Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Don't Ask About That

John Dickerson of Slate notes

Mitt Romney is coy about his running mate. He’ll only speak about the topic in the broadest terms. His staff won’t talk about it at all. To be fair, they don’t know much about the subject. It’s something very personal to Romney.

I am talking about his religion.

In a speech at the Bush Presidential Library in December, 2007 to address concerns among GOP voters about his religion, presidential candidate Romney remarked

There are some who would have a presidential candidate describe and explain his church's distinctive doctrines. To do so would enable the very religious test the founders prohibited in the Constitution. No candidate should become the spokesman for his faith. For if he becomes President he will need the prayers of the people of all faiths. 

Similarly, when asked last year by CNN's Piers Morgan about homosexuality, Romney remarked "I'm not a spokesman for my church. And one thing I'm not going to do in running for president is become a spokesman for my church or apply a religious test that is simply forbidden by the constitution, I'm not going there. If you want to learn about my church, talk to my church."

When John F. Kennedy appeared before the Greater Houston Ministerial Association in October, 1960, he asserted "Whatever issue may come before me as president — on birth control, divorce, censorship, gambling or any other subject," he would base his views solely on what he believed to be in the best interests of the nation.

Romney sees things differently.   After he delivered a commencement address in May at Liberty University, the college founded by the late Reverend Jerry Falwell, the New York Times reported he "made the case that he is bound theologically and politically to the same belief and value system as Christian conservatives, though he never explicitly mentioned his Mormon faith."     As can be seen in the transcript, Romney hit all the Christian sweet spots with references to:  the "purpose driven life," popularized by right-wing minister Rick Warren; "to God, who is the same yesterday, today, and forever," drawing on Hebrews 13:8; "the grace of God,"; the modern Christian figures C.S. Lewis and Chuck Colson; and "heroic souls like (John Wesley), (William) Wilberforce, (Dietrich) Bonhoeffer, John Paul the Second, and Billy Graham" (what, no Presbyterians?).

While the candidate does not address his religion or even his spiritual faith when he's questioned by a member of the media, he's not above sending a dog whistle to partisans, whether at a famous evangelical educational institution or telling supporters in Ohio “As I’m sure you do, I happen to believe that the Constitution was not just brilliant, but probably inspired. I believe the same thing about the Declaration of Independence.”  

Barack Obama never has made the extraordinary suggestion that the United States Constitution and the Declaration of Independence are divinely inspired, which puts those two doctrines peculiar to one nation on a par with the Bible.    Yet, his faith was addressed by the Gas and Oil Party and the mainstream media in the context of his pastor, a scary figure to many Americans.

But there are additional reasons journalists should not be so intimidated as to sidestep the religious belief of a presumptive presidential nominee, particularly one who suggests to supporters that it plays a role in approach to secular matters.    As Taylor Marsh observes

It would be great if no politician had to do the faith walk, but since no atheist is allowed near a national ticket it’s pretty clear that there is a litmus test for candidates, so knowing something about what informs them matters.

Dickerson summarizes

But there’s more to Romney’s religion than the theological side. As Joanna Brooks, who writes frequently on Mormonism, argues so persuasively, “It is important for readers to know that Romney developed his leadership style in a non-democratic, patriarchal, hierarchical church culture where he rarely encountered open challenge.” Romney has been a leader in several different arenas: in government, in business, in helping organize the Olympic Games, and in his church. The campaign asks us to examine and approve of three of those four areas—and then walls off discussion of Romney’s religious leadership.

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