James Fallows

James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

James Fallows: Mormons

  • 'The 2 Most Reasonable People, by Far, Are the 2 Mormons'

    A liberal atheists wonders why other liberals are nervous about the religion of her youth

    I won't run this into the ground indefinitely, but of a huge number of interesting letters on the Mormonism front, this one drew my attention today. It is from a prominent Ivy League professor who asks not to be named, and it is worth reading in full.

    The professor writes:

    As a Mormon who grew up in Utah, and now counts herself among the left-leaning atheists of East Coast academia, it was a relief to hear you state what to me is so obvious and yet so rarely seems to be recognized or believed: Mormons belong to a religion, not a cult. American Mormons are, on the whole, almost exactly like other similar populations in the American West--conservative, predominantly white (but demographically changing), wary of having Feds and other outsiders try to tell them what to do (though happy to have federal funds pay for their highways and development projects).

    Take away the rather small set of odd sounding theological ideas and folk beliefs distinct to Mormons (most of which have little relevance to their everyday lives), and you have a collection of wholly ordinary folks--so much so that many of us leave the intermountain "Jello Belt" as soon as we get the chance. The "cult" characterization is mystifying to me. Yes, Mormons prize obedience to authority (as long as it's Mormon authority) but that's true of the vast majority of religious people. But Mormons can and do walk away from the church everyday. They also tend to be more educated than other Americans. And while we have always had our share of crackpots and fanatics, most folks are much more comfortable with moderation.

    For specific reasons pertaining to Mormon theology, and the age and insular backgrounds of the highest church leaders, gay and lesbian questions are turning out to be an obstacle the church will have a very hard time coping with. In my opinion, the leaders have done a terribly served their own families and gay members by becoming so politically active in opposition to gay civil rights. But on almost every other political question, the church hierarchy doesn't tend to risk losing anyone's good will over partisan battles. Moderation and good PR are the watchwords.

    I can mostly understand the dire alarm that some evangelicals have about the prospect of a Mormon president; they tend to think that all religious folk would make doctrine the absolute foundation of their political vision, as they would. But why are liberals so hysterical? The two Mormon GOP candidates are like most educated, upper-middle-class Mormons I know:  pretty smart, pragmatic folk who are far more comfortable in the role of problem-solver than prophet or culture warrior. How is it that liberals and independents don't look at the GOP roster and see that two most reasonable and knowledgeable people by *far* are the two Mormons?

    Alas, one of those two is a hollow man who believes too little, not too much, but that's not the fault of his religion.
  • Digging Back Into the Mormonism Mailbag

    Who is most suspicious of Mormons? Perhaps not who you think.

    Yesterday I posted a very long item about the "Mormon question," a question that keeps gaining salience with the serial self-destruction of each "anyone but Romney" candidate in the GOP field. Since it was so long, here's the executive summary of my own case:

    I can imagine Mormon candidates -- or Muslim, Baptist, Jewish, Christian Scientist, etc ones -- who were so fundamentalist in applying their faith that to vote for them would be to vote in their religion. Neither Romney nor Huntsman gives off that vibe to me. I'm not going to vote for Mitt Romney, but that's because of the corelessness of his positions, and the irresponsible warmongering of his talk about Iran, and his shameless bloody-shirtism about the immigrant menace, and many other positions that have no known connection to his faith. For me, Romney the Mormon is exactly as appealing as he would be if he were Catholic, Jewish,  Episcopalian, or any other mainstream faith. The only difference is that I would actually find him more appealing if he were an "out" Muslim or atheist, because those would be gutsier stances in the America of our day.

    Samples from the latest round of replies:

    1) Who is anti-Mormon? Reader SK points us to a fascinating Gallup poll of who would, and would not, hesitate to vote for an otherwise qualified Mormon candidate for president. The results are not categorized by racial group, but there are some other interesting patterns:

    GallupPoll.gif

    In short: Democrats overall, non-college people, Protestants, and non-Christians are warier of Mormon candidates than Republicans overall, college grads, and Catholics.

    1A) Bonus question: Which is a bigger handicap in running for the Presidency, being a Mormon or an atheist? According to the same poll, it's no contest.

