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"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 IV – ‘Jokers To The Right’

Posted by: John Schroeder at 06:32 am, November 2nd 2009     —    20 Comments »

As we continue Telling The Story of Romney, religion and Campaign ’08, we turn our attention from the battleground shaping attacks that emanated from the left to those that came from the right.  You will recall that in the narrative of how the primaries went down, Huckabee played the role of spoiler, but he could do so only because the ground work had been laid by pundits, commentators and operatives on both sides of the aisle.

The attacks from the left were awful, bigoted things.  By analogy, they were sledge hammers.  They lacked any subtlety.  But then they did not need to – the issue was a win-win for the left.  Divide out the most formidable opponent (Romney), therefore weakening him significantly, while painting the rest of the opposition as closed minded and bigoted.

The story from the right is a very different one.  It is a story of deft strategy, surgical skill, memes that overlapped to become codes, and simple misguided attempts to differentiate too strongly when unity was called for.  With a few notable exceptions, most of the problem on the right was not an attack so much as placing religion and/or religious identity in front of politics.  Most of the problems came not from people who thought Romney’s religion disqualified him, but more from those who just wanted to make sure everyone knew Mormons were not like other Christians (although most such people would not call Mormons “Christian”).  We call this group “religion firsters.”  Probably they never realized that in so doing, they were cutting Romney from the herd, forcing him to have to work so much harder than anyone else to win the electorate’s trust that the task became impossible.

The people that used the religion issue on the right can be divided into four groups.  The first are those that are not necessarily religious bigots, but were not the least bit opposed to using religious bigotry to reach their own political ends.  The second group are essentially the same but their ends were/are other than political.  The third group are misguided “religion firsters.”  The final group are the outright religious bigots – there were far less of them on the right than there were on the left.

The reasons the attacks from the right could be far more subtle were twofold.  Firstly, “sledge hammer” attacks would be destructive of the entire right – as they attempted to be from the left.  This is an effort to stay within the boundaries of Ronald Reagan’s 11th Commandment.  Secondly, because the strategic goals of those attacking from the right were very different than the goals of the left, different attacks were called for.  In most cases people attacking Romney for his religion from the right were not doing so in an effort to stop Romney (though undoubtedly some were) as they were in it to try and bolster themselves in some fashion, as a candidate or otherwise.

Perhaps the biggest problem with many of the attacks from the right was the unwillingness of people to examine carefully what role religion may have played in forming an argument that was overtly non-religious.  The classic example of this is the “flip-flop” charge that played against Romney almost endlessly.  Some of this was rooted in the left wanting to use it against the right in general since it had worked so effectively against John Kerry in 2004.  But something had to be there to make it take hold.  It never really meant much against John Kerry until the now infamous “I actually voted for the 87 billion before I voted against it” sound bite lent an amazing reality to the charge.   Politicians not only do, but in some circumstances must, change positions.  If they didn’t they would not be reading, learning or responding to changing conditions in the nation – a recipe for one-term service.  Changing positions is only a problem if it plays on a deeper mistrust of the candidate.  In Kerry’s case he sounded like a fool  (John Kerry is not foolish by the way, wrong, but not foolish – that is just how he sounded) that could not make up is mind.  In Romney’s case it played on the inherent distrust that many people have for Mormons – a distrust evidenced in the past violently, and now politically.  That distrust got only occasional overt mention (Huckabee’s quip to the NYTimes in Iowa and Joel Belz’ piece we examine below) but that was enough to remind people that “Mormons were not necessarily trustworthy.”  Thus a flip-flop charge resonated where it otherwise might have been written off as standard political banter.

The word that has most described Romney’s failures in the last cycle in the various postmortems is “inauthentic.”  This too is a word that resonates more with an image of the man than the man himself, and that image is formed, as we documented in the last post in this series, by a press that relentlessly made sure the thing most associated with Mitt Romney was his Mormon faith.  “Inauthentic” is a good word – it covers the flip-flop thing – it covers the “too perfect” charge – and it all resonates because people just have a hard time believing that Mormons are really the way they are.  (Aging myself, I have a large collection of Donny and Marie jokes that date back to the ’70′s and all play on the apparent “inauthenticity” of that family.)

