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The Mormon Gospel according to Kenneth Woodward.

Monday, April 9, 2007
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HH: Pleased to welcome now to the Hugh Hewitt Show Kenneth Woodward. For 38 years at Newsweek, he’s been the religion editor there for that long a period of time. Mr. Woodward, welcome to the Hugh Hewitt Show.

KW: My pleasure.

HH: I want to start with the important stuff. You’re from Cleveland.

KW: I am.

HH: Are you an Indians and Browns fan?

KW: I am.

HH: All right. Well, you’ve got two points in your favor. Where’d you go to high school there?

KW: Well, there’s only one.

HH: (laughing) Which one is that?

KW: Well, if you don’t know from my telling you that…

HH: St. Edwards?

KW: Huh?

HH: Are you a St. Edwards guy?

KW: Never.

HH: Oh, just checking. I’m from Warren, so I really don’t go up to Cleveland much.

KW: Well, there’s only Ignatius, and there’s everything else.

HH: Well, yeah, but we only…the Warren teams would only go up there to beat Cleveland teams, so that’s why I asked. Then you went to Notre Dame. Are you still a practicing Catholic, Mr. Woodward?

KW: No.

HH: Okay.

KW: I learned how to do it.

HH: You learned how to do it and you’re done?

KW: Well, no, I do it, but why is it that only Catholics have to practice? Ever hear of a practicing Presbyterian?

HH: Yes, yes, I know many practicing Presbyterians.

KW: Well, well, I’ve never heard of them called a practicing Presbyterian. I’ve heard of observant Jews.

HH: So you’re an observant Catholic?

KW: Yes, I’m an observant Catholic.

HH: All right. I want to talk to you about your New York Times piece today…

KW: Okay.

HH: …because it was jarring to me. The Presidency’s Mormon Moment. And I know you’ve been covering religion a long time. Do you have any Mormons who are friends of yours?

KW: Yeah.

HH: Close friends?

KW: Yeah.

HH: Okay, so…and have you ever been inside one of the temples before they were consecrated?

KW: Nope. Well, I can’t tell you. You know, I would have done that less out of curiosity than out of duty.

HH: Okay.

KW: The Mormons I would tend to meet with would tend to be journalists and academics. I mean, I used to go…are you familiar with the Sunstone, the Mormon magazine?

HH: Yes.

KW: All right.

HH: And with Meridian.

KW: All right. I’ve addressed their conference a couple of times, so you can get a different kind of Mormon at those places.

HH: What I want to talk to you about are some of the statements made in your New York Times piece today, as whether or not you personally subscribe to them. For example, Kenneth Woodward, do you personally believe that the Mormon Church is clannish?

KW: I think as a generalization, that’s true. And I don’t mean is so much negatively. If you can remember when Italians couldn’t get into an Irish union, never mind blacks getting into a white union, preserving jobs for their friends and so on, that’s a kind of thing that I’m talking about. I’m thinking about…but more importantly, look at their history. You know, they were people forged on an exodus, with a huge amount of intermarriage, a strong sense that the world was against them, and also, a Church as welfare state, the food in the basement, that kind of stuff. Now they do look after each other. I was talking to a friend of mind, a classmate, who was a National Security Advisor in Nixon’s administration. And we were talking about just that thing. They’ve got people in at a certain point, and certainly after a while, more Mormons were coming in and so on.

HH: Now who was that?

KW: Well, I’m not going to go into that, because it was a private conversation.

HH: Okay, because I…

KW: You can look it up.

HH: Yeah, I knew most of the Nixon people, and I just don’t remember a Mormon being there, but a lot of Christian Scientists in the Nixon White House.

KW: Well, Haldeman was a…was he Christian…

HH: Christian Scientist.

KW: Christian Scientist.

HH: So…

KW: Sure, yeah. No, I think they are, and what I try to say in the piece is there’s a reason why. I mean, to me, the truest line in there is a good Mormon is a busy Mormon. And so that…

HH: Do you believe that?

KW: …they do keep you busy if you’re a devout…especially males. I mean, how else did they get the…what was it? One night a home alone? They used to advertise that in Reader’s Digest. That’s because the men were out so much being…taking care of the Church.

