Latter-day Saint Life

The question on McKay Coppins’s heart before interviewing the prophet—and why the answer matters to all of us

McKay Coppins was recently a guest on the All In podcast. Find the full episode here and read a highlight below.

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National journalist McKay Coppins
Photo credit: Jessie Pierce

McKay Coppins is a staff writer at The Atlantic where he covers politics, religion, and national affairs. Early in his career, he was assigned to cover Mitt Romney during the 2012 presidential race. As a member of the Church himself, Coppins was sought out by other reporters to help them understand and write about aspects of Romney’s faith. In the years since, Coppins has had many unique opportunities to help explain the Church and its practices in mainstream media.

For example, in 2020 Coppins had the opportunity to personally interview President Russell M. Nelson for an article in The Atlantic magazine. He went into the interview feeling slightly torn—he knew that as a reporter he would be asking tough questions, but as a member of the Church he wanted a “spiritual catharsis” from the experience of meeting the prophet, especially during the uncertainty of the pandemic.

“I remember feeling like, ‘How can I do both of these things?’ There’s one part of me that needs to be the serious reporter and the other part that needs to be the faithful disciple,” Coppins says.

When President Nelson entered the room, he asked if they could start with a prayer. President Nelson prayed for each of Coppins’ children by name and invited the Spirit into the room. And then he asked what questions Coppins had for him.

“I realized in that moment that I could do both. I didn’t have to pretend like I wasn’t a Latter-day Saint to be a good reporter. And I didn’t have to be a bad reporter to be a good Latter-day Saint. I could do all of it. And I wasn’t going to set aside my faith,” Coppins says.

Coppins remembers President Nelson later commenting during the interview that many things make up our identity: our Church membership, our parenthood, our jobs. But our belief in God and our attempts to follow Jesus Christ are entangled with everything. Coppins strives to live by that truth.

“I don't want to try to compartmentalize my spiritual life from everything else. It’s all part of who I am,” he says.

Earlier in the All In interview, Coppins shared how this quote from the late Clayton Christensen inspires him in this regard: “It’s easier to hold your principles 100 percent of the time than it is to hold them 98 percent of the time.”

“It’s so true because you end up spending your entire life trying to figure out what the one percent of the time is, the one mitigating circumstance where it is OK. [But] if you just decide, ‘I’m not going to play that game’ then it makes your life simpler,” Coppins says. “There are just some things I can’t compromise on.”

Coppins observed the value of being true to your principles in one of his biggest writing projects to date: the new biography of Mitt Romney, Romney: A Reckoning. He shared that in researching for and writing the book, he observed that Mitt Romney drew distinct lines in his life that he wasn’t willing to cross.

“[Romney is] an incredibly hard worker… he couldn’t help but put in more hours than anybody else. … But what he realized was that if he didn't keep himself in check, he would end up completely abdicating his parental responsibilities, his spousal responsibilities, and his responsibilities to the Church. So he drew some bright red lines that he told himself he wouldn’t cross. … Because if he didn’t, he wasn’t just going to naturally be a present father and have time for his calling,” Coppins says. “I thought that was illustrative, and so for my own life, I have taken that same lesson.”

At the end of each episode of All In, guests are asked this question: What does it mean to be all in the gospel of Jesus Christ?

“What it means to me is to make my discipleship, my membership in Jesus Christ’s Church, central to my identity,” Coppins says. “Not to try to bracket it, or put it aside, or say, ‘this is one part of me, but all these other parts are more important’ … I try my hardest to live that way every day.”

Listen to the full episode, including more insight from Coppin on writing Mitt Romney’s biography, in the player below. Or find All In on all major streaming platforms.

Learn more about 'Romney: A Reckoning'

Based on dozens of interviews with Romney, his family, and his inner circle as well as hundreds of pages of his personal journals and private emails, this in-depth portrait by award-winning journalist McKay Coppins shows a public servant authentically wrestling with the choices he has made over his career. In lively, revelatory detail, the book traces Romney’s early life and rise through the ranks of a fast-transforming Republican Party and exposes how a trail of seemingly small compromises by political leaders has led to a crisis in democracy. Ultimately, Romney: A Reckoning is a redemptive story about a flawed politician who summoned his moral courage just as fear and divisiveness were overtaking American life.

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