It seems that Boston Globe thinks it has a major story about the activities of a reported nationwide Mormon network supporting Romney. Whether or not this really is important remains to be seen, but the story is bound to get links from all over the blogosphere and to be used for various purposes by Romney's foes as well as those who are simply uncomfortable with his religion.
Here's the attention-grabbing lede:
Governor Mitt Romney's political team has quietly consulted with leaders of the Mormon Church to map out plans for a nationwide network of Mormon supporters to help Romney capture the presidency in 2008, according to interviews and written materials reflecting plans for the initiative.
"A nationwide network of Mormon supporters to help Romney capture the presidency." In the current climate, it doesn't get much more sensational than that.
What follows here is my effort to review this story as dispassionately as I can. Bear in mind, I'm a Mormon who supports Romney but am also the Mormon half of this blog, which is dedicated to exploring the intersection between religious faith and presidential politics in the 2008 elections. That's my "angle" on this story; this is not a pro-Romney piece. John, who is the Evangelical half of this blogging team, contributes his own ideas below.
To me, the Globe story, by Scott Helman and Michael Levenson, combines several elements:
- The Globe's apparent desire to find an alarming story where there really isn't one.
- Dumb but harmless mistakes by Romney supporters at BYU (now corrected).
- Something that looks an awful lot like prejudice-baiting by the Globe, whether that was intended or not.
1. Looking for A Story Where There Isn't One
Read the story and see if you agree with me. Here are some telling excerpts:
The president and prophet of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Gordon B. Hinckley, has been made aware of the effort and expressed no opposition, the documents show, and at least one other top church official has played a more active role.
Reading that paragraph critically, I think Helman and Levenson want to find an implied endorsement of the effort by President Hinckley. Is that a fair conclusion? I don't think so. Don't we need to know what President Hinckley was told, in order to determine whether the absence of a comment from him constitutes support for what happened subsequently? Read on.
Documents indicate that Jeffrey R. Holland, one of 12 apostles who help lead the church worldwide, has handled the initiative for the Mormons and that he hosted a Sept. 19 meeting about it in his church office in Salt Lake City . . . . (Emphasis added.)
Elder Holland "handled the initiative for the Mormons." A remarkable choice of words, pregnant with meaning. If that sentence is true, it would be a real story, because the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has said this for years:
In this election year, we reaffirm the Church's long-standing policy of political neutrality. The Church does not endorse any political party, political platform, or candidate. Church facilities, directories, and mailing lists are not to be used for political purposes.
Candidates for public office should not imply that their candidacy is endorsed by the Church or its leaders, and Church leaders and members should avoid statements or conduct that may be interpreted as Church endorsement of any political party or candidate. In addition, members who hold public office should not give the impression they represent the Church as they work for solutions to social problems. . . .
So what do we know happened, assuming the Globe has the facts right? Here's a summary of the Globe's timeline from the story:
Sometime before Sept. 19: A wealthy Mormon businessman, Kem Gardner, who knows Mitt Romney from Romney's time with the 2002 Olympics, meets with Elder Holland (the apostle) to solicit ideas about an outreach effort to Mormons. Elder Holland suggests a BYU alumni group as a place to start.
Sept. 19: There's a meeting, described above, in Elder Holland's office "to discuss the outreach program." Those in attendance are
Josh Romney, one of the governor's sons; Don Stirling, a paid consultant for the Commonwealth PAC, Romney's political action committee; and Kem Gardner, a prominent Salt Lake City developer who is one of Romney's biggest donors. Globe reporters observed Romney's representatives enter and leave chuch headquarters for the meeting.
The Globe apparently thought the story was big enough to send reporters to Salt Lake City to stake out the general administration building and observe the comings and goings of the story's subjects.
Sept. 27: "The circle broadens," the Globe reports, in a dinner including other supporters. Do you see any connection at all between the Sept. 19 meeting with Elder Holland and the Sept. 27 dinner that he did not attend? I do not, and the Globe story does not give any reason to think there is one. That a connection exists seems merely to be the writers' assumption. Does it sound to you like Elder Holland "handled the initiative for the Mormons?" It doesn't sound like that to me.
The official LDS Church response, the Globe reports, is that "the Sept. 19 meeting that Holland hosted for Gardner, Stirling, and Josh Romney was merely 'a handshake and a chat, literally a courtesy call.' The meeting with Elder Holland was requested by Gardner, "an acquaintance of Holland's," and "was simply a response to an appointment requested by an old friend."
[LDS spokesman Michael] Otterson said Holland held the meeting to "make sure that they were doing this properly and to inform them of the church's political neutrality." Holland expressed the view at the meeting, Otterson said, that the BYU Management Society would be a "perfectly reasonable" vehicle to help Romney.