HH: So you really believe a good Mormon is a busy Mormon?

KW: Yeah.

HH: Okay. How about, do you believe that…

KW: Well, their whole theology is 19th Century busyness. Don’t you understand? Even when you go to Heaven, you don’t get to relax. You keep working there.

HH: You also wrote that their Mormonism leaves little opportunity to cultivate close friendships with non-Mormon neighbors. Now I’ve got a lot of Mormons who are pretty good friends of mine, so that just didn’t ring true with me. Is that…

KW: Well, I think they’re changing, and I think it’s possible, but less so because of busyness. They’ve opened up a lot more, at least in the years that I’ve covered them.

HH: Well now, you and I grew up Catholic, and you know, you’ve got the Knights of Columbus, you’ve got the parish hall duties, you’ve got to go and teach the CCD, you’ve got to referee the kids’ Saturday basketball league. You know, Catholics are pretty busy, too. I don’t want to give up any…

KW: Oh, they’re not nearly as busy as they used to be. Believe me.

HH: Well, that might be the case, but…

KW: Yeah.

HH: …is it fair…

KW: No, I think this is a lot…

HH: Mormons are busier than Catholics?

KW: …more so. The lay priesthood has a lot to do with it.

HH: But Mormons are busier than Catholics?

KW: Oh, I think so, especially today’s Catholics.

HH: All right, how about this line. To many Americans, Mormonism is a Church with the soul of a corporation. Do you believe that, Kenneth Woodward?

KW: Do I believe that?

HH: Yeah.

KW: I think that’s a pretty good description. I bounced it off a few Mormons, and they laughed and said yeah.

HH: Well, what do you mean by it?

KW: Oh, there is a corporate side to it. I think the communal and communitarian side that was pretty, how would you want to say, pretty radical in the 19th Century. The old Mormonism, if you will, had issued in a very strong corporate style.

HH: Are they kind in giving?

KW: Are they kind in giving? They probably are kind in giving, but the one doesn’t exclude the other. You can also be corporate giving, you know?

HH: And so, are you trying to suggest that they’re not really believers in what they attest to believe in?

KW: Well, no, there’s nothing in there to suggest that at all.

HH: All right. When you write Mormons like to hire other Mormons…

KW: Yeah.

HH: What do you base that on?

KW: Well, the Mormons that I’ve known. And there’s a good side to it. I think I put it in there, unless it got cut, but you lose a job, and there’s a network there than you can appeal to. I’ve seen it time and again.

HH: How about Mormons are perceived to be unusually secretive? Where’s that come from?

KW: Well, that’s the easiest one, and notice I put perception, and I explain in the next sentence or two why that’s the case.

HH: But again, that’s an empirical statement.

KW: Yeah.

HH: And is it based upon a survey of your acquaintances? Or is it a data set that is not in the op-ed piece?

KW: Well, I think it’s almost every time you find somebody writing about them, you get that objection that they can’t go into the temple. Usually, it comes up when somebody marries, and you go to the Mormon wedding, and you can’t go inside. Or it comes up in gee, I couldn’t make it to the opening of the temple, and now that, you know, it’s been blessed, or whatever they do, now that it’s an operating temple, I can’t go in it.

HH: Do you think they’re unusually secretive?

KW: Yeah, more so than most other religions that I know.

HH: Which religion is more secretive than Mormons?

KW: Oh, I don’t know. That’s kind of a silly question, actually.

HH: Branch Davidians?

KW: Well, I wouldn’t consider them a religion at all. That was a genuine cult, you know? I don’t know, maybe Jehovah’s Witnesses, although they’re out proselytizing a lot. I had…but I think the…this is the only tradition I know where you can’t walk in off the street and go to one of their temple services, and I understand their reasons why, and I explained in there.

HH: Now you say that Church members are told not to disclose what goes on inside of temples. Now that’s not my experience. What do you base that on?

KW: Everything I know.

HH: But I mean, have you ever asked them anything that they wouldn’t tell you? Are you aware of any specifics…

KW: Of course.

HH: What…give me a specific.

