LA Times: “Evangelicals Uneasy with Romney’s Faith.” Readers: How Many?

Answer: Four.

The headline to this LA Times story would have you believe it’s more than that, like, a lot more. And yet, any good seventh grade social studies student would reject their sampling out of hand. Look beyond the headline and you’ll see a story about a journalist trotting around Rock Hill, South Carolina talking to Evangelicals about Mitt Romney. Of the people quoted in the story, four are disinclined to vote for Mitt Romney because of his religion. Five others have no such problem. And remarkably, three of the four people who oppose Romney due to his Mormonism are all employees of the same Christian bookstore. In other words, a majority of the people quoted in the story are not opposed to voting for Romney based on his faith, and of those that are, a majority were part of the same conversation with the journalist. Truly, this is a headline that is far out ahead of its story.

To be fair, there is little doubt an intrepid reporter could have found more than four people to express hesitancy about voting for a Mormon. And the rest of the story’s description of Mormon beliefs is more or less fair (although one source’s belief that outsiders cannot enter Mormon churches is well off the mark). But one wonders what kind of newspaper pushes an article that shows only mild questioning as a staunch entrenchment against religious tolerance? How many headlines could we come up with that would more accurately summarize the story? Even inserting a “Some” in the header would have been more honest, although less sensational.

Of course, it is asking too much for a newspaper to base its conclusions only on scientific rigour. But this leads to a greater difficulty that underlies much of the Romney question. That is, no one has any idea how much his religion will be a factor, and talking to nine people on the street may be about as accurate a portrayal of the facts as any. There have been literally hundreds of articles written on the question, and only three sources of information. First, there are the ubiquitous polls stating that such and such a percentile of people (18%? 28%?) would never vote for a Mormon. These polls are suspect from the start, given the anonymity of the “Mormon” in question. One has to think Mitt Romney can do better than this shadowy disembodied “Mormon” based on his chin alone.

Second, one has anecdotes from Evangelicals on the street. And yet, many of those expressing reluctance are those found in supercharged Christian bookstores or ultra-zealous church groups– the kind most likely to view Mormons with disdain. And for every Evangelical-on-the-street with doubts, there are three well-regarded movement leaders that dismiss out of hand the question of withholding votes for a Mormon.

The third source of information is simple, unadorned opinion. So there is that.

I wish I could say I know what the truth is on the Evangelical Street (square? group? What is the proper geographical shorthand for the mean of Evangelical opinion?). Like everyone else, I have my hunch. I am inclined to believe the countless Evangelical leaders and thinkers that have stated an openness to evaluating Romney on the merits, appraising his values over his theology. I also think that he’s less likely to be viewed in isolation, and more likely to be compared against some other options that have their share of warts. But I’m open to the possibility that I’m wrong.

What I’m sure of is that we’re not getting any of the answers from the LA Times. Despite the certitude of their headlines.

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