Article VI Blog

"Religion, Politics, the Presidency: Commentary by a Mormon, an Evangelical, and an Orthodox Christian"

United States Constitution — Article VI:

"No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States."

Telling The Story – Part III – ‘Clowns To The Left Of Me’

Posted by: John Schroeder at 05:36 am, September 29th 2009     —    18 Comments »

In our last post in the series “Telling the Story” we looked at the chronology of events in the primaries that lead to Mitt Romney’s withdrawal as a candidate for the Republican nomination for POTUS.  In reviewing those events we determined that Mike Huckabee played the role of “spoiler.”  Huckabee employed a strategy that was at best self-serving, and possibly designed specifically to prevent Mitt Romney from winning the nomination.  Unless he becomes far more forthcoming than he has been to date, Mike Huckabee’s reasons for utilizing that strategy will never be wholly apparent.  Nonetheless, we can conclude that religion was an important part of the mix.

But for Huckabee, or his advisers, to devise and execute that strategy the playing field had to be in a certain condition.  A general might call it “shaping the battlefield.”  Of course, in this case, Huckabee did not shape the battlefield so much as devise a strategy that most effectively responded to the existing conditions.   Even so, those conditions played perfectly into using religion as a weapon and nobody was better suited to wield that weapon that Mike Huckabee.

In point of fact, Mitt Romney’s Mormon faith became, as a result of relentless press coverage, the defining characteristic of his effort.  It was discussed and written about in enormous volume, and with incredible repetitiveness, in virtually every news publication in the country.  How it was written about varied significantly based on the viewpoint of the publication in question, but all of them felt compelled to write about it – and then write about it some more.

For the left, in which we will here include the MSM, discussing Romney’s faith was a win-win.  With persons self-identifying as traditional Christians making up a huge segment of the Republican primary vote, discussing Romney’s faith served to: 1) emphasize that Romney was not the same as most Republicans, and 2) paint the picture of most Republicans as close-minded religious non-thinkers.  Romney, because of his extraordinary organizational skills, was widely viewed as the front runner.  The Democrats viewed him as the most formidable candidate they could face in the general election.  It was in their best interest to have anyone other than Romney as the Republican candidate.  By dividing him out, using religion as the wedge, from the “average” Republican they could not help but lessen his chances in an age when identity politics are on the rise.  By painting the average Christian, especially Evangelical Republicans as close-minded and discriminatory, they also lessened the chances of the Republicans generally in the general election.

It should also be remembered that one of the primary tenets of left-leaning thinking is that religion is purely a divisive force in the political arena, and hence should be excluded from any voice in the public square.  If they could create a religious rift inside the conservative movement, it would be evidence greatly strengthening their case that there is no room for the religious in the public square.

In this post, and the one following, we examine the battleground-shaping attacks on Romney as related to his faith.  In this post we examine those attacks as they came from the left.  Our discussion breaks down into two essential threads.  In the first we discuss the “MSM Memes” that took hold and seemed to shape virtually every story written about the matter.  In the second, we examine the most egregious of the hit pieces and commentary that came from the left – naming names and revisiting our debates with the protagonists in the drama as their pieces were published.

The MSM Memes

“Mitt Romney, a Mormon . . . .” Events have clearly demonstrated that the left was right – that at least among some Republicans, Mitt Romney’s religion was divisive.   In our next post, where we discuss the “battleground shaping” attacks that came from the right, we will see that much of the divisiveness did not come from Mormonism, but from traditional (or “creedal” as the Mormons like to say) Christians who felt it important to make sure everyone knew Mormons were not like them.   This meant that the simple mention of Romney’s faith could produce the desired effect.

In April of 2007, an e-mailer to this blog did a simple Google hit count survey and found that the vast majority of articles published on Mitt Romney mentioned his religion.  This compared  to articles about other Republican candidates where their religion was barely mentioned – in the case of McCain only a fraction of a percentage.  The work was done long before anyone took Huckabee seriously so data on him do not exist, but I certainly do not recall anything like the volume of mention Romney “enjoyed,” and Huckabee, after all, is Baptist clergy!