KW: For instance, in a marriage ceremony, you get bound for all eternity when you get married in the temple. Am I right?

HH: Yes.

KW: Okay, and that’s what you’re supposed to do. But if you say okay, once you go behind the veil, what goes on, can’t tell you, not supposed to tell you, okay? Now I respect that.

HH: Wait, I’m honestly not tracking you. What don’t they tell you?

KW: They don’t tell you what the ceremony is behind there. You can go to the anti-Mormons, who sort of tape these things, and you get, I’ve listened to it one time when I was washing the car, and you can get the talk with Eloheim and Jehovah, and all of that kind of stuff. I mean, it’s a very, it’s, from one point of view, it’s a very interesting and very practical thing, because they’re locating their marriage in a much wider circle. They’re locating it within a whole myth, and I don’t mean by myth, I think you understand what I mean, myth as a form of where you came from, and where you can go, you know? Spirit children of divine parents, and maybe someday you become the divine parents yourself.

HH: Now when I went to the temple in Newport Beach, California, before it opened, they took un into the marriage sealing room, and they disclosed every detail about the wedding ceremony. Do you think that they were holding stuff back from the gentiles?

KW: I think if you had that experience, you’re the only one I’ve ever known that ever did.

HH: All right, so it’s possible you’re wrong, though?

KW: Hey, it’s always possible I’m wrong.

HH: Okay, you and me, both. We’re both from Ohio. It always happens. We were wrong about the Florida games twice this year. Let’s talk about…you write that this attitude has fed anti-Mormon charges of secret and unholy rites. Now I know [that people make those charges, that’s true], but do you believe that they are secret and unholy rites?

KW: I believe they’re secret for all of the reasons we’ve just been discussing. I don’t think they’re unholy, but that’s been the charge, and that’s why I put it that way.

HH: Other than marriage, which you mentioned, since you used the plural, what other secret rite is there?

KW: Oh, you know what I think? I mean, I think people feel about them as some people feel about secret Masonic rites and things of that nature. And after all, there’s a strong link between Mormonism and masonry.

HH: But when you…did you have something specific in mind when you wrote secret rites other than marriage?

KW: Well, I think that anything that goes on in the temple, the fact that it’s closed…I mean, people go there to seal people for all eternity and so forth.

HH: Well, like…

KW: There’s not a lot of talk about that. I’m talking about the dead.

HH: Yeah, but that’s not secret. I mean, that’s actually been very controversial in the past, and they stopped doing it about Jews.

KW: Well, they know they’re doing it. They know they’re doing it, you just don’t go in and see them do it.

HH: So it’s closed. You don’t mean secret, you mean closed.

KW: Yeah.

HH: Okay, what about when you write the Mormons…

KW: Well, I don’t see the distinction you’re trying to make between secret and closed. I’m saying when things are closed, this…and what’s the verb in there, huh? Perceived.

HH: Okay.

KW: In secret, okay? There’s not a lot, short of them going inside the confessional in a Catholic Church, that anybody else can’t walk in and see.

HH: Well, you’ve just named one, but there are probably others.

KW: Well, and the reasons are not that they’re secret, okay? The reason is that it’s private between two people.

HH: Okay, next paragraph. Any journalist who has covered the Church knows that Mormons speak one way among themselves, and another among outsiders.

KW: Uh-huh.

HH: Now I’m a journalist. I’ve covered the Church for more than ten years. I just don’t think that’s true. Can you give me a counter-example?

KW: All right, well then…

HH: What?

KW: I do, so there you are. I mean…

HH: Yeah, but you wrote any journalist.

KW: Huh?

HH: You wrote any journalist who has covered the Church. So…

KW: Well, you would be the exception twice then. First, your story of the temple that you talked about, and now that you feel that nobody’s ever talked any differently to you.

HH: But I mean, the temple wasn’t consecrated when I went in.

KW: Uh-huh. I understand that.

HH: What…

KW: I think they do, because they have a slightly different language, okay? And that’s been one of the problems when they…that’s the point of that paragraph. I’m sure you realize.

HH: But can you give me an example of how they speak differently to each other?

