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Romney and the Mormon Issue

By Jay Cost

On Monday, Mark Davis had a column on RealClearPolitics that discussed Mitt Romney and how he has handled the issue of his Mormonism.

I do not think Romney has handled it very well, though I do think there is a chance that it might never become an actual issue.

I'll tackle the second proposition first. Average voters - even average voters in a primary election - are not like political elites, i.e. those who by virtue of their knowledge of politics, their positions in politics, or their financial contributions to political actors, stand separate from the average voter. If "Romney and the Mormon Issue" is an intriguing title to you some four months before the first votes are casts, you are probably somebody who possesses a unique amount of political information that implies a difference between you and the average voter.

Average voters are not like you. They do not have a great interest in politics, and their knowledge of politics is highly constrained. This, I think, is relevant for Romney and the Mormon issue. I think that it is likely the case that the Mormon issue only becomes a salient issue in the mind of average voters if Romney's political opponents make it an issue. Of course, I can envision scenarios in which the Mormon issue becomes salient even if his opponents do not make it salient. However, it seems to me that the most likely path for this issue to become salient is if Giuliani or Thompson tries to make it so.

And this, I think, bodes very well for Romney. I would be highly surprised if Giuliani or Thompson tries to make the Mormon issue salient. If I were advising either one, I would suggest that he not try - any political victory he achieves from the issue might be quite pyrrhic. Such an attack leads itself right into a discussion of the role of religion in the lives of the candidates - and that, in turn, could make the once divorced Thompson (who seems to have lobbied for a pro-abortion outfit) and the twice divorced Giuliani (who is pro-choice) look worse than Romney.

I think Romney may have caught a real break with Thompson and Giuliani as his two major opponents. If, per chance, Huckabee or Brownback had ascended to the top tier - they could possibly have exploited the Mormon angle without undue damage to their candidacies. But not Thompson and Giuliani. I do not think that either of them has the "standing" to get into the thick of a battle over personal religious beliefs.

Thus, the only way the Mormon issue becomes salient is through the media. I think this gives Romney an advantage. The media is going to pull its punches on the Mormon issue relative to what a top-tier opponent with "standing" would do. This means that Romney has to handle media inquiries about it with just a little bit of deftness, and he will probably be fine.

This brings me to my first point - "deftness" is not the term I would choose to characterize Romney's handling of the issue thus far. Instead, I'd pick "clumsy" and perhaps "alienating." I think that Romney and his strategists have a politically smart approach to the Mormon issue, but their tactical pursuit of this strategy has been ridiculously bad so far.

First, his rhetorical paradigm is simply misplaced. Romney and his campaign have drawn comparisons to John Kennedy in 1960. This is not all that valid - and so his frequent references to Kennedy seem forced and opportunistic. The "Catholic issue" in 1960 was largely due to the fact that Catholics were of second- and third-wave immigrant groups. To many Americans, they were still the "other" in 1960. They were still perceived to be foreign. Being Catholic was coterminous with being Irish or Italian. To say that Kennedy had to deal with the Catholic issue was, at least in part, a polite way to say that Kennedy had to deal with the "Irish issue." He needed to dispel the phony belief that Irish-Americans who were Catholics were somehow not real Americans. It was nativism as much as anything that compelled Kennedy to deal with the subject.

Romney confronts nothing approaching this. I would argue that there is something quintessentially American about Mormons. There is nothing foreign-seeming about them. Romney confronts nothing approaching this. I would argue that there is something quintessentially American about Mormons. There is nothing foreign-seeming about them. The Mormons that I know in personal life - at least those with Temple Recommend cards in their wallets - seem to me to be just like I am...only better! They don't swear. They don't drink. They don't smoke. They even manage somehow to get themselves going in the morning without a cup of joe. How do they do that?!

In other words, Romney's problem is not the same as Kennedy's problem. Kennedy's political problem was a symbol of the long struggle of Americans of Irish descent to integrate themselves into our society. Mormons are integrated. We see Mormons as Americans, so that is not Romney's problem.

So, what is it? I think it is the following. Mormons believe things about theology and things about history that seem to many Americans - especially those Romney intends to court in the Republican primary contests - to be unbelievable.

How should he handle this? Generally speaking, Romney's strategy has been, "None of your business." This, I think, could work. The problem is that he has completely mishandled the execution of the strategy. As I indicated, the Mormon issue is composed of two sub-issues. There is the theological issue, and then there is the history issue. He has done a poor job with both.

On the theology issue, I would reference his recent interview with WHO's Jan Mickelson. Romney's position in that debate was that Mickelson just did not know what he was talking about. Watching the interview, I thought that Romney had a good point. Mickelson was out of his depth. However, Romney deployed this point in a contentious, resentful kind of manner. The implication of his tone and the way that he chose to frame his response implied that he thinks only Mormons can comment about the theological validity of Mormonism because they are the only ones who know enough about it. In other words, it was not just that Mickelson was wrong - it was also that he did not have standing to ask the question. That is a condescending answer that is not going to settle the matter for people with questions about Mormon theology. Ultimately, Romney needs to respect the fact that many people find the theology of Mormonism to be peculiar, that they are inclined to ask questions, and given that he is asking them for something (namely, their votes), they have a right to ask these questions if they so choose.

And then there is the history issue. Namely, Mormons believe some things about ancient American history that seem to have no evidentiary basis. I had not seen him tackle this very much to date - until this week. When I read the following in Davis's column, I just about fell out of my chair:

So (Davis) asked (Romney) : if an entire society existed in North America for centuries before and after the birth of Christ, planting crops, worshiping in a Judeo-Christian fashion, using an Egyptian-Hebrew hybrid language, riding chariots and smelting iron, wouldn't there be archeological evidence of it?

