The Oft-Misunderstood Faith Of Modern Mormons
REBECCA ROBERTS, host: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Rebecca Roberts in Washington. Neal Conan is away. "The Book of Mormon" is getting rave reviews on Broadway. Two presidential candidates are proud members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. And this of course means inevitable spotlight on Mormons once again.
Yet many Americans know little, if anything, about the Mormon faith. Much of what they think they know comes from myths or misconceptions. The Mormon Church has launched a media campaign aiming to introduce people to the lives of everyday Mormons and their faith, and we want to hear from our Mormon listeners. What don't we understand about your religion?
Our number is 800-989-8255. Our email address is email@example.com, and you can join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Later in the program, Reverend Michael Minor on his efforts to preach a healthy diet from the pulpit in Mississippi. But first, the modern Mormon faith. Michael Purdy joins us from his office in Salt Lake City. He's the media relations director for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Nice to have you with us.
MICHAEL PURDY: Thank you, Rebecca, very nice to be here.
ROBERTS: As the media relations director, what is your job? What is the scope of your mission for the church?
PURDY: Well, it's really quite various. As you mentioned in the opening, there's a lot of interest in the church for a lot of different reasons, and, you know, there's - it's obviously that ultimately all those reasons have made this a time when there's a lot of conversation going on about the church, about the faith. And we want to be a part of that conversation.
As people want to know about us, we hope that we can join the table and be able to tell them about us.
ROBERTS: It seems to sort of go in cycles, whether it was the Olympics going to Salt Lake City or Mitt Romney's first candidacy in 2008, that every so often, there's sort of a burst of attention on Mormonism. Is this moment any different?
PURDY: Yeah, I think it's interesting that you mention that. A lot of people have tried to kind of categorize this as the Mormon moment, and I guess from our perspective, there's been a number of those, You know, everything from, you know, the Olympics being hosted in Salt Lake City, which is the world headquarters of the church, to presidential politics to - really another factor I think is that the church continues to grow quite vigorously, and more and more people are being exposed to someone who is a member of the faith, whether that's at their job or, you know, a neighbor or a friend.
And when they become exposed to someone who's a member, then it's an opportunity for them to learn more about us.
ROBERTS: And so if more people are asking questions, and you want to be among the people answering those questions, what is the best way to do it? Obviously going on talk shows like this one. What are some other ways that the church can be a source of information?
PURDY: Sure. Well, of course, you know, we have a presence on the Web. There's a number of, you know, media outlets that carry information about the church. We're no stranger to doing, you know, some type of media campaign. It's something we've done for many years.
People will be familiar with, you know, the Home Front TV and radio series that were quite popular that were sponsored by the church. We've tried to have a presence in those arenas, and of course the newest one is a campaign called I'm A Mormon, and it's really a way to, as we said, join this conversation.
The best way for people to know about the faith is to know someone of the faith, and this is a way to introduce our members to the world.
ROBERTS: You mentioned your Web presence, which it's not just that you have a, you know, a well-developed and rich website, you're also very savvy about making sure that, you know, your website comes up in certain search keywords. Is that a definitive strategy on your part?
PURDY: Well, I guess the key definition there is what you mean by your. If you're asking me if I'm very savvy on it, certainly not.
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PURDY: (Unintelligible) some talented people. But there's a lot of elements that go into that. I don't think that we're doing anything that anybody with a Web presence is trying to do to just to have their information easily found for those that are looking for it.
ROBERTS: Have you found there are strategies that don't work that well?
PURDY: I don't know specifically, but I think that the campaign that we have now has been quite effective. It's caused a lot of conversation. I think it's opened a lot of eyes. When people see and hear these, you know, these vignettes of these everyday people and their lives and then realize but they're also a Mormon, I think that's a really great way for people, you know, to have stereotypes shattered or misconceptions taken away.
You know, they see that their Mormon friends and neighbors and colleagues are people that they like and respect, and I think that's a great effort.
ROBERTS: Of course, in addition to neighbors and friends and colleagues, one of the ways people are being introduced to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is through the candidacies of Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman. How does that work for the church? How does the fact that there are two high-profile, national candidates who are proud Mormons shape how people who are not Mormons are introduced to the faith?