    Gallup2.gif

    If these results can be believed, except for being an atheist, the greatest electoral handicap is being gay or lesbian. After the jump, a note on that front, and a few more items.

    More »

  • With Mitt's Ascent, We're Back to the 'Mormon Question'

    Coming soon: new attention to a long-standing issue of church-state relations

    To begin working through the queue of open issues, let's dip once again into the anti-Mormon mailbag.

    RomneyFamily.jpgFrom the Republican Party's point of view, the big news of these past two months is that the nomination of Mitt Romney has become both unavoidable and unacceptable.

    Unavoidable: Seriously, which of these other people can you imagine on a platform with Barack Obama? Even as beset and damaged as Obama has become. Which of them could Roger Ailes, Karl Rove, or the most partisan anti-Obamaite imagine succeeding in that role? The only possible exception is Jon Huntsman, and he can't get out of the cellar among the GOP candidates.

    Unacceptable: The symptom of this problem is the apparent 25% ceiling on Romney's support in GOP polls. This ceiling persists despite the increasing smoothness of Romney's debate performances, despite the relatively gaffe-free nature of his campaign, and despite the clownish or pathetic self-destruction of each "promising" challenger in turn. (Next up: Newt Gingrich.) The causes of the problem seem to be some combination of (a) the "Obamneycare" flip-flopper image, (b) whatever other things people don't like about him personally and politically, and (c) the Mormon Question

    The striking aspect of the Mormon Question is its high-low strategic mix. Earlier I quoted a specimen of low-grade anti-Mormonism, from the "they are not real Christians, they're just crazy cultists who worship snake-gods" tradition. Recently we've seen anti-Mormonism from impeccably lofty sources, eg Harold Bloom in the NYT and Christopher Hitchens in Slate, the former summing up the high-end critique this way:

    The Mormon patriarch, secure in his marriage and large family, is promised by his faith a final ascension to godhead, with a planet all his own separate from the earth and nation where he now dwells. From the perspective of the White House, how would the nation and the world appear to President Romney? How would he represent the other 98 percent of his citizens?

    And from Hitchens:

    Whether this makes it a cult, or just another of the born-in-America Christian sects, I am not sure. In any case what interests me more is the weird and sinister belief system of the LDS, discussion of which it is currently hoping to inhibit by crying that criticism of Mormonism amounts to bigotry.

    Here is a note I got to similar effect from a long-time Atlantic reader:

    An investigation of any religious doctrine will disclose it is fantasy. A good look at Mormon theology will document it is insanity. The Presidency is REAL. A person in that office is actually able to give an order that will result in the destruction of our world. Mormons believe, along with a lot of other certifiable nonsense, that they are more safe than other people because they wear a special set of underwear, and that a man living a proper Mormon life will, after death, be given his own planet to populate. It is not bigotry to wish to avoid having within arms length of the red phone a person convinced of such nonsense.

    To declare my own views:
       - I believe that virtually any faith you can name rests on tenets that are "irrational," unprovable, and largely supernatural. That's why they call it "faith."
     
       - In my experience, almost any belief system appears "weird" to people outside it, and most of them, inspected closely enough, have aspects of the sinister. It's a banal point, but still true, that the supernatural parts of the Book of Mormon seem "weirder" than those in Exodus, the Nativity story, the Book of Revelation (talk about weird and sinister),  or the Koran because they allegedly happened in the 1800s, not millennia ago, and in upstate New York rather than in the Holy Lands.

      - On the other hand: there are such things as cults, dangerous "belief systems," and organizations so odious that mere membership in them presumptively disqualifies people as political candidates. The American Nazi Party? Sure. The U.S. branch of al Qaeda, or Aum Shinrikyo? Also yes. Scientology is a closer call, for reasons I'll get into another time.
     
    Reduced to its basics, the "Mormon Question" is whether the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, with some 15 million members worldwide and about half that number in the United States, is this kind of presumptively disqualifying organization. It is embarrassing to have to say this, but I don't think it is.

    That leads to the second-level question, of whether a candidate's stands and traits are so determined by religion that you really can't judge the person apart from the faith. People who didn't live through those times will find it hard to believe, but such a fear really was part of the barrier for John F. Kennedy in 1960. "Serious" people wondered -- in print and out loud -- whether an American Catholic could govern with America's best interests in mind, not the Vatican's.