How much do those stereotypes play into people’s voting?  Well, only the individual can answer ultimately.  However, There was one study out of Vanderbilt University that indicated they were important.

Bias against Mitt Romney’s religion is one of the reasons that the tag “flip-flopper” sticks with the former Massachusetts governor but not his Republican opponents, according to Vanderbilt political scientist John Geer. “There is no question that Romney has changed his positions on some issues, but so have some of the other candidates,” Geer said. “Why does the label stick to Romney but not his opponents? At least some of the answer lies in Romney’s Mormon beliefs.”

Geer and colleagues Brett Benson of Vanderbilt and Jennifer Merolla of Claremont Graduate University designed an Internet survey to assess bias against Mormons, how best to combat it and its potential impact on the nomination process and general election campaign.

“We find that of those who accuse Romney of flip-flopping, many admit it is Romney’s Mormonism and not his flip-flopping that is the real issue,” Benson said. “Our survey shows that 26 percent of those who accuse Romney of flip-flopping also indicate that Mormonism, not flip-flopping, is their problem with Romney.” Benson noted that the pattern is especially strong for conservative Evangelicals. According to the poll, 57 percent of them have a bias against Mormons.

Twenty-six percent is more than enough to alter the results of a primary.  We torture ourselves when we want to vote against an African-American candidate; we take to sackcloth and ashes to make sure we vote for, or against, the man, not the color.  Yet when it came to the Mormon candidate, it just seems like too many were unwilling to enter into those same levels of self-examination.  Thus the quip, or even the mere distinction, could be the weapon of choice.  And sadly, it worked with at least enough people to prevent Romney from winning the 2008 Republican nomination.

So, who were the bigots, who were the quippers and who were the distinguishers?

Religious Bigots

Genuine bigotry was actually pretty hard to come by on the right hand side of the aisle.  But there were a few –

John McCain’s mother – They only let her out in public once, but when they did, she embarrassed her son to the point where he had to deny her viewpoint immediately, on live television.  You can see the video at the link preceding – it was on Hardball with Chris Matthews.  This incident disappeared as fast as it appeared and in the end it was of little consequence.  McCain’s immediate move away from the comment was an astute political maneuver, and kept this from becoming a major issue.   Nonetheless, it was a brief and revealing glimpse into the world of anti-Mormon bigotry that is out there.

Joel Belz – Mr. Belz, founder and Editor -in-Chief of the influential evangelical magazine, World, put to pen the bigotries that inhabit the hearts of at least enough to affect the outcome of a national election.  His now infamous op-ed appeared in November of ’07 (subscription required)  The heart of his argument is truly troubling:

It’s not a trivial matter that Mormonism, as a cultic movement, has a bad reputation when it comes to getting its own story straight. Check out the public record, if you will, including fairly recent interviews with Mormon officials in venues like Larry King Live, 60 Minutes, and Newsweek. Do these officials hold to the fantastical 1827 golden tablets of Mormon founder Joseph Smith—or not? Well, they seem to say: We believe it when we want to, and we don’t when it’s less convenient. Where Mormonism isn’t shrouded in deliberate secrecy, it is covered with confusion.

So when folks tell me they’re satisfied that Mitt Romney won’t try to drag his Mormonism into his politics, and that he would never ever impose his theology on the American people, I have to worry whether that’s exactly what he’s already done. When, in a relatively short space of time, he seems to be on both sides of the same issue—and when such a deviously confusing approach seems to be consistent with his faith rather than counter to it—that sets off alarm bells for me.

Only a few weeks ago, I sat a dozen feet from Romney as he compellingly spelled out his convictions and credentials. He was winsome and persuasive. On the surface, he said almost everything I want to hear my candidate say. On the issues that matter (except for choice in education), he was as convincing as any politician I’ve heard in recent years.

But still.

More than anything, I want a president who tells the truth. And I worry deeply when people are overly ready to believe a man whose religious upbringing, of all things, suggests that the truth is a negotiable commodity.

In other words, “Mormons lie.”  We have refuted this argument time and again on this blog and will not endeavor to do so again in this piece, it’s purpose is different.  What we have not examined was Belz attempt, in the next issue of his magazine to justify his very below the belt attack.

Indeed, his very thoughtfulness makes me want to be very careful when I raise the question: How does a person’s Mormonism affect his or her possible role as president of the United States?

But just because I’m obliged to ask the question carefully doesn’t mean I’m out of bounds in asking the question. I applauded when Romney stressed: “[Some] would prefer it if I would simply distance myself from my religion, say that it is more a tradition than my personal conviction, or disavow one or another of its precepts. That I will not do.” Nor should he; that is part of his personal character.

But this integral and holistic nature of the person is also exactly what makes it not just right, but necessary, to ask—even in detail—just how what this man believes “religiously” affects all the rest of his behavior.

So it’s not bigotry for Americans to ask of Mormons they know: “Why so secretive? Why the necessity to hide so much?” One of the hallmarks of the historic Christian faith—as opposed to some of the cults it has spun off—is its eagerness to say: “Check us out! We may have embarrassing moments in our past, but we have no secrets.” We’re like Jesus saying to Thomas: “Feel the nail prints. Thrust your hand into my side!”

I am going to sound very much like a civil rights attorney here, but this justification for bigotry is bigoted on its face.  It presumes a view of religion and its effects on a person and their character that is distinctly evangelical, and one that another religion may not, and many do not, share.  I will not speak for Mormons on this matter, that is for them to do, but what I will say is that we cannot measure another religion by our religion’s yardstick.  Needless to say, no religion other than our own will “measure up” under such circumstance.

That, frankly, is the entire point.  We have to take people as they present themselves, unless we can show them to be liars in fact.  Presumptions, based on other factors including religion, are the definition of prejudice.  No other word but bigotry can possible apply.  What you see here, placed into stark words and print is the intellectual roots that underlie the results of the Vanderbilt study cited above.  Such logic will inevitably lead us down a path where no one but ourselves, since only ourselves can possible “measure up,” will be suitable for office.  That’s something beyond libertarianism – that’s chaos.

Using Religious Bigotry To Achieve Political Ends

Cindi Mosteller – Ms. Mosteller was a McCain person in 2000, and her allegiances were unclear when she launched her religion attack on Romney in September of 2006, but she ended up working formally for Fred Thompson.  By the time Romney left the election, this tiny vignette seemed tame by comparison, but at the time it was big news around here.

At an executive meeting of the South Carolina Republican Committee (a private affair, we must note), Mosteller “cornered” Romney about polygamy and  Mormon attitudes on race.  There are two things to note in the confrontation itself.  First, somehow, this exchange, which occurred in the context of a private meeting, made it into the political press, and Mosteller was clearly the one that took it there; she is quoted directly.  Secondly, her “issues” with Mormonism were rooted decades, even centuries, in the Mormon past.

When you combine that with Mosteller’s past of being a paid staffer for McCain and that she ended up being one for Thompson in the ’08 cycle, it seems clear that her objective here was either to back her presumed future employer (McCain) or alternately establish her credentials with some candidate other than Romney.  Either way, she wanted headlines and was not afraid to use the “Mormon issue,” even if extraordinarily ignorantly so, to get them.

She was heard from a few times after that as things proceeded, but by that time, she had little impact – everybody had figured out her game.  What she did do, however, was illustrate that the effectiveness of the Mormon issue played not in somehow proven Mormonism to be a problem for Romney, but rather by simply using it as a wedge between Romney and others.  She did not really “lay a glove” on Romney, but she did make it known, in a manner similar to Huckbee’s NYTimes comment before the caucus’, that it was OK to be suspicious.

