Friday, February 17, 2006

Mormons, The News Media, and DNA

As I've stated here many times, this is not a religious blog, and I'm not about to make it one. Even so, I am a religious person and occasionally like to comment on the intersection of politics, culture, and religion.

I have been almost continuously occupied with work and family in the 24 hours or so since I saw the L.A. Times article on DNA and the Book of Mormon, but now I have a little time to comment. I wasn't originally going to say anything here about that article, but several friends have asked me to do so. More importantly, yesterday Hugh Hewitt actually interviewed the article's author, William Lobdell, and posted a transcript of the interview on Radioblogger.

I did not hear the interview, but at first was glad to hear that Hugh had jumped on Lobdell's article. Hugh's interview, however, was disappointing. For such a demanding critic as Hugh of the MSM generally and of the L.A. Times specifically, I think the questioning was a little soft. (Hugh did say that Lobdell is his friend; that may explain the lack of pressing and probing.)

So I present here the questions I wish Hugh had asked William Lobdell, along with my comments.

1. Why did this story merit front-page, above-the-fold placement in the Times?

The fact is, this is not news. The question of DNA evidence and the Book of Mormon arose as early as 2002, and this is not the first time Lobdell has written in the Times about this subject. Moreover, a number of scholarly articles have been published (beginning in 2003) responding to the very concerns about which Lobdell writes. So what has happened in the last 3-4 years that now makes this a front-page story?

2. Lobdell states, "on the Church website, the Church issued a press release saying that the basis of the story was wrong, and . . . so that's pretty good. I got a reaction from the Church . . . ." Why is that significant?

The answer to this question goes to the theme of Question 1 above. Does Lobdell's self-congratulation over getting "a reaction from the Church" explain why he resurrected this story? Was it his intention merely to stir up a good controversy? According to the Times web site, Lobdell's piece was the most e-mailed on-line article yesterday.

I think Hugh let Lobdell off too easy on the reporter's professed friendliness to the LDS Church. In the interview Lobdell protests, "[m]ore times than not, I've been accused of being a member of the Church, or a shill for the Church." Mr. Lobdell, methinks thou dost protest too much. I don't think any reasonable reader would consider the article cited above, or this article, to be examples of your shilling for the Church. The latter article about "Mormons who quit the church" and "find themselves ostracized by friends, co-workers and families" is a favorite on anti-Mormon web sites, and the link above is to just such a site. Do a Google search on William Lobdell + Mormon and see what you find. He doesn't look much like a shill to me.

3. The story's title is "Bedrock of a Faith Is Jolted." Do you think most Mormons would agree that the notion that modern Native Americans are descendants of ancient Israelite immigrants is the "bedrock" of their faith?

I not not want to debate religious beliefs here, but any active Mormon will tell you that such a proposition is just silly. Yes, we believe the Book of Mormon is the "keystone of our religion," and we have always thought, as a church, that the connection between the Book of Mormon peoples and pre-Columbian indigenous American peoples is very interesting and often faith-promoting. But that connection is certainly not the "bedrock" of our faith. Anyone who joined the Church solely because of a belief in that genetic connection connection would not last long as a member.

In that vein, this statement by Lobdell desperately needed a follow-up question from Hugh:

"Yeah, and I think what's important also to note is that the Mormons themselves used this as a huge conversion tool for the native people of . . . especially Central, South America, Polynesia. You know, you are the descendants. You are the part of the house of Israel. You are specially chosen people."

I was a missionary for 2 years in Guatemala, right in the heart of Book of Mormon territory, and saw many people become Mormons. I never saw anyone join the church because of the approach Lobdell describes. As missionaries, we might mention the Israelite connection in passing, but it was not the thrust of our message. Again, we Mormons see that connection as interesting, inspiring, and faith-promoting; but anyone who joins the Church because of it is on a weak foundation indeed. I have never seen a single person join for that reason alone, or even heavily weighting that reason.

4. Isn't it a little unfair to take a religion to task for a lack of scientific proof for its beliefs? There is no conclusive scientific proof, for example, that God created the earth, that Moses actually parted the Red Sea, or that Jesus had a virgin birth. Accepting the reality of those events is inherently a matter of religious faith. How is this question of a Native American-Israelite ancestral connection any different?

Need I say more?

5. Do you think it is fair to focus your story so much on the opinions of disaffected (and often excommunicated) Mormons?

It is easy to find people who are unhappy with any church. Lobdell seems especially good at finding unhappy Mormons, who often tend to network together and benefit from support from the more virulently anti-Mormon groups. I have found generally that if I want to get reliable information about a religion, I ask serious members of that faith, not its critics or former members. That's a good rule for everyone.

Generally, the L.A. Times does a terrible job of covering the news without a slant, and especially of covering religion. This article was no exception.

UPDATE: Hugh Hewitt reports that he will have two LDS DNA experts on his show next week, Tuesday or Wednesday. I assure everyone that to the extent there's any implied criticism of Hugh in the above post, I hereby disavow it. Hugh's just a thoroughly fair and decent guy, and I look forward to next week's interviews.

UPDATE 2: Right Side Redux has a more comprehensive deconstruction of Lobdell's article. Highly recommended!