Most pieces did not discuss Romney’s faith directly; rather, they referred to it in passing.  “Mitt Romney, a Mormon . . .” was certainly the most direct and likely frequent formulation.  However, also common were throw away sentences like, “Some doubt Romney can win over the critical Evangelical vote because of his Mormon faith,” or “Romney’s Mormon faith makes his climb extra steep.”  Articles simply discussing poll results or campaign appearances felt it necessary to mention Romney’s faith.   Such was not the case when discussing other candidates, but with Romney it seemed that the word “Mormon” had to appear within a paragraph or two of the first mention of his name.

newsweekMost notable of these efforts would be the Newsweek cover story of October 1, 2007.  The cover featured a picture of Romney and over-titled the piece and the magazine, “A Mormon’s Journey.”  The piece itself appeared in the magazine under the far less religiously-identifying title of “Campaign ’08: The Making of Mitt Romney.”  But of course, it was that cover, which did little but associate Romney and his faith, that appeared on newsstands and in grocery checkouts throughout the nation.

For the millions of Americans who saw it – the vast majority of Americans that do not eat sleep and breathe political writing – this would define what they knew of Mitt Romney – that he was a Mormon.  (As a side commentary, the news weekly is leading the decline of dead tree media and episodes like this make me ever more grateful for that fact.)

“What Mormons Believe . . . .” We were also treated to countless articles attempting to summarize Mormon belief.  And when I say “countless,” I mean I lost count somewhere late in 2006 – my calculator ran out of digits.  I beg your indulgence regarding the lack of linking to exemplary pieces in this section.  There was just too much material to get through to find suitable examples.  There were three characteristics that seemed to mark these pieces.

The first characteristic was that few of them quoted either LDS officialdom or LDS material, and those that did seemed to always make sure and “fact check” those representations against some traditional Christian source.   Let’s set aside for a moment the question of whether one actually believes all that Mormons do or not, it should be remembered that I do not.  Such an approach presumes that Mormons would misrepresent their own beliefs.  Does one “fact check” a Papal encyclical against the president of a Baptist seminary?  When Osama Bin Laden tells us what he believes of Allah, do we run off to the comparative religions department of some university to see if he got it “right?”  When it comes to matters of faith, how can anyone other than the holder of the faith be “the expert?”

The CJCLDS is nothing if not prolific in publishing what it believes.  Just check the references section of this blog.  It is an interesting characteristic of “journalism” that it requires the interview.  Reporters have to talk to somebody.  Book research never seems to be enough to write a journalistic article.  Well, most of the LDS I know tend, when asked what they believe, to point to the various LDS resources.  Those that do talk about it, always preface it with, “What I believe does not necessarily represent the official teaching or belief of the church.”  But traditionally Christian experts in “cults” always seemed just a little too willing to tell the average Mormon what they really do believe.

The second characteristic that marked these pieces was that they tended to emphasize the peripherals of Mormon belief, not its center.  Most religions have a core set of important beliefs and then a large peripheral body of literature that the average believers rarely concerns themselves with, if they are even aware of them.  For Protestants there is glossolalia.  For Roman Catholics there is an enormous body of near ‘mythos’ regarding angels and demonology.  For Jews there is numerology.  For Mormons there are the statements of some early Mormon leaders and the long-abandoned practice of polygamy.  This is not to say that each of these things are not seen as sacred by some adherents of those religions, but it is to say they are not things that enter into the daily lives or even daily practice of those adherents – or at least most of them.  It is also to say that to outsiders these things appear a bit strange.

Yet, when we read stories about Roman Catholics we hear not of angels and demons, unless we are reading a Dan Brown book.  These things do not define the average Roman Catholic.  Nor do beliefs about how the Book of Mormon came to be, or where Jesus appeared define  the average Mormon.  The heart of Mormon belief is a story of sin and redemption, different in detail but not generality, from any of the other western monotheistic religions.  Yet the press, in discussing Mormon belief focus’ not on that primary core, but on the peripheral “oddities.”

The third characteristic of these pieces is that they were often sidebars, or side boxes, to articles that were discussing Romney or some other aspect of the presidential campaign.  Rarely, at least in major outlets, is Mormon belief written about on its own terms.  Rather, it appears in some sort of context, as if they need an “excuse” to discuss it.  This has three effects.  One, given the second characteristic we just discussed, it serves to link those oddities with the primary discussion at hand, so in the case of the ’08 primaries, it linked Mitt Romney and Mormon “oddities.”  The second thing it does is sort of erase the piece from the record.  Articles are often carefully archived.  Sidebars and snippets are a different thing altogether.  Finally, such short bits can never do justice to the totality of belief for any religion.  It’s a pot shot, not an examination.