Using Religious Bigotry to Achieve Other Ends

Mike Huckabee – It was quite difficult to decide whether to put Huckabee into this category or the one to achieve political ends.  In the end the distinction comes down to how seriously one thinks he takes his own candidacy.  Huckabee’s behavior in the 2008 primary clearly indicated that he was after something other than the nomination.  What it was  we may never know, and whatever it is might indeed be political in nature, but given that he ended up on TV and not in politics in any direct fashion, and that he seems to put his personal income in front of political goals, this category seems most appropriate.

We have thoroughly documented Huckabee and his shenanigans in the post linked by his name here.  But one thing we have not discussed is the tolerance his campaign’s web site showed for comments that were personal, vindictive, bigoted, hate filled, not to mention discriminatory.  All traces of the web site have disappeared.  We cannot find even a Google cache.  But you can get a basic idea if you go to web sites like this one.  This site features pieces written by notable Huckabee supporters – so you do the math.

That the world has haters in it is undeniable.  That presidential candidates of any stripe tolerate such people on their web sites in unconscionable.  Suppose the Obama site tolerated comments about how “Whitey just wants to keep the black folk down,” or McCain’s site had comments like, “We can’t let a n&^%%$ in the White House (unless he’s serving coffee.)”  How long before the press crushed either of those candidates?

I’ll even bet a few such comments made it into the approval queues of those sites, but no one let them through – we’d have heard about it.  Huckabee, of course, talks about his lack of staff for such things as comment approval, which only proves the point that he had no chance of winning and was in the race for other reasons.  Any candidate that had an actual shot would have had sufficient staff for such an exercise.

But enough about the Huckster, he was far from the only bad actor.

Jim Dobson – Our conclusion that this is the category in which to discuss James Dobson was not an easy one to reach.  During Campaign ’08, Dobson was the single most-heard voice in Evangelicalism generally.  He may be the Evangelical leader we have discussed the most on this blog.  But it must be remembered that he is/was neither pastor nor political leader – his credentials were as a psychologist and he made his living as a radio host.

Dobson has flirted with “making friends” with Mormons for a long time, dating to before the last election cycle and they have continued since. And they have usually resulted in Dobson getting beaten up by his listeners/constituency/audience – whatever word seems most appropriate.  Dobson never actually said anything negative about Mitt Romney, nor did he ever say one should not vote for a Mormon, but he never endorsed Romney except by process of elimination (he said “never” about both McCain and Giuliani).  When you combine these facts with things we have heard on the grapevine from un-nameable sources and second and third hand, it seems obvious that Dobson feared a listener revolt if he actually came out for Romney.  This fact, more than anything else, seems to have motivated his prevaricating, hot and cold, non-leadership.

It could be asked, “How was this ‘using’ bigotry?”  Simple – he refused to stand against it.  Based on all I have heard, I presume that Dobson voted for Romney in the privacy of the voting booth, but that is just a presumption.  It is understandable in his position if he did not want to endorse anyone, but he did do negative endorsements (which he later had to renounce as McCain was the nominee) which creates a significant bit of cognitive dissonance.  Moreover, one can stand against a bigoted or biased vote without endorsing.  He did not even attempt to do this.  He was apparently more loyal to his audience than he was his political conscience.  He was willing to stand with the bias and bigotry in order to keep his audience size and reach.  (Lowell interjects: I would say Dobson was mostly loyal to his own self-interest.)

It is no wonder that Dobson has resigned the Focus on the Family ministry in the wake of the conservative disaster that was Election 2008.   (It is possible the revolt he most feared has occurred anyway, in which case we are seeing the rabid self-segregate as they have done away with the the largest voice in Evangelical history.) Dobson failed to lead, and in so doing he condoned and coddled the bigots out there.  I don’t know James Dobson personally, he is apparently a good man, but in this instance he made a terrible mistake.  He has apparently tried to make amends in comments related to Proposition 8, and he is to be applauded for that.  He can be forgiven, but what happened in the campaign is fact, undeniable, unchangeable fact.