PURDY: Yeah, I think that's a real dilemma for us, obviously. We - there's nothing that really points a spotlight on any particular organization than a presidential race, I think, and the church is politically neutral, and we're very concerned about remaining and having people understand that we are politically neutral.
So we don't take a position on candidates or partisan politics, but because of those campaigns, as you've mentioned, it has put a lot of attention on the church. So we try to be very careful. We want to join the conversation about our faith, about our beliefs, about who we are and our place in society.
We want very much not to talk about the political side of that, and sometimes it's a bit of a razor's edge to maintain that balance.
ROBERTS: There was a recent Gallup poll that found there are still a sizable percentage of Americans who aren't ready for a Mormon president. Why do you think that is?
PURDY: Well, I think, you know, anytime there's - as you said in kind of the open to this interview - that, you know, there's a lot of myths and misperceptions out there. I think a lot of the polls have shown that people really don't know anything about the faith. And when you have a lot of visibility and not a lot of - you know, a base of knowledge there, I guess it's, you know, it's a situation that's just kind of ripe for misunderstanding.
And so we - as we said, it's important for us to be a part of this conversation, and we want people to know who we are, what it is we believe, and then I think the rest of that will take care of itself.
ROBERTS: How has the Broadway show affected your visibility?
PURDY: Well, it's certainly received a lot of attention, obviously. And, you know, I haven't seen the show. I can't comment on that specifically. But it certainly has created a lot of attention on the faith for a lot of different reasons. You know, we may hope that people go to be entertained by a Broadway show, but they're not hoping to go and learn a lot about our faith directly, but it's certainly created attention and questions.
ROBERTS: Let's take a call from Dennis in Cincinnati. Welcome to TALK OF THE NATION, Dennis.
DENNIS: Hi, how are you doing?
DENNIS: My comment was that the Mormon faith has been so persecuted throughout American history. I mean, they were ran out of New York, where they were founded, ran out of Kirkland, Ohio, where they built their first temple, ran out of Illinois in Navu, where it was bigger than Chicago at the time, then pushed out into the Utah Territories.
And the misconception is that, you know, Mormons aren't Christians. Well, they're - you know, it's right in the title of their church, you know, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. And in, what is it? In Missouri, they were legally - it was legal to kill a Mormon up until the 1970s.
ROBERTS: Dennis, thanks for your call. What about this pervasive idea that Mormons are not Christians?
PURDY: Yeah, it's - that's really one of the most perplexing things for us. You know, the name of the church is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and Christ is central to our faith and our doctrine as the son of God and the savior of mankind.
And for people to think, well, I'm not sure that they're Christian, obviously just shows that they don't know a whole lot about us and how we worship and what we believe.
ROBERTS: Has there been an effort to highlight that Jesus Christ part of the name rather than the Latter-day Saints of the name?
PURDY: Well, I think the best way to highlight that is really through the lives of our members. When people live a Christian life and care for their fellow man and live a life of service and honesty and integrity, that's the best way to show that you live a life of Christian values, and we hope we're doing that.
ROBERTS: We have an email from Craig in Pleasant Grove, Utah, who says: I would add we are diverse politically. This is true particularly outside of Utah, but even in Utah, there are many moderate and progressive Mormons.
Many of us, myself included, feel like our religious values are most in alignment with progressive political ideas. Is it a myth that Mormons are conservative?
PURDY: Yeah, I think it's a myth on a lot of levels when you try to - you know, a lot of people look at Mormonism and think it's this kind of a Utah-confined faith or at least to the Western United States. And the fact is we have 14 million members and growing across the world. I think we're in 170-plus countries now.
And so within those 14 million members, you'll find all kinds of diversity, you know, both in education levels or race or ethnicity or, you know, political thought. But within all of that diversity is a common purpose, and that is, as I said, to strive to follow the example of Jesus Christ and to live his teachings.
And so there is great diversity across the spectrum, but we hope, you know, the one thing that unites us is that most important thing.
