The pretentious LA Times story (headline: "Bedrock of a Faith is Jolted") is making quite a splash. When LDS.org posts an official response, you know it got someone's attention. The response itself — two short paragraphs — probably merits its own post, but here I'll just talk about the LA Times article. Other B'nacle posts here and here also discuss the article, with a comprehensive list of relevant links on the BoM-DNA topic conveniently collected at Messenger & Advocate. I'll sort of run down a random list of my reactions to the article.
1. Is It News? I went out and bought a hard copy of Thursday's paper. The "Bedrock" headline is above the fold on page 1, with a bullet subtitle proclaiming, "DNA tests contradict Mormon scripture. The church says the studies are being twisted to attack its beliefs." Other stories headlined on the front page include the VP Cheney shooting incident, a lawyer indicted by a federal grand jury, Lindsay Kildow's gutsy Olympic performance in the women's downhill, and a story about what bulldozers working on a Museum of Tolerance in Jerusalem dug up (an ancient Muslim cemetary, probably not a good omen for the museum). All these stories are stories driven by an event, they are news worth reporting. But I don't see any event that triggered the DNA story — no scientific paper recently published (as in those "this just published in the New England Journal of Medicine" stories you hear all the time), no conference, no news release.
2. Soapbox. The story isn't news. The Times just decided to make its front page a soapbox for the supposedly anguished feelings of a Salt Lake City attorney (featured in paragraph 1 of the article), whose peasant-like faith was shattered when he started reading the Salt Lake Tribune: "Absolutely denial. Utter amazement and surprise. Anger and bitterness." Okay, I don't know where he came up to speed on Issues in Contemporary Mormonism; maybe he read books, maybe he read Sunstone, maybe he Googled "Mormon DNA," or maybe he did just read the newspapers in Salt Lake City, which regularly feature stories on "Mormon Studies" topics. But does this guy's personal response really merit front page coverage?
Or maybe going to law school is what sobered up this fellow's view of his earlier religious beliefs — duh. The reporter seems rather naive in taking such representations at face value. Like any attorney is likely to bare his soul to a reporter. Either the attorney took the reporter for a ride or else they are in collusion. The attorney's response to his former beliefs is better summarized as, "Boy, was I stupid." We all feel like that from time to time. But that admission would shine the spotlight on his own personal shortcomings, and the purpose of the article is to highlight the perceived shortcomings of the LDS Church. What the article really shows, I think, is the reporter's agenda and the willingness of the Times to play along.
3. Not the First Time. This isn't the first time this LA Times reporter has shaped an LDS story to fit his agenda. Thomas Murphy wrote an essay criticizing the "Galileo" hype on this whole issue. Here's a quote from Murphy's essay:
The first time I heard anyone single out an individual as Mormonism’s Galileo was during a telephone interview with William Lobdell of the Los Angeles Times during the first week of December 2002. ... During the interview for the Times, Lobdell asked what I thought of being called the “Mormon Galileo.” My immediate response was, “That’s a bit presumptuous!” I was not comfortable with the label at that time, nor do I endorse it today. Nonetheless, Lobdell proceeded with the storyline he had apparently constructed prior to speaking with me .... He neglected to note my reticence to being so labeled.
I suppose reporters have to make a living, and they do so by writing stories for the paper, and this is, after all, a pretty good story. So you can't really blame the reporter for writing the most recent story and submitting it — that's what reporters are paid to do, after all. It just seems like it ought to be back in the religion section, rather than on the front page with a sensational headline. That's an editorial problem, not a reporter problem.
4. Latent Bias? Tell me, have you seen any front page stories headlined as follows: Christian Foundations Jolted: Science contradicts Christian scripture. Churches say science just being used to attack Christian beliefs. There are plenty of topics you could pull up where science runs counter to biblical claims, but do you see such headlines? Or have you seen any front page articles critiquing some of the silly notions that lie at the root of Islamic beliefs? Not likely, even less likely after Cartoongate. But a front-page story aimed at LDS beliefs is fair game. I'm not complaining, just pointing out a fact. Just like racial jokes are verbotten to public comedians, but fat jokes are okay. Critical Christian stories are verbotten (unless carefully couched in a current issue like abortion or ID), but critical LDS stories are okay. Fine, but it would be nice if the supposedly objective media was a little more cognizant of its own latent biases. Perhaps that's asking too much.
5. The Story Itself. Ignoring the emotional framing of the story, I don't really object to the substance of the statements made in the article. Yes, DNA evidence does cast serious doubt on the traditional LDS view that the "Lamanites ... are the principal ancestors of the American Indians," to use the classic formulation found in the Introduction of the most current LDS edition of the Book of Mormon. Yes, there are anachronisms in the Book of Mormon text. Yes, I would agree with the article that the Church (i.e., its leaders) have "subtly promoted a fresh interpretation of the Book of Mormon intended to reconcile the DNA findings with the scriptures." But that seems like the right thing to do. If anything, the article ought to trumpet that as the proper response, and it undercuts the next statement in the article, that "the vast majority of Mormons will disregard the genetic research as an unworthy distraction from their faith." It seems obvious that the Church is (subtly) changing its tune because Mormons do take science seriously and do not want to see glaring differences between science and their own faith claims. Science changes its views when new facts arise; why shouldn't religion do likewise?
6. Nice quotes. There are some brief quotes from authorities more sympathetic to the LDS position. Back on page 26, the story quotes Jan Shipps saying this is no "crushing blow" to Mormonism (in contrast to the "Jolted" headline) because "religion ultimately does not rest on scientific evidence." Dan Peterson is quoted briefly defending the LDS response to DNA criticism (which tries to argue that the DNA evidence does not really add up to the DNA criticisms leveled at LDS beliefs). Michael Otterson, LDS spokesperson, says, "[T]he Book of Mormon will never be proved or disproved by science."
Simon Southerton, on the other hand, is given eight paragraphs. He is quoted saying LDS leaders "can't admit [the Book of Mormon] is not historical," which seems like an accurate assessment. The article states, summarizing Southerton, that "Mormon leaders cannot acknowledge any factual errors" in the Book of Mormon, which seems too strong a claim when the book itself acknowledges the possibility of errors. Interestingly, although the article discusses Thomas Murphy, he isn't quoted.
I think the most interesting quote was from Armand Mauss, toward the very end of the article.
Mauss said the DNA studies haven't shaken his faith. "There's not very much in life — not only in religion or any field of inquiry — where you can feel you have all the answers," he said. "I'm willing to live in ambiguity. I don't get that bothered by things I can't resolve in a week."