Apr 12, 2013

What 'Mormon' means to the media when you're murdered

Travis Alexander was a Mormon.

He converted to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in high school. He did his two-year mission in Denver. He abstained from alcohol, tobacco and caffeine, in keeping with the common understanding of the church's health codes, and cared about eating nutritional meals, which isn't always true for financially successful 30-year-olds. He wanted to live in a community with a strong Mormon presence. That was part of why he moved to Mesa, Az. He wrote a spiritual self-help book, titled Raising You, and was trying to get it published when he died.

When he died, the Arizona Republic said Alexander was a "a devout Mormon." It was the first sentence of their first story about how he was murdered in his shower: "Travis Alexander was a young, successful businessman, a well-known motivational speaker and a devout Mormon."

It's never really clear what news reports mean by "devout." It's often a kind of content-free intensifier, like "really" or "literally." The stylebook for religion reporters discourages use of the word, since "It's a subjective term without a precise meaning to all readers." Sometimes it seems to mean the person adheres more to a religion's teachings than others do (with the journalist sweeping right by the always-present internal struggles over the right understanding of a religion's teaching). Sometimes it seems to mean measurable practices, like prayer or proselytizing, are practiced by this person -- practiced, sometimes, vaguely more, or a lot, or even at all. Sometimes it doesn't even mean anything observable, but is a gesture at how the person presented themselves as if religion and religiousness were important. Or maybe the word works to justify religion's inclusion in a story, since after all the vast majority of people in America identify with

In any case, it's all very hand-wavy.

When Travis Alexander was murdered, though, the Arizona Republic made mention of his Mormonism and did the hand waving, and dubbed him "devout."

That was five years ago, though. In more recent stories, covering the high-profile trial of Alexander's girlfriend, who is charged with murdering him, the man's Mormonism has been described a bit differently. On Jan. 2, for example, as the trial began, the paper summed up the court case this way:
An outwardly religious young man is shot down and slashed apart by the angry young woman who was his secret sex partner. Prosecutors call it first-degree murder; [...] defense attorneys call it self-defense. The network TV news magazines call it the trial of the year.
On Jan. 30, as the defense phase of the trial began, the Arizona Republic repeated the description of the murdered man as an "outwardly religious Mormon." The story reads:
[Jodi] Arias is on trial in the 2008 killing of Alexander, 30, an outwardly religious Mormon who was found shot and stabbed in the shower of his home. Arias, his secret sex partner, admits killing Alexander but claims it was in self-defense.
Presumably Alexander's piety -- his Mormon-ness -- has not changed in five years of being dead. How the major Arizona paper describes that piety has changed, however.

Why?

It is still true that Alexander converted in high school, did a mission, didn't smoke or drink alcohol or caffeine, wanted to live in a place where there were lots of other Mormons, wrote a spiritual self-book, etc., etc. What's different now is that with the trial, information about Alexander's relationship with Arias have come out, and there's lots of evidence that lots of that relationship did not conform with his church's teachings. There's evidence, too, that he lied about the church's teaching in order to manipulate his girlfriend, a new convert, to perform certain sex acts.

As the Associated Press reported, "Alexander's religion and sex life have been a constant theme throughout the trial."

More precisely: the contradiction between how this man apparently believed he should live and how he did live, have been a critical aspect of the accused's defense. And a critical aspect of the trial. The very first witness called in this case -- herself described as a "devout" Mormon by the Arizona Republic -- was grilled about "what constitutes sin in the Mormon religion."

She ranked sexual immorality the second worst Mormon sin, right after murder.

Whether or not Arias is guilty of the worst sin is still up to the jury to decide, but there's a lot of agreement that Alexander was definitely guilty of the second worst sin. In one report, Alexander is said to have convinced his girlfriend that sodomy was not frowned on by the church. Arias testified "She believed the Mormon vow of chastity, based on Alexander's interpretation, meant that most sexual acts were 'more or less OK' as long as they did not involve premarital vaginal intercourse -- which they eventually engaged in." In the accused's testimony, she further said Alexander gave her her own copy of the Book of Mormon the same day he asked her to perform oral sex on him in a parking lot. He had sex with her the same day he baptized her into the faith. He apparently also lied to another girlfriend about being a virgin, and pursued multiple women at the same time.

There was also a phone sex recording, nude photos, and claims of public sex, acted-out fantasies, pornography, and day-long trysts. Alexander and Arias were, of course, also unmarried.

As the Arizona paper glosses this: "although they both professed to be faithful Mormons, their relationship was anything but chaste."

This is what it means, in the paper's estimating, to be only outwardly Mormon. Inwardly -- or, perhaps, better, privately -- Alexander wasn't really Mormon, because he behaved in ways disapproved of by his church. When they didn't know about his sexual behavior, the paper deemed Alexander devout. Now that they know, his faith is seen as just for show.

It's certainly true that the Latter-day Saints actively teach against the behavior that this murdered man was engaged in. Alexander likely would have agreed, if asked by his bishop, that he was sinning. The church does not teach, though, that one somehow ceases to be Mormon when one sins. Acting badly, by ones own lights and even in the judgement of the church, doesn't delegitimize one's conversion, or undercut one's Mormon-ness. The church teaches morals, but it doesn't simply equate being a part of the church with consistently living in accordance with the morals that are taught.

Inward and private struggles to live up to the standards of one's religion do not mean that one only has that religion outwardly, at least not in Mormonism, not in how it's understood by Mormons or by the church hierarchy.

The paper, however, has confused a moral code for the whole of a religion. Adherence has been interpreted as hypocritical, or even fraudulent, unless it means perfectly doing what you say you believe you're supposed to do. This is a misunderstanding of Mormonism, and more than that a gross overreach on the part of the paper, going well beyond the bounds of what a newspaper has the authority to say.

Alexander himself could have said whether or not his was a devout Mormon, or whether he was only one outwardly. Other Mormons could judge his piety, based on their understanding of Mormonism. The church has authorities who, as part of their job, do make such judgements.

A newspaper, though, is not a religious authority, and shouldn't pretend to speak as such. According to the rules of American newspapers, reporters are only allowed to say what's verifiable, what's known to be fact or can be attributed. Really, in this case, the Arizona Republic should have avoided the evaluations of the murdered man's piety, and kept it simple:

Travis Alexander was a Mormon.