There was a classic example of a piece that combined all three of these characteristics.  It was a Newsweek side box from August of 2007 on celestial marriage.  When I went looking for it, I found where this blog linked to it, but when I followed the link it was “dead,” it was in fact a side box, and not an article, and therefore not subject to archiving.  I could not even find it as a cache somewhere.  Thus this piece meets our third criteria.   I frankly cannot recall whether the piece cited official Mormon sources or not, but I do recall it cited traditional Christian experts “interpreting” the ramifications of the doctrine and being quick to point out that Mormons therefore still believe in polygamy.  Thus we meet our first criteria.  And of course, almost by definition, after-life marriage issues are peripheral to he core of a religions doctrine.  There was no examination of anything to do with sin, atonement, behavior in this life – things that affect how a religion functions in the here and now.

The net effect of all these pieces carrying these two memes was to set Mitt Romney apart as some sort of “freak,” or at least a little “weird.”  There is an old joke about women in the south – they use the phrase “bless their heart” as cover for just about any insult imaginable.  “My that’s an ugly baby – bless his heart.”  That seemed to be what the press was trying to do with Romney – act the carnival barker (“Come see the amazing two-headed baby”) but do it in a fashion that at least lacked the appearance of being discriminatory.  And yet, like the blessed ugly baby, that word “ugly” just hangs there.  Of course, they would argue that it was news because most Americans know about Episcopalians and Baptists, but most do not know about Mormons, and it is the press’ job to inform.  If that information had a negative effect, the problem is with the average Christian, not them.  There’s that win-win we talked about early in this post.

In point of fact, Mitt Romney’s faith was hardly news.  Mormons dating all the way back to Joseph Smith have run for president.  If Americans don’t know about Mormons, it is not for lack of information – that is plentiful.  For most of us it is as available as answering a knock at our door politely.  Certainly by the time Iowa got serious the word on Romney’s faith was out there – but then the continuing coverage at that point may be more Huckabee’s fault than the press’ fault.

Hit Pieces and Comments

While the press coverage of Romney’s religion was relentless, the left-leaning punditry was downright mean – in some cases the fact that they are still allowed their positions of influence is a stunning condemnation of the left.  In this section we are going to look at the worst of them.  In most cases there is specific article or piece they wrote that we link to in the boldfaced opening to the paragraphs dedicated to the discussion; in one case, however, it is a body of work.

Amy Sullivan – We are fond of saying that Robert Novak, as presented by Hugh Hewitt, gave us the idea for this blog.  But Novak was not the very first to write on the issue of Romney’s faith.  He certainly was the one who wrote about it the most, and he certainly was the one that wrote about it from “inside sources,” but the honor for the very first piece on the subject belongs to Terry Eastland at the Weekly Standard in June of ’05.   Eastland’s piece was straightforward political reporting, examining a real issue of consequence to a potential run.  It did not try to fan the flames, just point out that there was an issue.

But the next piece that appeared was Amy Sullivan in Washington Monthly in September of ’05.  By the time this blog came into being, this piece was water under the bridge so we never examined it in close detail, but Sullivan, a self-described Evangelical liberal, clearly set the mold for the “win-win” left-leaning treatment of the subject that was to come.  Sullivan had an axe to grind with her conservative Christian siblings and was more than wiling to use Romney as the whetting stone.

In point of fact, her treatment of the subject in the piece, and in her subsequent several years of TV panel appearances, belie one of the more important political sub-texts of the campaign.  Mike Huckabee’s populist stance represents the middle ground in the current Evangelical political spectrum – socially conservative, fiscally liberal, and confused on national defense.  There have always been left-leaning Evangelicals, but they have always been relatively quiet.  As press coverage of conservative Evangelicals has risen to the point that the words “conservative” and “evangelical” seemed synonymous, they have grown less and less quiet.  Some say they are responsible for the election of Obama – he does have the numbers in that regard.

Nonetheless, Romney presented these left-leaning Evangelicals with a golden opportunity to paint the right-wing Evangelical siblings in the public eye as  country redneck bumpkins they have always thought them to be.   Rereading Sullivan’s piece, that is the real subtext.  Romney found himself caught in a serious case of Evangelical infighting.

This piece by Sullivan set the mold for much of the reporting that was to come, the “win-win” for lefties.  As such it is worthy of mention here.

Andrew Sullivan – It is virtually impossible to put your finger on a single piece by Andrew Sullivan that is the piece.  Apparently shaping his entire life around that fact that he is gay, Sullivan simply despises religious people in general (unless they unquestioningly accept homosexual practices), but saves a special animus, even before Prop 8, for Mormons, and for Mitt Romney in particular.  And yet he has not strayed from the now tried and true win-win formulation for the left writing about Romney.

It continues even to this day.  Consider this post he wrote in the wake of the recent Values Voters summit:

Alas, the only thing less credible than Mitt Romney as a Christianist is Mitt Romney as a populist.

