Faith Wars 

The Tribune lights religious fires intentionally

I saw an amazing headline in The Salt Lake Tribune this past week. Well, I saw it online and am not sure it was also printed. Over a story about a pre-dawn car pileup in some dense fog on Interstate 84 near Baker, Ore., that involved more than 50 vehicles holding 100-plus passengers (of which at least 12 were hospitalized), this headline appeared: "Mormon farm boy crushed between two semis tells a remarkable story of survival." If you see the photos, you, too, will agree that his survival was remarkable.

Remarkable as it was, however, the story—no doubt aided and abetted by that headline and the subsequent subhead that reads, "BYU grad's story was a life-affirming moment, not a life changing one, largely because of his strong religious beliefs"—quickly began generating derisive comments about all things Mormon, life in Utah and further evidence that The Salt Lake Tribune will soon become a propaganda arm of the LDS Church, à la the Deseret News. Of the hundreds of comments the story generated, plus apparently a sizeable number that were deleted by the Tribune comment-board hall monitor, one or two comments even wished the local Mormon farm boy, Kaleb Whitby, a safe and healthy recovery.

Authored by reporter Andrew Theen, the story first appeared in The Oregonian newspaper on Jan. 17, 2015. A subsequent update appeared shortly thereafter with more details. That would have been that but on Jan. 30, 2015, the Oregonian published a more personal angle of the story including details about Whitby's education (BYU), religion (LDS) and his farming background (childhood farm of 1,000 acres). The story was released on the wire services and picked up by KSL and The Salt Lake Tribune. KSL had earlier run a piece about the accident since Whitby has ties to Utah County. But when both local news outlets picked the human-interest piece, all chrome broke loose.

KSL did not change the headline of the Oregonian story. The Tribune did, making it appear to some readers that only Mormons survive such travails or are capable of re-affirming faith by life-altering experiences. That's simply not true. For example, on Feb. 26, 2014, The Salt Lake Tribune ran a story about pastor James Coots of the Full Gospel Tabernacle in Jesus Name church in Middlesboro, Ky. Coots, a snake handler once featured in the National Geographic Channel program Snake Salvation, had been bitten by a rattlesnake during a service. He died. The Tribune headline reads, "Death of Kentucky snake handler doesn't stop church practice." Perhaps due to lacking the word Mormon in the headline or anywhere else, there are no comments under this story. Or there are none because they were once there and somebody's God took them away. Don't know. But today there are none. Nada. Kaput.

The followers of Coots reportedly took his death to be an affirmation of their faith. Same with Whitby in that his survival was also taken as an affirmation of his own life. That sounds like a fantastic system—you win if you lose, and you win if you win, much like a card dealer who can deal from the top or bottom of a deck depending on the outcome he wants. Coots may have survived his snakebite but he refused any medical help. It may not have mattered. One of Coots' congregants believes that, if not for the snake, something else would have killed him that day anyway.

As for Whitby, he and the others injured were transported to Saint Alphonsus Medical Center in Baker City, Ore., where he was treated with two Band-Aids and released. St. Alphonsus, by the way, is a popular Catholic saint who, via education and lots of published writings, established himself as living a life not only dedicated to saving his own soul but also to saving the most abandoned of souls. I could find no mention of the grace of St. Alphonsus in the Tribune story, and he most certainly wasn't referenced in the headline. Maybe he had nothing to do with this particular miracle. Maybe he did. Who knows?

Well, no one does, which makes it all the more dicey to refer to any religion, tenet, or belief as a basis for a saved life or an intercepted pass with no time left on the clock to end a Super Bowl football game. For, if there's to be any substantive meaning in any life or moment, one cannot interject that their own salvation—or touchdown—is more deserving than the equally pious life that was lost—or intercepted upon. Just call me a dumb Greek Orthodox person, but I don't think it works that way. You can even call me dumb for being Greek Orthodox in the first place, but the religion came with the turf, and I wear it. Same as I wear the fact I come from Mormon Battalion pioneer stock, too. Yeah, long story, and I've told it before, but I don't think for a moment that Whitby's faith saved his life.

The Tribune headline writer believes faith was a factor. Otherwise, he or she would not have ignited yet another religious firestorm, and the story would have stood on its own merits as a great story. I'm not alone in thinking that the Tribune lights these fires intentionally, a veritable newspaper arsonist, as it were. I wouldn't be surprised to see a headline in tomorrow's paper that reads, "Thousands of Mormon commuters survive early-morning rush-hour traffic," with the subhead, "Only to be run over by non-Mormon Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker, who was last seen in Jimmy John's spandex speeding down Main Street on his single-gear bike."

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