Conference changed, but fails to cite any study or give enough detail to make the claim convincing.

Other dubious arguments include a suggestion that Mormons "help other Mormons," which while true probably does not account for the rise of Marriott and Huntsman as Woodward suggests, and isn't as extensive as many other religions and ethnic groups. Similarly, Woodward's suggestion that the LDS Church is the 'only' church structured like a corporation (i.e., with a centralized hierarchy and finances) implies that he has looked at all other major denominations to make that conclusion.

But in the end, these errors weaken, but don't refute the article's main point. Mormon readers may find the article's skeptical tone more troubling, but given the approaching Olympics, more skeptical articles, such as the coming New Yorker article, are sure to follow.


A Mormon Moment
Newsweek 10Sep01 N1
By Kenneth L. Woodward: Newsweek
America's biggest homegrown religion is looking more Christian. But it's still a different world

Salt Lake's Big Jump
Newsweek 10Sep01 N1
By Ana Figueroa: Newsweek

Mormon Country (Chat)
Washington Post 5Sep01 N1

A Mormon Olympics
Newsweek On Air: 2Sep01 N1

Eyes of world are upon us
Deseret News 2Sep01 N1
By Jennifer Toomer-Cook: Deseret News staff writer
Magazine looks at Utah culture and people

LDS Church Takes Issue With Article
Salt Lake Tribune 3Sep01 N1
By Greg Burton: Salt Lake Tribune

Church criticizes article in journal
Deseret News 3Sep01 N1
By Donna Kemp Spangler: Deseret News staff writer

Angry LDS Church officials write letter to Newsweek
(Phoenix) AZ Republic (AP) 3Sep01 N1
Associated Press


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