While other media outlets, in their coverage of Mitt Romney's presidential campaign, have addressed the longtime evangelical hostility to Romney's Mormon faith, Fox News has largely avoided the subject and has responded to other media coverage of the issue by alleging media bias or, in the case of one guest, accusing liberals of anti-Mormon bigotry.
Since former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney formally announced his candidacy for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination, questions about whether his Mormon faith will lessen his appeal among evangelical-dominated GOP primary voters have persisted, especially after an incident in which an audience member at a Romney event challenged him on his religion. Among many conservative evangelicals -- who comprise a significant part of the Republican base -- Mormonism is considered an un-Christian cult. Major media outlets including USA Today, Newsweek, and National Public Radio have reported on evangelical hostility to Romney's Mormonism. Yet when examining Romney's faith -- and especially when reporting on incidents during which Romney is confronted about his faith by hostile Republican voters on the campaign trail -- Fox News largely ignored the issue of evangelical hostility to Mormonism, or, at times, responded to other media coverage of the issue with allegations of media bias or, in the case of Fox News contributor and Weekly Standard executive editor Fred Barnes, an accusation of "liberal intolerance" of Mormonism.
Examples of conservative and evangelical rejections of Mormonism are numerous and widespread. One of the most public slights of Mormons by evangelicals occurred during the 2004 National Day of Prayer, when Mormons were barred from conducting services during National Day of Prayer ceremonies by the group's task force chairwoman, Shirley Dobson, the wife of Focus on the Family founder and chairman James C. Dobson.
The Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), America's second-largest religious community after Catholicism, has declared Mormonism to be a cult. The SBC's North American Mission Board's web page of "free resources on cults & sects" contains a section on "Mormons and Mormon Doctrine." Mormonism is listed on the page alongside other supposed cults like the Nation of Islam and the Church of Scientology.
The SBC's official news service, BP News, highlighted the denomination's rejection of Mormonism with a September 23, 2005, article that began:
For the past 150 years Mormonism has been in conflict with biblical, historic Christianity.
But leaders of Mormonism -- officially known as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints -- have in recent years downplayed the cult's divergence from traditional Christianity and now portray it as merely another form of the biblical faith.
Pat Robertson's Christian Broadcasting Network has also identified Mormonism as a cult. A 1992 CBN pamphlet entitled "Cults" reportedly declared:
"A cult is any group that has a form of godliness, but does not recognize Jesus Christ as the unique son of God."....."One test of a cult is that it often does not strictly teach that Jesus is the only begotten Son of God who Himself is God manifested in the flesh."......"Christian-oriented cults include the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints or Reorganized Church of Latter Day Saints (Mormons), the Worldwide Church of God, Christian Science, Unity, Unitarianism, The Way International, Rosicrucian Society of America, Bahai, Hare Krishna, Scientology, the Unification Church, and the Jehovah's Witnesses."
In a "BreakPoint Commentary" delivered during the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, Utah -- an event directed by Romney -- ex-Watergate felon and Prison Fellowship Ministries founder Charles Colson criticized Mormonism as un-Christian. Colson concluded:
...Mormonism either affirms historic Christianity, or it doesn't. Since it doesn't, it can't call itself Christianity -- a fact that all the good will and public relations in Utah can't change.
One of Mormonism's most strident critics is D. James Kennedy, pastor of the 10,000-member Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Florida and president of Coral Ridge Ministries, an evangelical television and radio outlet with a lobbying arm in Washington called the Center for Reclaiming America. Kennedy's homes in on Mormonism in his book The Wolves Among Us. A description of the book from Coral Ridge Ministries' Resource Center:
It is a centuries-old problem: False prophets who lead the unwary astray with a perverted version of God's message to man. Dr. Kennedy presents three primary marks of a cult to help Christians understand, answer, and stop those who wear wool but inwardly are, as Jesus said, "ravenous wolves." In addition, The Wolves Among Us looks at Mormonism, the Unity School of Christianity, Unitarianism, Christian Science, Jehovah's Witnesses, and Freemasonry.
Many of these evangelical opponents of Mormonism have discussed unrelated matters on Fox News programs. Dobson has appeared on Fox News frequently, most recently on the January 12 broadcast of Hannity & Colmes. Colson has been a guest on Fox News, as has Southern Baptist Convention director of ethics and public policy Richard Land. Yet during Fox News discussions of the problems of Romney's faith among Republican voters, the opinions of these high-profile evangelical figures have not been solicited. Instead, Fox News has largely avoided discussion of evangelical hostility to Mormonism and featured guests who have blamed the media and liberals for attacks on Romney's faith.
On the February 8 edition of Fox News' Special Report, guest and Fortune magazine Washington bureau chief Nina Easton noted that "the Southern Baptist Convention considers the Mormons a cult ... so this is a very hard hoe for Romney with Christian conservatives." Barnes replied by baselessly blaming liberals for attacks on Romney's faith. "But going back to the Mormon question," Barnes said, "his [Romney's] problem is liberal intolerance which has a great deal in this country. It's not bigotry on the part of conservatives."
Similarly, on the February 17 edition of Fox News Watch, Fox News political analyst James P. Pinkerton blamed "the media" for "the bias" against Romney's faith:
ERIC BURNS (host): That was former Massachusetts Republican Governor Mitt Romney responding to a question about media focus on his religion. Romney said this week he's running for president, but on the day of his announcement, he woke up to see this headline on the front page of USA Today: "Will Mormon faith hurt bid for White House?" Jim, let's pretend that's a question asked of you.