KW: Because they use Mormon, they use Mormon language very often among themselves. There’s…there’s stuff out of the Mormon scriptures, which is peculiar to them.

HH: Well, is it…

KW: And I think they use them in different ways, that’s all.

HH: Well, if you were, for example, a Kabbalah student, would you say the same thing, that Kabbalists speak one way among themselves, and another among outsiders?

KW: Well, I think to some extent, every religion’s got its own language.

HH: Well, that I agree with. But does that, is that worthy of the comment that they…

KW: Yeah, it’s worthy…well, no, I mean it more than that. They talk differently to each other than they do to outsiders. Not only that, orthodox Jews do it, other people do it. No question. The problem comes, as the way I described it in the piece. The problem is when you use language equivocally. And I was citing the example of talking about Romney talking down in South Carolina.

HH: Now last…one of the closing paragraphs you write, actually, it’s about five graphs from the end. Finally, there’s the question of authority in the Church of Latter Day Saints, and what obligations an office holder like Romney must discharge. Like the Catholic Church, the Mormon Church has a hierarchical structure in which ultimate authority is vested in one man. But unlike the Pope, the Church’s president is also regarded as God’s own prophet and revelator. Every sitting prophet is free to proclaim new revelations as God sees fit to send them, a form of divine direction that Mormon missionaries play as a trump card against competing faiths. First of all, the Pope can invoke infallibility, can he not?

KW: Not the same thing at all. That’s interesting you asked that question, because the Times wanted to ask about that, too. The only time the Pope has made an infallible statement since the Pope became infallible was in 1950, where he took a belief that had been around for centuries, and added to it, and said that this is part of the…you have to be believed, a fidae, an article of faith. And before he did that, he asked the opinion of his bishops, which was quite extraordinary. Do you think this will float, is this is something I ought to do. So it’s a very different kind of exercise, you know?

HH: But when the prophet…

KW: No relationship whatsoever. None whatsoever. The doctrine of infallibility having been used, I’m just giving you an example, having only been used onece, is hemmed in and circumscribed in an extraordinary way. I’m not suggesting that any first president, prophet and revelator of the Church can act on a whim. I don’t think they have done that, and I don’t think they do do that, although I was around when Spencer Kimball got his revelation with respect to the blacks, and being eligible for the priesthood. It was under…there was pressure, although not like there was on polygamy in the times past, and I think there was a certain urgency, and I think there was a certain suffering on his part. And I suspect he talked it with the other members of the first presidency, too. But in fact, he can do that, and he is open to that.

HH: So how is infallibility different from the prophetic word that Mormon prophet has?

KW: Well, first of all, he doesn’t sit down, infallibility is something that, in the Catholic tradition, is inherent in the Church first, and is exercised only in an extraordinary situation by the Pope himself. And as I told you, it’s only happened once, which makes it quite extraordinary, and it’s been around for what? 150 years? Something like that?

HH: But it could be used again by Benedict, or any successor pope, as often as he sought to invoke it.

KW: Well, not unless you read…no, no, no. It’s…there are a lot of, what do I want to say? There’s a lot of steps that have to be done before you can do it. You just can’t wake up one morning and say I’m going to teach this infallibly, okay?

HH: Can prophets wake up…

KW: So…no, it doesn’t, and by the way, it’s not a revelation.

HH: But can prophets wake up and simply announce a revelation without any other steps?

KW: Yeah, they can, because…and that’s why I’m saying…

HH: Had they done that?

KW: I don’t know if the Mormon missionaries ever come around to your house, but they have to mine, and they say wouldn’t it be nice to know that there’s somebody who was in constant contact with God, and through whom God reveals His will? There is no way the papacy fulfills that definition. It’s just not seen that way. But anyhow, go ahead.

HH: Do you think there’s a greater threat of the prophet in Salt Lake City controlling a president than the Pope controlling a president?

KW: I don’t think there’s a threat in either direction.

HH: I agree. That’s why I’m wondering why this emphasis on the revelatory authority of the prophet versus the infallible authority of…

KW: Because it is different, and because…I don’t know if you read the whole exchange between Professor Bushman, Richard Bushman at Columbia, and…

HH: Damon Linker in the New Republic?

