Tuesday, October 9, 2012

What Romney Won't Run On: Mormonism

We have seen a curious pattern with Mitt Romney's campaign style over the months. Earlier in the year, Romney pointedly told us how qualified he is to be president and how proud he was of his accomplishments. And what have been his examples? Romney repeatedly touted his business acumen, specifically his record at Bain Capital. It was, he claimed, a clear indication not only that he knew how to successfully run a company, but that he would take those same clear-eyed instincts to turn the country around. The oft-stated implication is that running a business is very much like running a government;  meeting payroll, balancing the books, and all that. Many seem persuaded by this analogy. 

But hey, Romney has real political experience too, as Massachusetts Governor. Look at his sensible record in a very blue state. It shows, Romney says, that he knows how to work with the Democrats and that he has executive experience. Notice also his difficulty in deciding whether or not he still stands behind Romneycare. He wants to denounce Obamacare, wants to trot out his own health care plan while Governor of Massachusetts, but doesn't want voters to realize how similar the two programs are. He cannot decide to run on Romneycare, and it shows.

And let's not forget his private-sector executive leadership as chief executive of the 2002 Winter Olympics Organizing Committee. Did that not show his poise under pressure? His turn-around skills? His ability to bring people together and attain goals? That was the message. As with the rest of his record, he hoped voters would take his narrative on the Salt Lake Olympics at face value. However, he not only has felt compelled to frequently alter that narrative, he flat-out runs from his record whenever he senses the need.

Why is that?

That brings us to his religion. The other issues above, Bain Capital and the rest, will be revisited in the coming days and weeks. For the moment, I want to examine Romney's, and his party's, messaging on how they want voters to think about religion.

We were supposed to be over the religion issue, weren't we? Don't worry, Romney is one of us. Isn't that what Republican officials have been saying in an effort to rally the Evangelical base? Too bad conservatives still foam at the mouth when it comes to Obama; Muslim invective is still acceptable and is still an effective campaign tactic. But don't ridicule our Mormon candidate, you wouldn't want to be a bigot.

Republicans have finally nominated "the other." Suspicious types were only supposed to reside in the Democratic Party. Real Christians are Republicans, but Mormons? They're some type of cult, aren't they? Apparently not any more.

Some people had a fit when Jack Kennedy ran for president. They figured he would take his orders from the Pope. I personally grew up around people who believed Pope Paul VI was the antichrist, said you could see the mark of the beast on his forehead if you looked closely. And, of course, a new crop suggests that Obama may be the antichrist. Some shit never ends.

But Republicans have been busy sanitizing Mitt Romney and his religious faith. I suppose it's progress in a way; Mormonism will likely never again be a major electoral issue. So if America's right wing can swallow hard and accept Mormons as fellow Americans, then who am I to object?

Well, maybe. Bigotry is alive in the US; it is merely suppressed when required, only to express itself when it suits political operatives and even then only when the right combination of emotional triggers is reached. That combination was not reached with Romney, though it seemed that it might early in the primaries, because his religious beliefs were not entangled with other key triggers, such as race, sexual orientation, or political party. Obama's Christianity would not have been unchallenged had he been a white conservative. That is to say, he would have been seen for what he is, and not accused of being the ultimate conservative bogeyman; a black Muslim. It was the combination of race, party, political views, combined with unprincipled doubts on religion, that has brought out the worst in redstate America. Romney, by comparison, only has had to contend with doubts over his religion. His feckless pandering on policies is of his own making. 

And yet...  One of my own yardsticks on religion has not been the specific doctrines of the person's faith, because none can escape the trap of implausibility and their obvious human origins, but whether candidates take that stuff seriously. Jack Kennedy got past the Catholic issue in part because he was perceived as being a cultural Catholic, decidedly secular and modern. It wasn't all for show, but his Catholicism was also not something that inspired unthinking adherence to doctrine and dogma. There were no other significant triggers that were able to create an insurmountable roadblock to his presidential quest. His religion did cause him grief for a time, of course, and undoubtedly cost him some votes.

Fast forward to this year's Republican primaries where we witnessed religious warriors like Rick Santorum who were not just deeply religious, but were often in your face with it. Santorum in particular wore it on his sleeve, and proudly proclaimed that conservative Catholic dogma informed his policies. Others, to varying degrees, including Newt Gingrich, Michelle Bachmann, essentially all of them, did not just ask that voters tolerate their religious faith, but aggressively insisted that conservative evangelical Christianity be given primacy in public life.

You see the difference? We were once told to accept politicians and their religion precisely because there was no discernible influence, at least not of anything objectionable. Joe Biden and Barack Obama fit that category. So did Nixon, Ford, Reagan, Bush the Elder, and Clinton. Bush the Lesser represented something of hybrid or transitional figure. Now many candidates want you to vote for them precisely because they are conservative Christians, even the Catholic guy.

Rick Santorum represented a bold push consistent with the ongoing right-wing lurch of his party. He wrapped his campaign in religiosity that made him seem more like a revivalist preacher, a Jeremiah prophesying doom because of our moral failings, as defined by him. In so doing, Santorum made it clear he would support policies that would punish and criminalize behavior that is legal but that he personally did not approve of.

But what about Romney? He won the nomination, not Santorum. Romney is not in your face with his beliefs. He doesn't thump his Book of Mormon. But he also doesn't want to field questions about it. We are to respect his religion while he, in turn, chooses to not discuss it, except to say how wonderful it has been for him. In short, we are to respect his Mormonism, a creed that was never seen as truly Christian, but hey, close enough.

But here is the deal; Republicans have unrelentingly argued that most everything in President Obama's past ought to examined; what has been they don't like. Too exotic, not American enough, a neo-colonial mindset that explains, they tell us, why Obama is fundamentally un-American.  For many on the right, Obama is either a Muslim, or if he is a Christian, he's the wrong kind. Just look at that Reverend Wright fellow; another angry black man. Books, films, and endless pseudo-investigations have been launched in an effort to discredit the man and raise suspicions in any way possible. Many of these attacks make no substantive effort to examine the actual policies Obama supports, which are decidedly mainstream and moderate.

Republicans have successfully snuffed anti-Mormon bigotry, which one could argue is commendable, but in so doing they have also squelched any critical examination of a breathtakingly bizarre set of beliefs and assertions. One is at pains to explain anything credible about the origins of the Mormon faith. And for those who might think the preceding sentences represent bigotry, I don't defend any religious doctrine, so I avoid the hypocrisy of denouncing one set of beliefs while asking forbearance on my own. No special pleading is needed nor is it allowed. Instead, one must recognize the very thick line that separates unprincipled bigotry from critical examination.

Romney, I would argue, is well aware of this country's tentative embrace of his secretive religion, especially from those on the religious right. He has dodged a bullet, if you will. The less he needs to talk about Mormon doctrine, the better it is for his campaign.

Romney has been allowed to campaign on unexamined religious claims because Republicans found no alternatives to him in the Republican primaries. They are stuck with him, so rallying around your candidate now means to shut up about the Mormon stuff.

No similar restraint is required for President Obama. Muslim or Christian, it doesn't matter. He wasn't born here anyway, right?

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