PINKERTON: Well, I don't know the answer to that. I do know that the media seem inordinately interested in kind of nudging Christians into talking about this more and more. You wouldn't see a headline, I don't think, "Would a Jewish person be opposed for being president?" like that. I don't think they'd put the headline that way. I don't think they'd do it. I think the bias against Romney is pretty strong. The media research --
BURNS: Because of his faith?
PINKERTON: Well, I -- no, I think they're using that as an excuse. I don't think they like Romney. I don't think they really want a Republican to win. And they're using his Mormonism as one way of getting at him.
Additionally, when NBC News correspondent Chip Reid reported that "evangelicals have a problem" with Romney's Mormonism, Fox News host Bill O'Reilly accused NBC News of "trash[ing]" Romney.
O'Reilly led into his Romney segment on the February 19 edition of The O'Reilly Factor by playing a video clip of Reid's remark: "He's [Romney's] barely out of the starting blocks, and I'm going to go right for his knees. No. 1, he's a Mormon. That's something evangelicals have a problem with. No. 2, he's a flip-flopper." Rather than examining Reid's reference to evangelical hostility to Mormons, O'Reilly and his guest, blogger Michelle Malkin , accused NBC News of "radical" left-wing bias:
O'REILLY: All right, he's [Romney's] a flip-flopper. Now, it's pretty hard to believe when you understand that Mr. Reid covers Congress for the NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams. Nice objectivity.
The woman giggling with him is Ana Marie Cox, works for Time magazine, used to edit a Marxist magazine. OK? Ms. Cox did. Now, there was nobody in that discussion sticking up for Romney. Nobody.
Now, I've been doing this for, I don't know, three, four months, chronicling and proving, day in and day out, that NBC News took a radical turn to the left. The NBC News Nightly News ratings are dropping. OK?
But it's more than that. Because you got a correspondent like Chip Reid, the guy who covers Congress, and he goes in the moment Romney -- bang, bang. We could have played a much bigger clip than that. Just annihilates him. No voice on the other side. So what do you think is going on here?
MALKIN: Well, the Reid clip was remarkable. First, his Tony Soprano pose about going after -- you know, right for --
O'REILLY: His knees.
MALKIN: -- Mitt Romney's knees. Ha, ha, ha. And then you got the giggly Ana Marie Cox, you know, breaking out into laughter over that. And then, just the political characterization that is just so out of touch from reality.
I mean, this is Mitt Romney, a mainstream Republican, who was elected by the People's Republic of Taxachussetts. You know, hardly your red, red meat, red, Red State, far-right candidate. And you're right. And I think this was implications for the larger political coverage leading up to 2008 for sure.
But I just have to say that -- I mean, it's not a surprise to most of us who have been watching the Nightly News for years and years and years and Dateline and a lot of the other programming on NBC News that leans to the left. I think now, I think what's happening is that they're just getting more aggressive about rubbing viewers' noses in their liberal bias.
O'REILLY: No question, they have done that. It's because Jeff Zucker, who's running NBC now, is a committed leftist and has ordered his people to do it. We know that.
The most high-profile incident reflecting anti-Mormon sentiment towards Romney occurred on February 17, during Romney's campaign swing through The Villages, a Florida retirement community described by the Orlando Sentinel as a "hotbed of Republicanism." In a question-and-answer session with Romney, a Villages resident told the former governor: "You, sir, you're a pretender. You do not know the Lord. You're a Mormon."
On the February 20 edition of his show, O'Reilly played a video clip of the Villages resident telling Romney, "You do not know the Lord. You're a Mormon." Then O'Reilly welcomed "body language expert" Tonya Reiman to analyze the video.
"Bigoted remark, I thought," O'Reilly said to Reiman. "What did you -- what did you get from Governor Romney's posture?" After a lengthy analysis of Romney's physical gestures, Reiman concluded that Romney's response to the remark was "something that's truly coming from his heart":
[begin video clip]
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: You, sir, you're a pretender. You do not know the Lord. You're a Mormon.
ROMNEY: Let me -- let me offer just a thought, and that is, one of the great things about this great land is we have people of different faiths and different persuasions. And I'm convinced that the nation -- that the nation does need -- the nation does need to have people of different faiths, but we need to have a person of faith lead the country.
[end video clip]
O'REILLY: All right, Tonya, what -- pretty confrontational and rude remark by that man.
O'REILLY: Bigoted remark, I thought. What did you -- what did you get from Governor Romney's posture?
REIMAN: Well, immediately I saw that he was taken aback by the comment. You can see, like, he puts his head down, he chuckles a little bit, but his eyebrows go up. So I think he was surprised by the comment. As I watched this, I noticed he is very emotional. What do I mean by that? He looks down a great deal. It's as if he's constantly thinking about his emotional response, as opposed to, you know, a logical response. This is something that's truly coming from his heart.
On the February 19 edition of Special Report with Brit Hume, Fox News congressional correspondent Major Garrett also discussed the Villages incident without mentioning evangelical hostility to Mormonism, dismissing the incident as being caused by a "heckler." Instead, Garrett compiled a list of purported Romney "skeptic[s]" that did not include evangelicals:
GARRETT: One of [Sen. John] McCain's [R-AZ] rivals, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, confronts skepticism of a different kind: his Mormon faith. A heckler raised it this weekend in Florida.
GARRETT: The Mormon issue comes up a lot, and in this case at least, it appears Romney got the better of that encounter. Romney faces pro-choice and pro-abortion and pro-life skepticism as well. He ran as a pro-choice candidate in 1994 and 2002, didn't declare himself pro-life until 2004. On gay rights, this weekend Romney said, if elected president, he would maintain the military policy, so-called "don't ask, don't tell," saying doing anything else would be too disruptive in time of war, Brit.