KW: And Damon Linker…

HH: Yes, yes, I have.

KW: All of that stuff turned on that, and Linker was saying this is theoretically possible. And I’m saying yeah, the conception of it is such that it could happen. But I don’t think it would, and I think furthermore, and that’s my point, one…his whole idea was too abstract. Bushman was right on that, as a matter of fact.

HH: Now do you think that…did you read Jacob Weisberg’s piece in Slate?

KW: Did I? I don’t remember. I don’t know.

HH: Have you read my book yet?

KW: Nope.

HH: Okay. My question for you next is…

KW: Sure.

HH: …if someone had written that the Jewish faith is marked by clannishness, and that Jews don’t develop close relationships with non-Jews, and that a good Jew is a busy Jew, and Jews in synagogues…

KW: Well, that’s not true. A good Jew is not a busy Jew.

HH: But I’m just saying if they had written this, or that the Jewish synagogue has the soul of a corporation, or Jews like to hire other Jews, or Jews are perceived as secretive, or Jews are told not to disclose what goes on inside the synagogue, or that Jews have unholy rites, or Jews speak one way among themselves, and another among others, would you consider that person bigoted, Mr. Woodward?

KW: [No.]

HH: You wouldn’t?

KW: Nope. I’m a disciple of…who is it? Don Rickles. Don Rickles was wonderfully…he had no use for PC stuff, and he told ethnic jokes and so on, and got away with it, and relieved a lot of…made people laugh at these things.

HH: Well, you’re not telling jokes about Mormons…

KW: I think, as a matter of fact, you can’t…I don’t tippy-toe. So no, my answer to you says no, I don’t.

HH: Do you…but you’re not telling jokes in this column. You’re raising what you consider to be serious issues.

KW: I’m raising what perceptions are of Mormons.

HH: And now I’ve got to go…

KW: And you know what? It has probably been said true of Catholics in the past, they had their own parochial school system which is divisive, and they keep to themselves, and all that kind of thing.

HH: And was it wrong to say that?

KW: To the extent that it was right, it was okay to say that. I don’t think they were divisive, because they had a larger sense that you could have more than one…that the public school system was run by and for Protestants, which was true in its inception for a long time.

HH: So where’s the dividing line…you’ve been covering religion for a long time, Mr. Woodward.

KW: Yeah, longer than you.

HH: What’s the dividing line between bigotry and journalism?

KW: Oh, Heavens, what a question. What a question.

HH: What is it? I mean, could we indulge any of the protocols of the elder of Zion? Because this is kind of like the protocols of the elder of new Zion.

KW: Well, I think you’re wrong, that’s all.

HH: Yeah, but what’s that…

KW: You’re welcome to think that. That’s fine. I don’t really care, you know…

HH: I understand that, but what would you advise a journalist, a young journalist at Newsweek, is the…

KW: Know what they’re talking about. And I do, so…

HH: But I mean, is there an appropriate level of scrutiny here, or indulgence of stereotypes, which you would consider off limits?

KW: I don’t consider any of those stereotypes. You know, and I actually like stereotypes, because you don’t have them unless…there’s always something true about stereotypes, that’s all.

HH: Now when you write that many people believe that to many Americans, that Mormonism is a Church with a soul of a corporation, let’s focus on that.

KW: You know what that’s a play on? Do you read G. K. Chesterton?

HH: Yes, but not in a while.

KW: Okay, well, one of his, probably his most famous phrase was, call America the nation with a soul of a Church.

HH: Okay, I do…

KW: Yes, it is corporately structured.

HH: No, not that. I’m going to many Americans. The sentence begins with to many Americans. What do you base that on?

KW: Oh, come on. What do you want me to say? 562,000 Americans, as opposed to 57, 14…you know…

HH: Just a level, just a level, just sort of a rough number.

KW: Yeah, yeah, I think that’s the image of it, and that’s the way I put it. I think you know that.

HH: No, but I mean, how many is many? I’m sure that some people believe that. But at what point…what do you think? How many, what percentage of Americans do you believe believe that?

KW: I don’t know. Am I supposed to know?

