Garry Wills would be the first to denounce the folly of a scholar or reporter who wrote about Roman Catholicism by asking an undergraduate student about its beliefs without consulting Catholic scholars, texts, or history. Why, then, does he feel free to discuss Mormonism without the same respect?
I have been a fan of Garry Wills for a long time, since I first started at Publishers Weekly. I've always been impressed by his depth, which is not something I take for granted among those who write for the upper echelons of the general audience. Whether he's doing a groundbreaking biography of Henry Adams or a discourse on Augustine's Confessions, Wills pays attention to detail and does his homework.
Until now, apparently.
Earlier this week, Wills published a piece on "The Mormon Constitution" for the New York Review of Books, and it's filled with problems, as Joanna Brooks has pointed out in an outstanding blog post ("The Latest to Botch Mormonism: Garry Wills") over at Religion Dispatches today. After noting several inaccuracies (the tenure of service for LDS missionaries, the fact that Mormon doctrine does not include any official belief in the US Constitution being on par with scripture), Brooks nails the heart of the problem:
But the biggest disappointment in Wills’s essay is the shoddy formula at its core:
20 years ago, I knew this 18-year-old Mormon kid. Real good kid. He said [fill in the blank], so [fill in the blank] must be doctrine, and Mitt Romney must believe [fill in the blank] too. And because of [fill in the blank], we should be worried about a Romney presidency.
Try it out with any other religion or ethnic group, and see how that sounds.
Wills's mistakes about Mormonism are both minor and major. Little screwups, like future missionaries somehow intuiting the location of their mission service and studying the corresponding language beforehand, can happen to all of us. But little mistakes sometimes add up to far-ranging thesis errors -- as his do when he makes the jump that what his student told him about Mormon belief in the Constitution must necessarily translate to a potential president having very strange and untenable views of the document.
Will a Mormon president treat constitutional clauses as divine injunctions? If so, what grounds will we non-Mormons have for interpreting with secular arguments what is presented as God’s will? For that matter, what right will the Supreme Court have to treat the document as anything less than a divinely inspired covenant?
This kind of illogical leap demonstrates a truly disappointing lack of research, and it raises the question of why Wills (and, as we're seeing this year, many other writers as well) feels free to jump to wild conclusions about Mormonism without benefit of said research. As Brooks challenged, "Try it out with any other religion or ethnic group, and see how that sounds."
So, for heaven's sake, if you're going to write about Mormonism get on the phone. Call the growing list of Mormon Studies profs who parse this stuff for a living. Listen to journalists who have been covering Mormonism for decades and learn from their advice. For example, see Peggy Fletcher Stack's top six mistakes reporters make when writing about Mormonism. Don't take one person's word as gospel truth.
In other words, give Mormonism the same respect that you would give in writing about your own religion, and insist on rigorous research before spouting an opinion.