UPDATE 3: My fellow Socal Blogger Alliance member John Schroeder at Blogotional has some additional thoughts on the intersection of science and faith. So do Laer at Cheat Seeking Missiles and John Gillmartin at The Sheep's Crib. I don't think they have their Mormonism completely right, but my grasp of Presbyterianism (and other "ism's") isn't so great either! Thanks for noticing me, guys.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

A little bit of shooting the messenger regarding Bill Lobdell (also, the article you used as evidence of bias was 5 years old and not negative toward the church). Why question the front pageness of the article- so what if the DNA issue had been presented before, it is actually earth shaking and you probably know it. I'm a returned missionary of your generation. I'm surprised that you took issue with the history of the B of M people, and in reality its authenticity, as not being a "bedrock" issue. How about "keystone to our _________.?"

I suggest that this discovery is a serious issue, and time and more information and discussion will tell how it effects me, my family and the Church.

Posted by L Christensen

Friday, February 17, 2006 5:19:00 PM  
Blogger Lowell Brown said...

Dear L Christensen:

I'm sorry, but I don't know that the DNA issue is "earth shaking." It certainly is not new. That there may be questions about DNA evidence of the Nephites and Lamanites being of Hebraic descent does not mean the Book of Mormon's entire authenticity is in question. To argue otherwise is simply fallacious. That Hebraic connection is not the "bedrock" underlying the Book of Mormon; the extent to which is exists is modern speculation. You will find nothing in the book that claims anything about the extent of Lehi's seed that is inconsistent with modern evidence.  

Posted by The Hedgehog

Friday, February 17, 2006 11:05:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You've stated that you didn't want to get into Religion on your blog- by the way I appreciate your blog, finding it through Hugh Hewitt's mentioning you many times- so I hope you don't mind a follow-up (and I disagree: You will find many things in the B of M that make claims about Lehi inconsistent with modern evidence).

Since you may be addressing this issue with Hugh- for what it's worth: The B of M has hit some bumps in the road and non-Mormons are thinking car wreck? Accident? Injuries? First, realize that your own reaction is coming from your center. To hold that center you as a Mormon have inculcated into your heart and mind that how you react to the outside world, and what you say is essential to them. It's not- its only your "center" that is feeling attacked. (Fanatical Muslims riot over hearing about Danish cartoons because of how it effects their "center," not because they are going to change Danes.)

Don't worrry about holding that center. An Episcopalian, or an evangelical cannot be iconoclastic within you. They are slowing down to look at you, but in reality will shortly go about their business. They are rubber-necking.

My emergent conversion to Republicanism is due to it's admiration and support for rugged individualism, non-victimhood and the push back to socialized governing; likewise, Republican Mormons think that they view their circumstance in the LDS Church the same way. But they are polar opposite when it comes to Church. The United Order is in our blood. Mormons make good Republicans, but when the Church is attacked they become quintessentially Democrat. Don't be defensive for defensiveness sake. I suggest that you realize, this is a serious set-back for Church doctrine: "hopefully time will tell, and a better understanding of our Book of Mormon will come about." 

Posted by L Christensen

Saturday, February 18, 2006 8:43:00 AM  
Blogger Lowell Brown said...

Thanks, L. Christensen. I agree that Mormons identifying with Republicans is simply a function of the times. I've never felt that Republican principles are necessarily all eternal verities. They're simply the political principles I agree with. My post about DNA and the BofM was more about the news media and the way it writes about religion. I hope it came across that way. Also, I think that with Mitt Romney's candidacy looming the LDS Church is going to get a lot of attention. That's fine with me. My own little part will be to try to help some blogospheric observers to know what they are seeing and talking about. In other words, if someone is going to criticize my church, go ahead, but please criticize the real target, not some grotesque caricature of it.

We'll see how it all unfolds. 

Posted by The Hedgehog

Saturday, February 18, 2006 9:14:00 AM  
Blogger Doug Forbes said...

A report in the L A Times by William Lobdell (February 6, 2006) asserted that some Mormons were troubled by a “lack of discernible Hebrew blood in Native Americans”. In fact about one third of Native American males selected for DNA research belong to Y chromosome lineage groups commonly found in modern Jews. This includes the Q-P36 lineage group that is ancestral to the primary Native American lineage group Q3. Q-P36 is found in 5% of Ashkenazi Jews [1], 5% of Iraqi Jews [2] and a significant number of Iranian Jews [3]. Other west Eurasian lineages found in Native American test subjects include R, E3b, J, F, G, and I [4]. All of these are also found in modern Jews. The trouble isn’t a “lack of discernible Hebrew blood in Native Americans”, but a lack of discernible facts in Lobdell’s report.


Douglas M Forbes
808 Whispering Trail
Greenfield IN 46140
(812) 330-2252

[1] Behar et al, 2004, Contrasting patterns of Y chromosome variation in Ashkenazi Jewish and host non-Jewish European populations.

[2] Shen et al, 2004, Reconstruction of Patrilineages and Matrilineages of Samaritans and Other Israeli Populations From Y-Chromosome and Mitochondrial DNA Sequence Variation.

[3] Hammer et al, 1999, Jewish and Middle Eastern non-Jewish populations share a common pool of Y-chromosome biallelic haplotypes.

[4] Zegura et al, 2004, High-Resolution SNPs and Microsatellite Haplotypes Point to a Single, Recent Entry of Native American Y Chromosomes into the Americas


Posted by Doug Forbes

Monday, February 27, 2006 5:42:00 PM  

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