Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Mitt Romney's religion

There was a recent major opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal online by John Fund regarding the effect that Mitt Romney's LDS religion is having on his campaign.

Fund lists a number of examples of lower-level Guiliani and McCain supporters trying to make an issue of it, but it is clear that it has been quashed and the subject ruled verboten -- at least at the overt level.

He has this quotation:

"In some ways, [Romney's candidacy] is the best test of whether Americans have really put some of the old religious differences aside," Alan Wolfe, director of Boston College's Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life, told the Boston Globe. "And my guess is that they haven't."

Really? What a surprise. All one has to do is think back on how many times one sees things like "Christian fundamentalist fanatics," "Christian wingnuts," "fundamentalist nutjobs," (insert label of choice) when lurking on various websites. One discovers that religious bigotry is alive and well in the United States.

Granted, the progressive forces on the left who use such language or fail to condemn its use can point out that they aren't at all opposed to religion, pointing at their love for the Rev. Jesse Jackson, at the copious religious language in Sen. Obama's speeches, or at the progressive activists in many mainline Christian denominations. And after all, Bill Clinton is often moved to tears when he attends church. They are only opposed to certain kinds of objectionable religious expressions and ideas being inserted into American political life.

True enough. But that is pretty much a definition of religious discrimination: the belief that one kind of religion is more worthy of respect than another, that it is safe for certain kinds of religious belief to influence public life -- while other kinds are viruses in the body politic.

As stated earlier, religious discrimination and bigotry is alive and well, and anyone who thinks otherwise is living in a dreamworld.

It really is not realistic -- or even necessarily desirable -- to disallow religious prejudice (in the strict sense of the word) in the political realm. For a progressive, if someone believes in some version of the traditional Biblical creation account, it is, to be truthful, a fairly good indicator that the person in question won't likely vote for very many progressive candidates who support abortion rights.

Likewise, a conservative knows that if someone attends a church that blesses homosexual unions, the members of that particular religious body are unlikely to vote for his own candidates of choice.

More directly, if one religious expression believes that, say, gay marriage is a positive good while another believes that it is morally wrong and will have a corrosive effect on society -- those two religious expressions are on a political collision course. One can hardly expect either group to have neutral feelings about whether the other is good for the nation.

There are always exceptions, but many of the generalities about religion and politics actually do hold true. They are not, to be sure, excuses for name-calling and slurs -- but we should realize that it took a long time for various racial slurs to become taboo, and we can't expect slurs against traditional Christianity to disappear overnight, either.

So where does Romney's LDS faith come in to all of this?

Just this: Romney's supporters aren't really doing him or his co-religionists any favors by attempting to shame into silence anyone in the GOP who raises questions about how his religion might affect how he would govern.

After all, while the emphasis in this primary campaign has been on evangelical Christians who are wary of Mormonism, this emphasis is precisely because it is a GOP primary. Weekly church attendance (of any kind -- Catholic, Protestant, LDS) has been found in the last few election cycles to be one of the strongest predictors of Republican voting patterns. So these are the kinds of things that will crop up. Before Vatican II, the same would have been true of Catholicism v. Protestantism, but huge amounts of previous differences have been swept away in recent decades -- and Protestants and Catholics always did use the same Apostles' Creed.

While Montana Headlines has been critical of Romney's social policy flips, many observers (ourselves included) have noticed that evangelical Christians are among the fastest to discount the importance of those changes in position. It is as though they have confidence in the inherent conservatism of his Mormon faith, meaning that Romney's current socially conservative positions are the real ones -- back then he said what he had to say to get elected in Massachusetts, but now he's come home and is saying what he really, at core, believes. It is not an unreasonable prejudice to have, and the argument is a fairly convincing one.

If Romney is the GOP nominee (not entirely unlikely if he wins striking victories in Iowa and New Hampshire, as may easily be the case,) then the Romney campaign can expect to deal with the issue of his religion. Not overtly -- but through internet sites, e-mails, blog comments, and other things not traceable to the Democratic campaign. That's politics.

If Romney wants to be the GOP nominee, he is going to have to prove to his party that he is going to be able to take that head-on and win a general election in spite of it. And does anyone really doubt that if the election is on the line, those who don't hesitate to deride fundamentalist/evangelical Christianity -- more likely to be adhered to by one's next-door neighbor than LDS -- will have any qualms about circulating pictures of temple garments and descriptions of some less familiar Mormon beliefs or unsavory bits of Mormon history?

And does anyone doubt that if the election is going to be a close one (for the sake of argument,) the Clinton camp will "condemn" slurs while tacitly appreciating their usefulness-- slurs that might sway enough votes in a given battleground state to turn the election?

And there, in a nutshell, is the contribution that Romney's religion makes to the question of whether he should be the GOP nominee: is it capable of swaying enough votes away from Romney to make what already promises to be an uphill general election battle into a hopeless one?

Only Romney can answer that question -- but he won't be able to answer it if his campaign only uses the technique of shaming GOP critics into silence. In the privacy of a voting booth, a very large number of people vote for the candidate they trust to hold the office in question.

It isn't enough for a candidate to create a climate where no-one will dare say anything negative in public about that candidate's faith, color, sex, marital status, or profession.

Romney has to convince a majority of voters to go into the privacy of that voting booth and choose him. Many of those voters (both religious and non-religious types) will in Romney's case have started out with a basic level of ignorance and/or distrust about LDS -- whether based on its beliefs, its history, its purported tribalism, whatever... it really doesn't matter.

His job isn't the relatively easy one of convincing Americans not to be openly bigoted toward him and his religion -- it is to convince the GOP base to come out in large numbers to crawl over broken glass to vote for him and for a majority of independents to choose him over the Democratic nominee.

Republicans have to be convinced that he can do that. Right now, we're not fully getting the opportunity to find out.

No comments: