Bait and Convert

The 2012 Republican primaries were without question the most religious party contest in memory. Nearly all the major candidates put their religious beliefs at or near the center of their public personas, from the puritanical scold Rick Santorum, to the prayer warrior Rick Perry, to Newt Gingrich, producer of books and movies on the importance of God in American politics. As for the Almighty himself, He apparently told no fewer than three separate candidates (Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain, and Santorum) that they should run. Awfully sneaky of Him not to tell them they were going to lose, but who has time to consult the fine print when you're hearing messages from above?

Yet in the end, the candidate who prevailed was the one least interested in talking about his religion. That's not because Mitt Romney isn't devout, but because he's all too aware that his Mormonism presents some political complications. Many evangelicals consider the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS) a heretical cult, and significant numbers of Americans say they wouldn't vote for a Mormon for president. For instance, in a Gallup poll last year, 22 percent of voters—including 18 percent of Republicans and 19 percent of independents—said they wouldn't vote for a Mormon. Of course, there's a good chance that will change when we're talking about a particular Mormon running on the Republican ticket against a particular president (though as one evangelical pastor said, " f it's Romney and Obama, as far as I'm concerned, Satan's flipping a two-headed coin and his head's on both sides."

So Republicans are getting ready to defend their standard-bearer against religious bigotry—or, more properly, getting ready to charge Democrats with such bigotry. Last week, Utah Senator Orrin Hatch told them to prepare for the coming assault. "You watch, they're going to throw the Mormon church at him like you can't believe it," he said. "For them to say they aren't going to smear Mitt Romney is bologna. It's way out of bounds, but that's what is going to happen." Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the chair of the Democratic National Committee, responded that Hatch's prediction was "just preposterous."

And I'm sure she's right when she says the party and the president's campaign would never do such a thing. It would be insane for the Obama campaign to suggest that people should vote against Mitt Romney because of his religion (and not only because there are so many other good reasons). But that doesn't mean Mormonism won't be at issue, because there will be people outside the campaign eager to discuss their problems with the LDS church. The church's aggressive support of California's Proposition 8 outlawing gay marriage is sure to come up. Romney recently got asked by a Ron Paul supporter if he believed it is a sin for a black person and a white person to get married. He responded with a firm "no," but you can be it won't be the last time the Mormon church's history on race—it long held that blacks were cursed by God, a position it officially cast off only in 1978—will be discussed.


At least one media figure, MSNBC host Lawrence O'Donnell, is about as critical of Mormonism as people get in polite society. He recently said "Mormonism was created by a guy in upstate New York in 1830 when he got caught having sex with the maid and explained to his wife that God told him to do it. Forty-eight wives later, Joseph Smith's lifestyle was completely sanctified in the religion that he invented to go with it, which Mitt Romney says he believes." (O'Donnell is referring to Fanny Alger, a 16-year-old girl whom Smith took as his first plural wife. His timing is off—Smith's relationship with Alger began after the religion had already begun—but it's fair to say that Smith's interest in women other than his original wife played a rather important part in the development of polygamy as a religious doctrine.) This is hardly the first time O'Donnell has gone off on this topic, and you can bet he'll do it again from his perch at MSNBC.

But it's rare that candidates of any religion have to grapple publicly with the actual tenets of their faith or their church. Catholic politicians, for instance, will sometimes have to explain their divides with Rome, which essentially come down to this: Catholic Democrats believe the Church is right on caring for the poor and the death penalty, but wrong on abortion, contraception, the status of gay people, and the ordination of women; Catholic Republicans believe the reverse. But the truth is that there isn't a major religion whose scriptures and history don't contain a whole lot of absolutely crazy stuff. Adherents of the older religions have come to ignore most of those scriptures, which makes them less than eager to start quizzing candidates about them. Nobody was going to start exploring the rationale behind keeping kosher with Joe Lieberman, despite the fact that in today's world Jewish dietary laws are arbitrary and absurd (settle down—I'm Jewish, so I get to say that). But maybe they should have.

My position has long been that candidates should be forced to talk about the specifics of their religious faith only in proportion to the amount they use that faith as a political tool. If, like Rick Santorum, you go around talking about how we need more religion in politics and how your firm and unswerving belief in Christianity is the basis of everything you think and know, then you ought to be asked some questions about this thing you say is so important to you. For instance, the Bible says quite clearly that disrespectful children should be stoned to death (Deuteronomy 21), and that if you beat your slave but the slave lives, then no harm, no foul, because the slave is your property (Exodus 21). What does Rick Santorum think about that?

That's a game we could easily play with Mormon scriptures, and the fact that they're unfamiliar to most people would make it a little more interesting. But as Romney said to that Ron Paul supporter, "We're just not going to have a discussion about religion in my view." A discussion is the last think Romney wants; what he'd much prefer is to mention religion briefly, and then move on.

In the end, that will make this a general election campaign like most others we've seen, even if one of the candidates comes from a minority religion. The last presidential candidate who spoke at length about his religious beliefs was the born-again Jimmy Carter. Even George W. Bush, who said in the primaries that Jesus was his favorite philosopher, became far more circumspect and ecumenical when he had to appeal to the broader electorate.

So all both parties' candidates will say on religion is, "I'm a Christian." Barack Obama says it because so many Americans remain convinced that he isn't, and Mitt Romney says it because so many Americans remain convinced that his church isn't. Chances are that the campaign won't change too many minds on either proposition.

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