Note how in that single sentence he manages to slam conservative Christians with the use of his by now patented “Christianist” term, separate Mitt Romney from the general herd of conservative religious folk, and go on to describe Romney as not credible.  The “not credible” charge even resonates with the “Mormons lie” meme that we alluded to in the last post in this series and that we will examine in detail in the next.

Although witty, there is a bile that drips from virtually every word Sullivan writes on the subject that is extremely effective in shaping public opinion, even if it says nothing of substance.  Sullivan’s distaste for conservatives Christians, inclusive of Mormons and Romney, is apparent – but there is no actual engagement in the realm of ideas.   That is sad because Sullivan first rose to wide public notice as a leftie who supported the anti-terrorism actions by the Bush 43 administration.  Sullivan is clearly a very smart man, but when people differ with him on matters concerning his sexual orientation and practice – especially gay marriage– his reason seems simply to leave the building.  Utter contempt takes its place.

If he stopped there, Sullivan’s rhetoric would be understandable, even personally sympathetic – albeit still wrong – but he doesn’t.  By insisting on singling out Mormons and Romney in the fashion he does – not to mention that incredibly ugly term “Christianist” – he descends into the very bigotry he postures so to  oppose.  This clear bigotry, as it became more and more shrill during campaign ’08, has reduced Sullivan’s importance as a commentator.  But he remains a significant and widely read blogger, although increasingly to a niche market.

Jacob Weisberg – Far and away the most bigoted, nastiest religious attack to come from the left side of the aisle was Jacob Weisberg’s December 2006 Slate piece.  This was the piece that included the now infamous phrase, “the founding whoppers of Mormonism.”  This piece went on to become one we cited again and again and again on the blog as pure, unthinking, left-leaning bigotry, but as I reviewed our comments at the time, we went awfully easy on it.  But then there was not much meat there to argue with.

Weisberg’s “reasoning” was: 1) It’s acceptable to discriminate based on religion because religion is irrational; and 2) Mormonism is especially irrational because it is so young; therefore, 3) discriminating against Romney based on his faith is not only acceptable, but necessary.

Once again, we see the “win-win” strategy that went on to define so many of these attacks from the left.  Pit the religious conservatives against each other (Mormonism is especially irrational) and at the same time show that religious people in general should not really be seriously considered (all religion is irrational).

This piece was so blatant in its anti-religious fervor and so up-front in its anti-Mormon bigotry that it is amazing that Jacob Weisberg still works for Slate.   Imagine in this racially charged electoral period if he had written, “Well, some discrimination on race is acceptable, there are real genetic differences in the races, and discrimination towards blacks is particularly reasonable because we all know they have extra muscles.”  How long would he keep his job after something like that? Less than a minute would be my bet.

Some day this piece will be preserved in a museum, like some of the op-eds in southern newspapers that appeared during the Civil Rights movement.  People will read it and shake their heads in amazement that anyone actually thought that way, let alone said it out loud.

Ken Woodward – There is not much to say about Woodward’s April 2007 New York Times piece “The Presidency’s Mormon Moment,” that we have not already said.    In the piece Woodward attempted to describe why Americans might be uncomfortable with a Mormon president.  All he really succeeded in doing was angering a bunch of Mormons and other Christians that like them, spreading ignorance rather than helping to end it, and proving beyond a shadow of a doubt that he was lazy.  (Lowell called him “clueless.”)

Few of the pieces we will examine here got a more thorough examination at the time of publication than this one, primarily because Woodward consented to a near hour long interview on The Hugh Hewitt Show the next day.  (Sadly, the transcript is no longer available for linking – but it is quoted extensively in our post.)  Essentially he did two things.  One, he addressed what he referred to as “common perceptions” about Mormons.  Not facts – he took people’s prejudices and misconceptions at face value and then proceeded to try to justify them.  The other thing he did was not bother to do any actual journalism.  Woodward more or less came out of retirement on the religion beat for the NYTimes to write the piece.  It was clear he did not a bit of original or new research for it.  He just sat down and started typing one day until he could hand in some copy and get paid.

While certainly not the most prejudiced piece written in the course of events (see Jacob Weisberg on the left or Joel Belz on the right for that honor), this piece was by far the least journalistic, even as an op-ed.  The saddest thing about this particular piece was that it appeared in the New York Times, the nation’s purported “paper of record.”  That Woodward attempted to cash in an easy buck in retirement is understandable, that the editorial board of this once great newspaper let it out is unconscionable.  Given the ever-dwindling importance of the daily metropolitan newspaper, it is difficult to say if this piece had much impact or not.  It certainly had the widest circulation of any of the pieces we discuss in this post, which in some ways makes it the most offensive.