ROBERTS: It is of course an evangelical faith. There are new Mormons coming on board at a pretty healthy clip. Where is the faith growing the fastest?
PURDY: Really there's a number of places. You know, Africa's certainly a place of growth, Latin America. But people would be surprised that we grow really rapidly even in Utah, which is our, you know, our headquarters and the place that we established.
And so we see success in the United States, as well as other parts of the world.
ROBERTS: It is, of course, an American-born faith. Does becoming more international change anything?
PURDY: Well, certainly it adds to that diversity, and it changes things in the way that the church operates in that, you know, growth is a great blessing and a challenge for church leaders to keep up with that growth, and, you know, everything from making sure that people understand doctrines and principles and have a place to worship and materials in their language to use in their Sunday worship services. So it's a very unique but good position to be in.
ROBERTS: Do you think there will be a time when the fact that a presidential candidate, for instance, is Mormon is not noteworthy?
PURDY: Well, as I said, it's so - we're at this interesting point now where I think our visibility is far ahead of the understanding that people have of us. And as, you know, as those things balance out, when people understand not only that there are a lot of Mormons but what that means and what that stands for, then I think a lot of this misunderstanding goes away.
ROBERTS: Michael Purdy is the media relations director for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He joined us from his office in Salt Lake City. Thanks so much.
PURDY: Thank you, Rebecca, I appreciate it.
ROBERTS: We will talk more about modern Mormons in a moment, and to our Mormon listeners, we want to hear from you. What don't we understand about your religion? Our number is 800-989-8255. The email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Rebecca Roberts. More about modern Mormonism in just a minute. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
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This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Rebecca Roberts. More than 14 million people around the world are members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, part of nearly 30,000 Mormon congregations. Still, many Americans don't know much about the church. So today we're talking about modern Mormons.
And we want to hear from the members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. What don't we understand about your religion? Our number is 800-989-8255. And our email address is email@example.com.
Joining us now from a studio in San Diego is Joanna Brooks. She's chair of the English Department at San Diego State University and a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Her op-ed "5 Myths About Mormonism" ran in the Washington Post earlier this month. Thanks for being on TALK OF THE NATION.
JOANNA BROOKS: Rebecca, thank you for having me.
ROBERTS: What would you say is the biggest myth about Mormons?
BROOKS: The biggest myth about Mormons is that we're all alike. Mormonism isn't a monolithic religious culture. There's always been diversity of thought within the greater Mormon tradition, dating back 180 years, and that diversity continues today.
You know, a lot of us like to emphasize our obedience and our loyalty to institutional Mormonism, but we don't all think alike.
ROBERTS: We have an email from Dede Slash(ph) in Berlin, Germany, who says: Are there black people in the Mormon Church?
BROOKS: That's a great question. You know, race is one of - the church excluded African-American men from - men of African descent, I should say more generally, from holding the lay priesthood for a 150-year period about dating from the 1840s into the late 20th century.
Initially, black men were ordained to the priesthood and did have full participation in the religion, but that changed over time when the church moved out of the United States and kind of withdrew into its own theocratic society in Utah.
Now there are men of African descent around the world - South America, on the African continent and in the United States - who participate fully in Mormon rights and hold full Mormon authority.
ROBERTS: When I asked you what the biggest myth was, I expected you to say that Mormons practice polygamy.
BROOKS: Ah. Yes.
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BROOKS: That continues. My husband's not Mormon. He always reminds me that there are lot of people out there who think that we do. It is a common misconception. You know, and polygamy remains a very touchy subject even among mainstream Mormons.
The church officially abandoned the practice of polygamy, the mainstream Mormon Church officially abandoned the practice of polygamy in 1890. Mormons today don't like to talk about the fact that Joseph Smith married more than 30 women. Many of us have polygamous ancestors. We carry feelings and stories in our families, Sometimes shameful feelings, resentful feelings, and there's even some uncertainty today about the doctrinal status of polygamy.
There are scriptures that remain in place, as well as some practices, that suggest that polygamy may be a feature of the eternities. Some orthodox Mormons really believe this, and others of us don't and reject the idea of polygamy altogether.