Let's just say he didn't accept my invitation down that path.

"I really don't think it's productive for me to say 'let me tell you about this doctrine or that doctrine,'" he explained. "I'm not a spokesman for my church."

This grows frustrating. No one is asking him to be the PR man for Mormons everywhere. But what Romney considers "unproductive," many voters will consider necessary if they are to even begin to weigh his many attributes.

Don't hold your breath. As I gingerly suggested these might be matters voters would crave some answers on, he imagined what he thought was a comparable scenario from nearly 50 years ago.

"'Senator Kennedy," he asked, posing as an imaginary questioner in JFK's tricky 1960 drama involving doubts about his Catholicism, "Do you really believe that that wafer turns into the body of Christ, do you really believe that? Has there been chemical analysis in the stomachs of people after they've taken communion?' These are not questions you ask someone who's running for President."

Oh no. No, Governor Romney. No! No! No! A thousand times no!

This is absolutely the wrong way to respond to questions about seemingly unbelievable beliefs.

Ugh. Where do I begin?

Look at his referencing of Catholic wafers and chemistry. What is the implication of that? The implication is that voters hold beliefs that have been shown to be false, too. No, Governor, no! You don't insult millions of Catholic voters as a prelude to asking for their votes. But that's exactly what he's done here. "Joe Catholic thinks my religion is unbelievable, eh? Well, his is, too!" That is the implication. If I had to craft a strategy on how not to win votes - I think I might actually select what Romney said about wafers. " Check! The Catholic vote is gone. Who's next on our list to alienate?"

It gets worse. I am not a Catholic. Rather, I'm a Presbyterian. However, I have obtained what amounts to a pretty thorough liberal arts education - and I know that Romney has misrepresented Catholic beliefs. Catholic thinking on this matter, as I understand it, is largely informed by Aquinas, and therefore Aristotle. Accordingly, Catholics make a distinction between the essence of a thing and the accidents of a thing. And, as regards communion, Catholics believe that none of the physical characteristics (i.e. all of the observations that could be made via chemical analysis) of the wafer change - but that its essence changes. Accordingly, chemical analysis cannot falsify Catholic belief on the matter.

So, this makes Romney kind of a hypocrite - in light of his "you don't know what you're talking about" rebuke of Jan Mickelson. Mr. Mickelson does not know enough about Mormonism simply to ask some questions. Mr. Romney obviously knows very little about Catholicism - but he can tell Catholics that chemistry has disproved one of their most fundamental beliefs?

No, Governor! No, no, no! A thousand times no. You must do better than this.

I think I understand what Romney's angle here is. Return to Davis's column. Davis approached the Mormon issue ever so gingerly. Mickelson approaches it gingerly, too. And Romney, in response, gets aggressive. I think he is taking advantage of a power relation that has dug itself deep into the American psyche.

Americans have, I think, internalized John Locke's Letter Concerning Toleration. Locke, of course, was writing about the role of governmental toleration. The government should tolerate religious beliefs (with a few exceptions, Locke thought). But Americans - and the West generally - have taken this a step further. Most of us now believe that, as even regards two people in a conversation, religious beliefs should be tolerated. It is socially impolite for me to tell another person, "I think your beliefs are ridiculous." We just don't do that anymore. Not only are we free from governmental intervention to believe whatever damned fool idea gets into our heads - we can tell our friends and family to talk a walk if they disagree, too. Our rights as Americans do not just constrain governmental behavior; they constrain the behavior of all. And so, we discuss the religion of another person with a bashfulness that recognizes that another's faith is no longer anybody else's business.

Romney, I think, is trying to capitalize upon this American bashfulness. And this gets back to the point I made at the beginning of the column. I think that Romney and his campaign have assessed that his political opponents are not going to make an issue of this. Only the media is. And the media is much more likely to display this kind of bashfulness. And so, if Romney rejects the questions, as this line of thinking goes, he can diffuse the issue altogether. If his response leaves the impression in the questioner, "I felt bashful asking the question - and I was right to feel that way. I've obviously offended him. That was not right of me," then he can win the rhetorical point. Both Mickelson's interview and Davis's column have a common thread - the implication of Ronney's answers is that he thinks the questions are illegitimate, and that Mickelson and Davis should ask about taxes and not about the Celestial Kingdom. That's a way to play on American religious tolerance. Deep down, most of us are at least inclined to accept that such queries are illegitimate.

This strategy is a good one. But he has mis-executed it -- completely. He should not be angry and/or fiery to get the point across that the questions are out-of-bounds. This is only going to egg media types on. When Romney gets fired up about Mormonism - suddenly there's some news in the middle of this no-real-news summer. Journalists value their jobs over bashfulness - and so, if they know they can get Mitt all fired up by asking about Mormonism, well social etiquette be damned! Relatedly, there is a difference between denying the legitimacy of a question and taking umbrage to it. If you're subtle about denying its legitimacy, you can probably get the questioner to go along. If you're funny and witty as you deny its legitimacy, you definitely can. But if you basically come right out and angrily say, "You have no right to ask that question" - you're going to get a typically American response, "The hell I don't!" The reason is that the person who asked the question will feel that the punishment (the heavy-handed rebuke) does not fit the crime (the question), and he'll get angry right back. In that case, nothing will have been diffused.

What's more, if he keeps making false statements about other beliefs - some religious leader with some standing is going to smack him down eventually. If he keeps implying that all beliefs are ultimately unbelievable - he'll get a similar smack down from some leader with sway over the voters he hopes to court. And then he'll look like an intolerant fool. This is not a good way to appear when you are trying to capitalize upon American religious tolerance.

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