2. The Dumb Mistake
Oct. 9: According to the Globe, Ned Hill, Dean of BYU's Marriott School of Management, and Steve Albrecht, the Associate Dean,
sent an e-mail to 50 Management Society members and 100 members of the school's National Advisory Council asking them to join them in supporting Romney's potential bid for the presidency. Hill and Albrecht signed the message with their official BYU titles, sent the e-mail from a BYU e-mail address, and began the message "Dear Marriott School Friend."
Okay, now we have hit the dumb (and seemingly harmless) mistake. The BYU offiicials should never have done that. In fact, Albrecht and BYU freely admit the error:
Albrecht, in an interview this week, said he and Hill sent the e-mail after Gardner asked him to reach out to friends on Romney's behalf. Albrecht said that he should not have sent it in his capacity as a BYU dean.
"It wasn't something BYU did, it wasn't something I probably should have done, and it was bad judgment," Albrecht said.
Carri Jenkins, a spokeswoman for BYU, said Albrecht and Hill's e-mail "did not have the university approval." She said BYU's general counsel told Albrecht to halt his activities last week after learning about the e-mail from a recipient.
As a result, Albrecht said none of the responses he and Hill have received back has been forwarded to Romney's political team. "Any response I get I am just printing them out and putting them in a pile," he said.
I am still not sensing any nefarious intent here. (I am not a BYU graduate, by the way, and have no connection to the school.) According to legend, when asked why he robbed banks, Willie Sutton said, "Because that's where the money is." Why would Romney supporters visit with a leading authority of Romney's Mormon church and then try to tap into Mormon networks– BYU graduates and the like? Because that's where the Mormons are! It seems reasonable to me to conclude that here, all we have is a candidate looking to develop a base of natural supporters.
I think that's also what we have here, but I also think I understand it. Consider the rather unique position of Romney's Mormonism in the current environment.
For the sake of comparison, imagine a meeting involving backers of a Catholic candidate and a member of the College of Cardinals, in which the backers seek advice about generating Catholic support for their man. Now, can you imagine a news story like the Globe's arising from that encounter? I cannot.
But here's the point: If John Kennedy's supporters had met with a Cardinal in 1959, some members of the press surely would have paid lots of attention.
To make the point a little more broadly, try to imagine a meeting between supporters of a Jewish candidate and an official from the Central Conference of American Rabbis to discuss developing a network; or a meeting between an Evangelical candidate's supporters and a leader in the Southern Baptist Convention. Those meetings would not produce a story like this one either.
Romney and his faith are in a similar position to that of Kennedy in 1960. Mormonism is still unfamiliar and unknown to many Americans, and there are many myths about the church. People don't know about the Church's long-standing political neutrality, and don't understand the church's organization, or the totally benign nature of the constant encounters between the church's leaders and literally thousands of people each month. Add to that the Globe's seeming long-standing hostility to Mitt Romney, and you have a recipe for Helman and Levenson's story.
Does the Globe's story raise any concerns about the LDS Church improperly mixing religion and politics? I don't think so; but it does raise a serious concern about religious prejudice. The Globe story offers no evidence that anything was wrong with any of the reported meetings between Romney supporters and a Mormon leader and potential Mormon supporters. The BYU people did make a mistake, and they admit it. But again, the Globe article is devoid of evidence that Dean Albrecht's activities were directed by anyone in the LDS Church heirarchy. The writers simply leave it to the reader to infer that connection.
It's easy to see how all this can be very interesting to reporters who are eager to exploit the questions some have raised about Romney's religion. In their telling final paragraphs, Helman and Levenson state why they think their story is news:
The discussions among Romney's nascent presidential campaign and Mormon leaders also come at a delicate time for the governor politically. By most accounts, Romney has catapulted himself into the top tier of GOP hopefuls, in part by appealing to conservatives on immigration, national security, and other leading issues.
But many conservative Christian voters view Mormonism as non-Christian, and the more Romney gains in prominence, the more he confronts questions about his relationship with the church. (Emphasis added.)
Hence the relevance of the story to this blog. What is the source of "questions about Romney's relationship with the Church?" Are Helman and Levenson simply reporting on those "questions," or creating them? Is there any evidence from a credible source that the LDS Church is officially organizing a nationwide network to support Romney? It seems to me that the two reporters are actually injecting that explosive idea — and the subject of Romney's religion– into the public's consciousness.
Is this an effort to highlight religious concerns about Romney's Mormonism? In other words, whether they intend to or not, aren't Helman and Levenson pressing religious "hot buttons" and thereby stoking the fires of religious prejudice, or at least those of religious misunderstanding and discord?