ROBERTS: So when you see a prominent plural family like the cast of "Sister Wives," for instance, they are not members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
BROOKS: Correct. I mean, it's important to note that Mormonism is a fairly diverse historical movement. There are at least - there are more than a dozen organized branches of Mormonism that all trace their roots back to our common founder, Joseph Smith, and the foundings of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the early 19th century.
A lot of people are familiar with the - or have seen on television the fundamentalism Mormon communities of the rural West, which have become unfortunately infamous for some abusive practices within polygamy, but the mainstream LDS Church, the institutional church with 14 million members, renounced the practice of polygamy a long time ago.
ROBERTS: Let's hear from Sonny in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Sonny, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.
SONNY: Thank you. I'm a Mormon, and I was going to say that the Bible not being considered part of Mormon scripture was the biggest misconception, but - and that is, but I think the biggest misconception is that Mormons are seen in general as condemnatory towards those that don't believe in Mormonism or don't even, you know, practice Mormon standards.
And I think the thing that I would wish everyone would know about my faith is that Mormonism is the best news I think that there is to be told because it tells all of us that our father in heaven will ultimately save virtually everyone except those that absolutely say I want nothing to do with anything that heavenly father would give us. And I'll let your guest explain that if you want to ask her a little bit more about it, but those are my comments.
ROBERTS: Thanks for your call, Sonny. You know, with an evangelical faith, with visible, you know, missionaries out saying your life would be better if you took on my faith instead of the faith you have right now, it's hard to not say you're judging me, you know, you think my faith isn't as good as yours.
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BROOKS: You know, yeah, and it helps that they're mostly sweet 19- and 20-year-old young men who earnestly believe that what they're teaching is good news. I mean, I think the way that - there's no question proselytizing is a huge part of Mormon culture.
Every Mormon is raised to be a missionary. We're raised to want to represent and share our faith. Only through proselytizing have we grown to become a global faith of 14 million members. But at the same time, we are an American minority, those of us who live in the United States especially, and in most nations around the world, we are a minority, and so we're usually very pragmatic about the way we get along with our neighbors.
It's very rare that you'll find a Mormon who lives in a non-majority Mormon community actively or at least to the face of a neighbor say I think your religion is terrible. That's just not how we're raised to operate.
ROBERTS: We have an email from Ryan in Rockland, California, who says: It's my understanding as a Christian, a believer in Jesus Christ, that Christ is God himself, as outlined in John 1:1 through the Trinity. However, Mormons, as I understand it, do not believe this. So how do they say they are Christians without believing this essential doctrine?
BROOKS: Rebecca, that's a great question, and that was, I should say, one of the number one responses I got from readers of my Washington Post, was further engagement on the question of whether or not Mormons are Christian and whether or not we view Jesus as God.
And I will say that, you know, in 40 years of life as a Mormon, I have been raised to view Jesus as the creator and the savior of the world and the judge of mankind. I was raised to believe that his atonement, his death on the cross, paid for my sins and makes eternal life possible. And so, I mean, that's what I can say affirmatively.
There are theological technicalities and reasons, some of them having to do with the distinctive Mormon view of the shape of the trinity, which leave some theologians and some Christians to reject us as part of the mainline orthodox Christian tradition, but we sure feel Christian, to ourselves.
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ROBERTS: So you said that was a pretty common comment on your Washington Post article. What about just from your friends? What surprises you when people find out that you practice this faith, and they start asking questions?
BROOKS: You know, it's fascinating. I find that telling someone I'm a Mormon, you know, telling someone you're a Mormon is one of the few things you can say to another person that will make them actually pause.
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BROOKS: And their jaw will drop, and they'll slow down, and they'll look at you. What? You are? It elicits a fascinating host of reactions, I mean, especially for me. I identify as a progressive or a liberal Mormon. I'm fairly out about my political beliefs, as well as my religious beliefs. So I can watch people try and reconcile a very gay-friendly, feminist Democrat with the images of Mormonism they've derived from American pop culture, and it does puzzle people quite a bit.