    I can imagine Mormon candidates -- or Muslim, Baptist, Jewish, Christian Scientist, etc ones -- who were so fundamentalist in applying their faith that to vote for them would be to vote in their religion. Neither Romney nor Huntsman gives off that vibe to me. I'm not going to vote for Mitt Romney, but that's because of the corelessness of his positions, and the irresponsible warmongering of his talk about Iran, and his shameless bloody-shirtism about the immigrant menace, and many other positions that have no known connection to his faith. For me, Romney the Mormon is exactly as appealing as he would be if he were Catholic, Jewish,  Episcopalian, or any other mainstream faith. The only difference is that I would actually find him more appealing if he were an "out" Muslim or atheist, because those would be gutsier stances in the America of our day.

    But enough about me!  Here is a sampling of recent mail, with more to come. First, from a reader who identifies himself as an LDS member, on the general question of who is the nutty cultist:

    On the accusation that Mormons believe such crazy things that we can't possibly be rational: have they been watching the Republican debates? The two most rational people in the room have clearly been the two Mormons.

    I'm actually not a fan of either Romney or Huntsman. I voted for Obama in 2008 and anticipate doing so again. I'm not at all proud of how Romney in particular has run his campaign thus far, but "rationality" is definitely not one of his problems.

    And further on nutty cultism, from another LDS member:

    I was amazed at the letter you published by the man who talked about the sun god stuff. I've been LDS my whole life and that was the weirdest characterization of the faith I've ever seen. How could I attend this church weekly for 55 years and never hear of such things??  He must really be an enemy to this church to create such a distorted view of our theology.
    Amazing!

    More after the jump.

    More »

  • Let's Open Up the Anti-Mormon Mailbag

    'You have done a lot of harm to our country with your extreme ignorance.'

    Mormons1.jpg

    It was three weeks ago that I made the (I thought) obvious point that opposing a Mormon candidate for president because he is Mormon is as backward and bigoted as opposing a Jewish candidate because he is Jewish, a female candidate because she is female, a black candidate because he is black, a lesbian candidate because she is lesbian, and so on. (And, yes, I am aware of the difference between inborn traits, like race and gender, and chosen identities or affiliations like religion. More on that later.) Here is Jeff Goldberg's recent entry on the topic. Wikipedia image of Joseph Smith at left.

    I received a flood of email, which I've been storing up and will start selecting from soon. Some of it was from LDS members and was unsurprisingly affable. But most of it took me aback. The great majority of messages came from people who said: You're wrong, Mormons are an outright menace, and that's because they are Mormon. What they believe is either (a) dangerous in its essence, or (b) an indication of  deeper intellectual or character flaws in the candidate, because no sane person could believe the elements of the Mormon faith. Or (c) both.

    Here's an sample that arrived just now, from a man I won't identify but who appends the honorific "M.A." to his name. I offer it as an illustration of what I am talking about. I'll save response (plus some other messages) for the next installment, including the tangled issues of what is a "cult," what is a "religious test" for office, etc.

    The only thing I'll add for now is that while I am no fan of Mitt Romney's, I don't envy him having to deal with this sort of thing -- which of course is stronger in the Republican primary electorate than in the population as a whole. Most white people have an idea of what anti-black (or Latino or Asian) prejudice sounds like. Most goyim have an idea of what an anti-Semitic rant sounds like. But even having grown up in an area with lots of Mormons and had LDS friends all my life, I hadn't been fully exposed to the intensity of anti-Mormon views. Here's the latest sample.

    Dear James Fallows:

    With your recent article calling those who tell the truth about Momonism "bigots," you are dreadfully uninformed on Mormonism. You have done a lot of harm to our country with your extreme ignorance.

    With two Mormons as candidates for the presidency, it is one's duty to be informed about Mormonism. According to all mainstream Christian religions, Mormonism is a cult. (A cult claims to be Christian, but it is not Christian.)

    There is no reason not to be reasonably informed on Mormonism, since there are various quality, highly documented sources easily available.

    Chapter and verse, plus more about my own failings, after the jump. Plus an illustration of the media doing the right job in covering the Mormon threat: a quote from the NY Times 99 years ago!

    More »

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