The story's innuendo is that the Mormon Church is quietly organizing to promote Romney's candidacy– a violation of the Church's obligations as a tax-exempt organization. Before suggesting that such unlawful behavior took place, shouldn't the Globe have been much more careful about suggesting connections between apparently unrelated events, and then suggesting dark conclusions based on those speculative connections?
Back in 1960 the whispered fear was, "Kennedy will take orders from the Pope." Now it seems to be, "Romney will take orders from the Mormon Church." I thought we were past that. What makes the story all the worse is that its foundation is so weak– all assumption, innuendo, and inference. I think it is borderline irresponsible. It will be interesting to see if we keep seeing this sort of thing, and if the story gains any traction. I have a hunch it will not, because in the end, as Gertrude Stein famously said, "There's no there there." But as always, time will tell.
Update: Here's a Salt Lake City television station's "Questions and Answers" with an LDS Church spokesman, and a related story. If the church's answers given pan out, then the Globe story is embarrassingly thin.
Update 2: E-mailer Ryan asks a good question: Where are the documents on which the Globe story relies? "What are these 'documents?' Throughout the article "documents" are cited numerous times with no reference to their title or origin." And K-Lo at NRO dismisses the Globe piece pretty summarily.
John adds: We have gotten email asking for my Evangelical voice on this one – I apologize to readers for its late arrival, I am on the road. I think Lowell has done a pretty good analysis here and I agree with it.
I am reminded of W's visit to Bob Jones University during the 2000 campaign and efforts by the press to paint that into the great white, racist, religious conspiracy to take over the country. Consider this as an example. Here is a moderate take on the issue. Heck, here I've googled it, dig in.
In The Way To Win Halperin and Harris offer a number of "trade secrets" for winning the presidency. They have a whole chapter out of Karl Rove's playbook called "Relationships, Not Transactions." Getting elected is all about building a network of relationships. It is only natural that a candidate will network beginning with those he/her knows best. The fact that Romney would attempt to build a network of Mormons is entirely unremarkable.
The Mormon nature of the network is emphasized by the Globe purely as a means of creating a prejudice against the campaign. What's interesting is that from a purely political standpoint, this is a double whammy as the conspiratorial fashion in which the story is presented will strike fear into the heart of both the ardent secularist on the left and the deeply committed, but not too deeply intellectual, committed creedal Christian on the right.
Which leads me to two more brief points. One, does anyone, I mean anyone, think Romney stands an iceberg's chance if he were to run a "Mormon" campaign? Sorry folks the numbers just are not there. There are only roughly 2 million Mormons in a nation of 300 million, figure 150 million Republicans. To stand a chance Romney will have to have a very broad base of appeal and breadth of team. [Lowell: It's actually about 6 million, but the point remains– that's not very many.]
Secondly, another of Halperin and Harris' "Trade Secrets:" Negative stories of this sort are usually fed to the press by the opposition. Where did the Globe get the idea to look into this in this fashion? My guess, McCain's camp. We have seen them sawing on that string once before.
Having said all of that, it does appear to me that there has been some technical misconduct on the part of certain people at BYU, but in the McCain – Feingold age, such technical violations are commonplace and on the increase; they are unavoidable in a heavily regulated environment. In such an environment you have to operate under the "no-harm, no-foul" approach to life. Chastisement, which this press furor more than accomplishes, strikes me as sufficient "punishment" for the violation.
One final comment, this blog has been cited by LDS officials as properly analyzing the situation – well, Lowell's part has. I am both complimented and a bit frightened. From a purely news/politics standpoint, the analysis is right on. But with the conspiratorial tones established in the original piece, we are likeley to be written off as part of the conspiracy. Leave us remember, I am not a Mormon. With the exception of Lowell and some of the people I work with at one (out of 25 or so at any given time) of my clients on entirely business related matters, I have little regular discourse with Mormons. I am completely unsympathetic to Mormons from a religous standpoint – I think they are wrong religiously. But politics and religion are not the same thing.
Which is why I participate in this blog and why I am in agreement with Lowell on this issue. This is not a religious attack. This is a political attack under the guise of religion and it cheapens religion to have it used in this fashion. Take note my Evangelical brethren: If this indeed turns out to be an attack from Romney's competition (quite likely), it will also be an effort by that same opposition to paint you as bigoted and small-minded, which is the same narrative the Bush-Bob Jones attacks attempted to establish. We are better than that.
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[tags] Mormon, Mormon problem, Boston Globe, Scott Helman, Michael Levenson, Mitt Romney, Jeffrey Holland, Don Stirling, Kem Gardner, Ned Hill, Steve Albrecht, Marriott School of Management, BYU, evangelicals, religious prejudice [/tags]