ROBERTS: Let's hear from Bill in Saline, Michigan. Welcome to TALK OF THE NATION, Bill.
BILL: Thanks for having me on.
BILL: I have exactly the opposite of your, you know, your present guest. I'm a conservative, Republican Mormon, but just because of that, I get tired of people automatically assuming I'm going to vote for Mitt Romney or Jon Huntsman. So I'm willing to consider candidates - it's not - I'm not putting myself in just because they're Mormon candidates. They make my list, but that is not the criteria by any means.
ROBERTS: And what do you make of the discussion of their faith around their candidacy, Bill?
BILL: Well, I think it's fine. I've often said that I think Mitt Romney, instead of somewhat hiding from it, needs to not say I'm Mormon and needs to say, you know, hell yes I'm Mormon.
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BILL: Make it very open about that.
BROOKS: Jon Huntsman, too. (Laughing)
ROBERTS: Yeah, Bill, thanks for your call. Well, Joanna Brooks, I'll ask you the same question that I asked Michael Purdy. When some of the visibility, which does seem to kind of come in cycles like this, is coming from the fact that there are national candidates who are Mormon, how does that play into the attention? Does it change it from when, say, the Olympics were in Salt Lake City, or there's a hit show on Broadway?
Is there something about it being a political context that changes the questions?
BROOKS: I think it does, Rebecca. I think it raises, you know, issues of credibility and accessibility in different and maybe more serious ways. Michael Purdy was correct. There's a lot that non-Mormon people don't get about Mormonism. We are perceived, for better or worse, still as weird.
One of the reasons why is because we are a young religion. We are 180 years old. Give us 1,000 years, and we'll look as normal as Catholics, maybe. But another reason is that there are elements of Mormon belief and practice that are closed to outsiders, for example some temple rituals and, you know, other Mormon faith practices that we are fairly protective and tender and guarded about.
And Mitt Romney hasn't shown himself to be an excellent spokesperson in addressing complicated and tender faith issues - not many people are really. So that puts him in a difficult position and Mormons in a difficult position as well. A lot of us are white-knuckling our way through the campaign, getting ready for jabs to come from Romney's opponents, Huntsman's opponents and media personalities about our faith.
ROBERTS: We have email from Christine(ph) in Prescott, Arizona, who says: Can gays and lesbians practice in your church, and can women be bishops and higher-ups in the church?
BROOKS: Christine, that's a wonderful question. We have a complicated history on gender in the LDS church, and we have many controversies yet to iron out among ourselves. I think many people, especially in the western United States, are aware that the church, the institutional Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints invested heavily in political fights against same-sex marriage. Gay issues are a major source of tension within Mormon families, Mormon communities. The church is evolving in some ways. While most Mormons do maintain a view that homosexual activity in itself is sinful, there are also signs of moves towards greater reconciliation, understanding and growth in the way we handle gay issues and relate to our LGBT brothers and sisters. An openly gay Mormon man, for example, was just called to a leadership position in a congregation in San Francisco. And for progressives like me, that's a really wonderful and hopeful sign.
On gender issues, we do have to admit candidly that within the institutional church, women do not have equal status. Women, systematically, are not - do not hold positions in the administrative chain of command. But, you know, there is value assigned to motherhood. A lot of orthodox women feel really good about that. There are gender-progressive elements of Mormon belief, like the fact that we believe in heavenly parents, a father and a mother, who are the parents of our spirits. But still, gender issues are another frontier for 21st-century Mormonism.
ROBERTS: My guest is Joanna Brooks. She's chair of the English department at San Diego State University and she wrote an op-ed called "Five Myths about Mormonism," which you can find on our website. If you go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION, there is a link there. We are talking about modern Mormonism. And if you have questions about the faith or if you have some myths you want to dispel as a practicing Mormon, our number is 800-989-8255. Or our email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also get in touch with us through the website. Go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION. You are listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
We have an email from Austin(ph), who says: The one thing I think people should understand about Mormons is that we're an extremely normal people. We're just your neighbors and co-workers. If you took a random sample of Mormons in a given area, they'd be the same as the population at large. Regardless of dogmatic differences, we're just like anybody. Is that - do you, I mean, for having to say that you're normal...
