But a baseless story that went viral this week highlights a daunting challenge for Mormonism. Can the faith escape being defined by its most famous member?
Last Friday, The Daily Beast popped a story trumpeting what seemed, at first, like a scoop the press had been chasing all year. The splashy headline said it all: “MORMONS WANT TO EXCOMMUNICATE ROMNEY CRITIC."
The article told the tale of a Mormon blogger named David Twede who said he was facing excommunication on charges of “apostasy.” His supposed sin: Writing critically about Mitt Romney. As journalist Jamie Reno framed it, Twede’s travails represented the first sign of a church-wide “witch hunt” aimed at rooting out political dissent and ensuring universal allegiance in Zion to the Mormon Candidate. The story went viral within hours.
But interviews with many of the people involved in the episode suggest that while the story’s sexy headline may be literally true — Twede does face Church discipline — there’s no evidence it has anything to do with his criticism of Romney. Indeed, many Mormons who are far more critical of the Republican nominee have never faced any formal censure.
But the way in which the politics-laced version of the story spread — with Twede's allies making a concerted pitch to reporters anxious for a fresh angle on Romney's religion — underscores a challenge the Mormon Church has faced since the start of the Republican primaries. Despite Mormon leaders' best efforts to demonstrate political neutrality, virtually every article written about their faith in 2012 has been built around Romney. The result, exasperated church officials complain, is that Mormonism's doctrines, quirks, and controversies are being introduced to the country through the filter of Romney's presidential bid — a reality that could have a lasting effect on the public perception of the church.
The politicization of Twede's potential excommunication is emblematic. A 47-year-old scientist and fifth-generation Latter-day Saint living in Orlando, Twede ran MormonThink.com, a relatively obscure blog offering a defiantly unorthodox take on LDS history and doctrine. He had recently returned to the church after a five-year hiatus — not because of a spiritual awakening, he says, but so he could play watch-dog at the services.
"I cannot effectively address the concerns of members of my church if I am not there with them seeing what they see and hearing what they hear," he told CNN this week in an e-mail.
On his blog, he talks about befriending a member of his ward and then e-mailing him materials designed to shake the congregant's faith in Mormonism. And perhaps most troubling to church leadership, he devoted several posts on MormonThink to "revealing" temple rituals that Mormons believe are sacred, and should be kept private.
The Mormon Church has struggled throughout its history to decide how much doctrinal antagonism it will allow in its ranks, and it has long fielded charges of anti-intellectualism from its critics. So, when LDS leaders in Orlando confronted Twede about his writings in mid-September, he joined a long line of self-fashioned reformers who have clashed with church hierarchy over the years.
But when Twede took his story to The Daily Beast, he offered a very different angle, one that no reporter could could pass up: Local church leaders, he said, were “acting as agents of HQ leadership in Salt Lake" and trying to excommunicate him for the Romney-bashing on his blog. It was a serious charge, and one that, if true, would undermine the church's longheld claim to political neutrality — and perhaps even threaten its tax-exempt status.
But hours after the Daily Beast article published, Twede changed his story, telling the Salt Lake Tribune and the New York Times that politics likely had nothing to do with the church discipline he faced. Then, the next morning, he returned to his original thesis, writing on his personal blog, "I felt in my gut that the Romney pieces were a part of why this happened."
The church quickly released an official statement dismissing Twede's claims as "patently false" and saying that excommunication is only wielded "in those rare occasions where an individual's actions cannot be ignored while they claim to be in good standing with the church." Citing a longstanding policy of confidentiality in these matters, the church declined to go into further specifics of Twede's case.
Meanwhile, a loosely-formed coalition of ex-Mormons and Romney detractors was kicking into gear — saturating message boards with links, launching the news through the blogosphere, and aggressively selling their version of the story to reporters. Over the course of four days, the story was pitched to BuzzFeed by three separate individuals, the last of whom left an anonymous voice message scolding us for ignoring the scandal: "[Twede's] made it to CNN but I don't see the fellow's name anywhere on your site."
At the same time, Twede worked to harness the newfound national attention as a vehicle for his Lutheresque agenda of reform. Reached for comment by BuzzFeed, Twede declined to talk about his Romnapostacy — he'd already done enough interviews on that, he said — but went on to pitch a number of other potentially juicy angles, complete with MormonThink links, and sources he said would speak out on the the controversies of Mormonism.
"There are also many other interesting Mormon stories, such as a super-secret special Mormon temple ordinance for a select elite few," Twede offered, for example.
And on Thurday, when he learned that his disciplinary hearing had been postponed, Twede celebrated by posting a call to arms on his blog, un-ironically urging likeminded Mormons to join him in a "Paisley Pestroika." Those who wanted to "overturn the tables of corporate empowerment" in the church, and "stop the suppression of dissent" were to wear paisley-patterned accessories to church as a sign of solidarity.
But Twede's claim that he was being targeted for his politics was met with deep skepticism by seasoned religion reporters and Mormon liberals alike.
"I have been openly critical of Mitt Romney's candidacy, and I have never experienced pressure from the LDS Church's leaders from my political views," said Joanna Brooks, a prominent Mormon scholar and blogger.
"I've been involved in organizing Latter-day Saints who support President Obama for over a year," said Rob Taber, national director of the grassroots Mormons for Obama. "My church leaders know I'm doing this. We park a car with a 'Mormons for Obama' bumper sticker in the church parking lot every Sunday."
He added, "Not once has anyone suggested I might face church discipline, and the idea that I would for... criticizing Mitt Romney would be quite a stretch."
Salt Lake Tribune religion reporter Peggy Fletcher Stack, whose aggressive coverage has long been a thorn in the Mormon Church's side, wrote an article debunking the notion that Mormons are booting Romney detractors. And, as if on cue, earlier this week Mormon Democrat Harry Reid publicly declared that Romney had "sullied" their shared religion. (At press time, Reid remained un-excommunicated.)
The Daily Beast's Reno told BuzzFeed, "I stand by our story 100 percent. I quoted Davide Twede accurately. We believed he was a credible source and we simply reported what he believed to be true." He added that Twede changed his version of events because he was "concerned about the impact any further negative comments about Gov. Romney might have on his job."
But Reno didn't have the advantage of personal experience or beat knowledge when Twede approached him with his story — and his one article was all it took to launch the "election-meddling Mormons" narrative into the ether. The entire episode is a cautionary tale, of sorts, but one without an obvious solution. As long as Romney is running for president — and particularly if he's elected — the national press will focus the vast majority of its Mormon coverage on understanding the faith's most famous member.
Some Mormons think while the Romney-centric coverage of their faith may sometimes be misleading, it's ultimately a net positive.
"There's still quite a bit that's misunderstood, but media coverage is generally much better informed that it was even in 2007, and that wouldn't have happened without Romney," said Taber.
But as Romney’s favorability ratings continue to slip along with the rest of his poll numbers, Mormonism risks having its international brand defined by an unpopular politican. And as the church hurdles toward the election-day conclusion of the “Mormon Moment,” its longsuffering public affairs office will face the daunting task of escaping this year without a partisan brand stamped onto its public image.
The David Twedes of the world will make them work for every inch.