We could go on about this piece for hours, but why?  Just follow the links.  It was like shooting fish in a barrel then and still is.  Shame on Woodward and the NYTimes.

Damon Linker – In January of ’07, The New Republic published a piece by Damon Linker called “Taking Mormonism Seriously – The Big Test.“  The piece required a subscription to access initially and now the link appears to be dead altogether, so we have linked to our discussion of it.  The piece was huge news at the time it appeared – the guns had, by that time, been loaded and cocked to respond to something on precisely those lines – but as the campaign proceeded, this piece and argument appeared to fade into the woodwork.  In retrospect, it was a blunt instrument attempting to do surgery – a scalpel was needed.

In essence it examined Mormon belief and then attempted to say, “If you really believe this stuff, then . . . .”  The piece suffered from two enormous problems.  One was it ignored the political realities of the United States, and two it confused religious adherence with religious fanaticism.  The piece assumed that a president could somehow run roughshod over all action of the US government, as if we had no checks and balances.  The fact of the matter is, if the nation did mess up tremendously and elect a president with a nutcase agenda, there is Congress to balance the scales.  Further, while the president of the CJCLDS is considered a prophet, adherents to that faith are very different than fanatical Muslims following the edicts of a crazy Imam.  And even Imams generally only have a few fanatic followers.  There are fanatical Mormons, as there are fanatics of every faith, but then Romney had an established record as governor of Massachusetts.  I doubt we were in for any surprises.

Linker’s piece, in part, drew a great deal of reaction because it used an argument expected from the right.  We all, including people like me of the right, expected a theological attack to occur, but we expected more from the hinterlands of the far right of the Religious Right than we did from a source like this.  But we had the ammo and we were ready to use it.  But then it is also possible that by jumping on this piece so hard, those on the right became wise to the fact that such a blunt attack would not be helpful.

Despite a very different approach to the topic, this still fit the win-win mold of all the journalistic coverage from the left.  If these accusation could be made to successfully stick to Mormons, they could to anyone that claimed their religion really mattered to them.  Though more of a slippery slope approach to the win-win than the triangulation of other left side approaches, this piece stood to harm Evangelicals and the Religious Right in general just as much as any other piece from the left that attacked Romney on the basis of his religion.

Gary South -In April of ’07 the then-fledgling Politico published a piece by self-described “Democratic Strategist” Gary South.  He claims a fundamentalist Pentecostal background in the course of the piece.  He goes to great length to establish his Christian bona fides.

This piece got little attention from the wider community watching this issue because frankly, South brought a rock to a knife fight.  He was so blatant in his attempts to drive a wedge between Romney, Mormons and other Christians that it made even the fanatical Religious Right types nervous.

His argument was essentially that because the CJCLDS believes themselves to be be the church restored, and therefore find all the rest of Christianity inferior, that Romney would be view all other faiths as illegitimate for participation in the public square.

Frankly, the argument itself made me buy into South’s claims of being a fundamentalist Pentecostal because I have had way too many fundamentalist Pentecostals tell me that I was going to hell as an Evangelical Presbyterian.  There is a great deal of the pot calling the kettle black in this one.  Perhaps that is why it got very little attention, it was an attempt at murder-suicide.  Regardless, it stands out as one of the uglier pieces written through the entire course of the discussion and campaign and is therefore worthy of note here.

Al Sharpton – The final entry in our list of left-leaning attack dogs is a man who makes a living by crying “VICTIM!”  In May of 2007, the Rev. Al Sharpton was debating Christopher Hitchens on the validity of faith when, as reported in the New York Times, and recorded on YouTube, he said:

“As for the one Mormon running for office, those who really believe in God will defeat him anyway, so don’t worry, that’s a temporary situation.”

Lovely, just lovely.  Said Hugh Hewitt at the time, “If Al had declared that a Buddhist, Hindu or Muslim candidate would be defeated by those ‘who really believe in God,’ how great would the outcry be?”  We pointed out that there was a clear case of double standard in the press coverage because Sharpton largely got a pass.

This incident also proved to be a win-win for the liberals – the attack on Mormons obvious and the attack on orthodox Christians evident in how utterly bigoted Sharpton looks.  Which also points out another important lesson.  He who spends his life guarding against bigotry can become the most bigoted.

As Christians of all stripes grow increasingly worried about the voice of religion in the public square, this last important lesson may be the one to hold onto tightest.  As we fight for our voice, we cannot do so at the exclusion of others that should share in the freedom we demand, or else we come off exactly like Sharpton.  But that is the subject for another post in this series – in fact the very next one.


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