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BROOKS: We pass really well.
ROBERTS: I mean...
BROOKS: There was a moment, I mean, there was a historical moment in the 19th century when Mormons, you know, formed our own communities and actively withdrew from mainstream American life. We marched out of the United States to Utah Territory. Over the course of the 20th century, actually, there's been a pattern of outmigration. Many Mormons have left what I call the Book of Mormon belt, which runs from Idaho through Arizona and even Southern California, moved out for education, for employment, and blended into communities around us.
We've actively cultivated an image as good citizens, conservative in our politics, big families, healthy, robust, cheerful. But at the same time, we've maintained a very distinctive mindset, a very distinctive way of seeing ourselves in the world. And we wear a lot of our faith very close to our skin.
ROBERTS: We have an email from Michael, who is echoing several emails that we have, saying: It's absurd for your guest to claim the church is not political when the church demonstrably got involved in California's Prop 8 struggle. Prop 8, of course, was asking California voters to amend the state constitution so that marriage is solely defined as a union between one man and one woman. And you say, Joanna Brooks, that they did spend some money on fighting, you know, any effort in same-sex marriage.
BROOKS: Oh, absolutely. I would not say the church is not political. I don't think I said that during this broadcast.
ROBERTS: I think Michael Purdy said that, yeah.
BROOKS: The church absolutely has a record of, you know, during the 1970s and '80s, the church was fiercely opposed to the Equal Rights Amendment and organized members and resources, not just in Utah but also in California and Virginia and Missouri to fight the ERA. We know that the church organized members and organized - asked members to donate to anti-same-sex marriage campaigns, such as Proposition 8 in California in 2008, made some decisive contributions to that campaign. More than 50 percent of the donors to that campaign were LDS.
Not all Mormons oppose gay marriage. Not all of us were comfortable with our church's heavy investment in anti-marriage equality politics. The church does behave politically at times. In this election cycle, it has been very clear not to endorse any candidate, and in fact has issued new guidelines to full-time church officers and employees, saying that no one may donate, you know, endorse or volunteer for any candidate.
ROBERTS: Speaking of candidates, I'll ask you another question I asked Michael Purdy, why do you think many Americans are still uneasy about a Mormon president?
BROOKS: It's a great question. One thing that I encountered in writing The Washington Post piece is that people are familiar with the idea that there is a president to the Mormon Church who is regarded by orthodox Mormons as a prophet, as someone who receives revelations from God on behalf of the church. And just as there were questions during John F. Kennedy's run for president, about whether he would be beholden to the counsel of the pope and would prioritize, you know, instruction from the pope over his responsibilities to the American people, I think there are lingering questions about the role of the prophet in Mormon life and whether a President Romney would need to call Salt Lake City before governing.
I think it's worth remembering that there are at least 15 members of the Mormon Church serving in Congress right now, including Senator Harry Reid. No one seems to worry that Harry Reid is phoning Salt Lake when he's hammering out debt ceiling packages. So I think that's a major misconception that needs to be addressed.
ROBERTS: If you've got one more chance - because we're running out of time - to address another misconception, what's another myth you'd like to blow away here?
BROOKS: Ah, yes. There is a lot of talk, especially in pop culture, some of it derisive about Mormon undergarments. And you'll see them described as magic undergarments. It's worth saying out loud that observant adult Mormons go to temples as adults and make promises to live lives of modesty and devotion and fidelity, and they wear undergarments under their street clothes to remind themselves of those promises. Are they magic? That's not something I believe, and calling them so is a little derisive. It's sort of like calling a kippah a magic beanie, so we don't think of them as magic underwear.
ROBERTS: Joanna Brooks, chair of the English department at San Diego State University. Thanks for joining us.
BROOKS: Oh, thank you for having me.
ROBERTS: Coming up, preaching a healthy diet. We'll talk with Reverend Michael O. Minor about fighting obesity from the pulpit. I'm Rebecca Roberts. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
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