HH: Yeah, I think you write something in the New York Times, you ought to have something to back it up.

KW: Hey, look, you know, you’re kind of unbelievable. Look, what did you want me to do? Run a survey before I did it? Of course I used many. I could have used some. I think that’s true.

HH: Could have used a few.

KW: And you’re really picking at something. I mean, you know, you’ve got a bug up your butt about something, I don’t know.

HH: (laughing) No, I think it’s a pretty bigoted piece, Mr. Woodward.

KW: I mean, you really do.

HH: I really think it’s a bigoted piece.

KW: Yes, a lot of people do think that. Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, okay?

HH: But I think it’s a fairly bigoted…

KW: Now if you don’t think so, that’s fine.

HH: No, but I think it’s a fairly bigoted piece that does great injury to…

KW: Well, you obviously have made that point. And I think you know, I think you’re wrong, that’s all.

HH: And so if a bunch of Mormons wrote you that they were offended by it, would you take into account…

KW: I expect someone to, yeah. I expect them to do that. I expect somebody will.

HH: And that won’t bother you?

KW: Not particularly, no. Not unless they’ve got a good argument to make, better than yours.

HH: At what point do stereotypes begin to drive religious bigotry in ways that hurt the society at large?

KW: I don’t know, because I don’t indulge in those kind of stereotypes?

HH: So what’s the difference between Mormons hiring other Mormons and Jews hording money? Both stereotypes. What’s the difference?

KW: Well, I don’t think Jews horde money.

HH: So it’s just…

KW: But I do think…I know Mormons hire other Mormons.

HH: So it’s the Gospel according to Woodward?

KW: And it’s not a negative…hey, you know what? It’s not negative. It’s not negative. It’s perfectly understandable, okay?

HH: And if Mormons told you it was negative, would that matter to you?

KW: Nope.

HH: So it is the Gospel according to Woodward. I mean, this is St. Ignatius High School all over again. I know where this comes from. But this is like on high. Are you open to the argument that maybe this was tremendously offensive to Mormons?

KW: I’m open to the argument, yeah. So what?

HH: All right. So what? I guess not. Kenneth Woodward, I hope you’ll come back and talk again. I found it to be extraordinary, but I appreciate you’re willing to spend time with us on this. I just think that…

KW: I know what you think.

HH: If you went through and substituted Jew for Mormon, it would be one of the most…

KW: Oh, that’s too simple-minded. It really is too simple-minded.

HH: Why, because…

KW: There are groups…have you ever been around the Greek Orthodox?

HH: Why, are they secretive, too?

KW: They are an ethnically based Church. And it’s to be expected. Not secretive…

HH: Well, what do they do that’s…

KW: Not secretive.

HH: Are they secretive?

KW: Not secretive, no. You supplied the word, I didn’t.

HH: So what’s…

KW: Greeks, Greeks feel more comfortable with other Greeks. Greeks often, unfortunately, I’ve seen this in the orthodox world, are…they’ve had a considerable rubbing against, say, the Russian Orthodox, all right? It’s part of the history.

HH: Can you give me any…

KW: Just there. It’s there in society.

HH: Can you give me any…

KW: You seem to find this extraordinary news. I don’t.

HH: How about Irish Catholics? Give me a couple of things to go by on those?

KW: Well, they used to be, but not much anymore, because…

HH: They were drinkers, right?

KW: They’ve lost a lot of…

HH: We drank a lot.

KW: The lot of…their clannishness. Well, we did at Ignatius. I don’t know about other places.

HH: Well, yeah, like John F. Kennedy High School in Warren right before football games, you bet. But I mean, and we were, we had all sorts of papist rituals, didn’t we?

KW: Papist rituals? We never used the word, that I know of.

HH: (laughing) I’m just joking.

KW: The rituals are still there, as far as I can tell.

HH: Kenneth Woodward, I’m out of time. I very much appreciate the time. The piece is…

KW: Listen, never, never get into it with the Jesuits, all right?

HH: Are you Jesuit?

KW: Good to talk to you, bye bye.

HH: Good to talk to you, Kenneth Woodward.

End of interview.

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