La dolce vita Salt Lake City
Jessica McBride writes in her column this week that we should be interested in the more esoteric elements of the Mormon religion when considering Governor Mitt Romney. She argues,
Romney didn’t address the Christian concerns in his speech this week, generally painting himself as a man of religious faith who would govern for the common good, instead of as a Mormon man trying to get your vote even though you think his religion is weird. He mentioned Mormonism exactly one time.
According to the media, “Romney said some believe that a forthright embrace of his religion will ‘sink my candidacy. If they are right, so be it. But I think they underestimate the American people.’”
He then stopped short of a forthright rhetorical embrace of his religion. Well, he talked about his religion a lot, just not its specifics and not by name much. Many stories that I’ve seen on Romney’s Mormonism revolve around this media narrative: Is it wrong that Romney’s Mormonism is an issue? (subtext, yes). Or: Will his Mormonism be an insurmountable hurdle with evangelicals? (subtext: how bigoted!)
The media don’t ask Romney tough questions about the Mormonism that defines him. Heck, they don’t even ASK him about it. They seem to feel that, because the concern is coming from evangelicals, they should write about the concern but not about why there is concern. The media do this when they don’t think the concern is legitimate. Heck, a lot of the secular reporters probably think Christianity is a cult.
Most American’s exposure to the Mormon Church probably comes in three forms:
1) The annoying well-dressed young people knocking on your door when it is least convenient.
2) Genealogy research.
3) Watching Big Love on HBO.
A few may be vaguely aware of some of the tenets and history of the Church. Are they still polygamists? (Officially no.) Do they still discriminate against African Americans? (No, but they did.) Are they banned from drinking and gambling?
Romney’s speech did little to introduce the religion to Americans. He just tried to place the subject off limits. But unfortunately for Romney, his speech will only send more of us off to the bookstore to buy Mormonism for Dummies.
The Romney proponents of “the speech” missed a few points affecting how the speech would be received. 1) The Church of Latter Day Saints is far more alien to the American experience than the Catholic Church was at the time of John F. Kennedy’s speech. 2) Kennedy also had the advantage of an Al Smith candidacy, so Kennedy running for president wasn’t unprecedented. 3) Kennedy’s presidential campaign was not a refutation of many of his earlier positions, and his religious statements could be accepted at face value. 4) Kennedy’s assurances were entirely secular. Coincidentally, so was he.
What the Romney team should have done – and still can do – is just run a series of commercials with prominent Mormons explaining Mormonism and its status as a truly indigenous religion. Romney could have made more people more comfortable with his faith without trying to play the role of priest/teacher.
Otherwise, remember the infamous boxer or briefs question asked of Bill Clinton? Wait until people ask about Mormon underwear.