There is a long way to go until November but so far Mitt Romney has been adept at avoiding the Mormon question. Instead he has spoken of his faith in very lofty and vague ways, resisting any attempts to elicit full answers to what he actually believes. There is a growing consensus in the media and among members of both parties that not only should he answer these questions, but that failing to do so might cost him the presidency.
The reasons for this vary. Democrats see potential victory in drawing attention to the unusual and often controversial aspects of Romney’s faith. Convincing undecided voters that it’s a bad idea leaving the country in the hands of someone who believes hot drinks are evil, magic underwear can protect you, and Jesus visited America should be easy! If Democrats do this, and Romney refuses to engage in the discussion, the silence will be deafening.
Republicans desperately need to be reassured about Romney’s faith if they are going to fully back him. A Pew survey from way back in November, 2011 reported that half of evangelical Christians do not consider Mormonism to be Christian. When asked what word best described Mormonism, the most popular response from Evangelicals was “Cult.” Which is a bit rich given some of their own beliefs. The mistrust flows both ways. Only 18% of Mormons considered Evangelicals to be friendly towards them. (By comparison, only 22% said that atheists were NOT friendly towards them.)
So, imagine my surprise when I saw a dissenting view in The Atlantic on Thursday, featuring no less than Tony Blair. It is well known that Blair is a very religious man. Since leaving politics, he has set up his own foundation — The Tony Blair Faith Foundation — and given a decent account of himself when debating Christopher Hitchens in 2010. During the ten years he was Prime Minister, the often touted party line was “We don’t do God.” Yair Rosenberg, writing for The Atlantic, thinks Romney should follow Blair’s lead and leave his religious convictions to one side and focus on the issues.
I think this is a mistake. It just pushes the problem deeper away from public view — out of sight and out of mind.
While I will admit it was (on the whole) a nice ten years of religion-free politics, it only hides the problem from public scrutiny. If Romney really believes what he says he does, it will inform his entire decision-making process on the campaign trail and in the White House if he wins. Just because he refuses to talk about it publically doesn’t mean he won’t act on it privately.
In his autobiography, Blair’s press secretary, Alastair Campbell, revealed that Blair would often consult the Bible when making political decisions — including the decision to take Britain to war with Iraq. When seeking to persuade Bill Clinton to join the NATO intervention in Kosovo, he framed it as a battle between good and evil. It is possible Romney will face similar moments if he becomes President, and I’m not sure I’d want to have someone with such levels of cognitive dissonance, thumbing through the book of Mormon, with missile launch codes in his possession.
Ultimately, the fact that Evangelicals consider Mormonism a cult will not matter to the religious right because most of them are so anti-Obama that the GOP could put up the reincarnation of L. Ron Hubbard as the Republican nominee and they’d vote for him.
How to frame the Mormon question will be a problem for Democrats. It’s a question that needs to be asked, but in the right way. Too aggressive and it will only add to the victim-complex of Republicans who feel religion is under attack.
Does Romney’s Mormon faith bother you more or less than it would if he were Catholic or Evangelical? Do you think keeping religious convictions private is a price worth paying to reduce the role of religion in public politics?