Religion Firsters

People use presidential campaigns as a template on which they impress all sorts of things.  The wide national discussion they engender, the massive media coverage – in other words the buzz they generate – creates a circumstance in which people bring many agendas into the mix that have little or nothing to do with electing a president.  I mean the resemblance between Pepsi’s new logo and Obama’s campaign graphics is not coincidental.

And so many Evangelicals came to the candidacy of Mitt Romney and before they discussed Romney’s merits as a candidate, his stance on the issues, his leadership skills, his impeccable business credentials, his term as governor of Massachusetts, they had to make sure, in no uncertain terms that anyone paying any attention knew that Mormons were not like them.  In many cases they had to make sure the term “Christian” was not applied to Mormons.  In other words it was a religious feud imprinted on the presidential campaign.

The problem, of course, is that with that imprinted agenda, they never really got to the meat of the matter:  the whole electing the president thing.  I grew up in a farm state – Indiana.  The State Fair was and is a huge deal there.  But I also grew up in the city of Indianapolis, and as such, I thought the midway was the reason for the fair and the ag exhibits were the sideshow.

The people we are going to discuss here are people that let the sideshow become the main event.  It played out in many different ways and on different levels.   Three prevalent names from the ranks of talk radio come to mind when we discuss this category.

Al Mohler – Mohler is the President of one of the leading Baptist seminaries in the nation and he hosts a radio talk show.  Way back in September of ’06 he hosted a panel discussion on the “Mormon Question.”  We examined it in great detail at the time.  There are two real problems with the approach taken on his show.  One was the name calling that occurred in the context of the discussion.  Words like “cult” and “aberration” were thrown around like candy from a parade float.  Mohler remained inconclusive on voting for a Mormon throughout the campaign, but when words like that, with their extraordinary negative connotations,  are heavily in evidence such apparent “neutrality” seems little more than a posture.

The other problem with Mohler’s approach was his concern that electing Romney would “mainstream” Mormonism.  Mohler’s seminary is in Kentucky, and his concern about “mainstreaming” certainly confirms that.  Out here in the “Jello Belt,” Mormons are pretty mainstream already.  It also forces me to wonder if Mohler has ever flown Jet Blue or stayed in a Marriott?

The problem with both of these points are that they are religious concerns, not political ones.    Rather than being concerned about who is equipped to lead the nation, whose stances on the issues will come closest to representing their own, they are concerned about which religion “wins” the battle of religions.  When you break it down that way, you come to see that such completely defies the basis on which America was founded.  There is real religious conflict between Baptists, and most of orthodox Christianity, and Mormons.  That is as it should be, but that conflict cannot and will not be won based on who is elected President of the United States, to think that it could be is to imprint the religious conflict onto the political one – and it means losing the political one.

Frank Pastore - By all accounts, former baseball great and now Christian talk radio guy Frank Pastore is a really nice person.  But when it came to discussing Romney, religion, and the election he had to “hold his nose” to discuss Romney in anything like acceptable terms.  To my way of thinking, the most egregious example of Pastore’s rhetoric here was in December of ’07 when he implied that I — not yours truly, mind you, just any orthodox Christian who would enthusiastically back Romney — was a less devoted Christian than he was because of an acceptance of Romney in the political arena.

It is very hard to sort Pastore’s religious concerns from his political ones.  Consider this paragraph from that December ’07 time frame:

Like I said, I’ll vote for Romney—if I have to—since it will mean keeping a Democrat out of the White House. But should he become president, I, along with millions of other Christians, will expose each and every attempt by the LDS church to advance their false religion into the world, for we are aware of the potential spiritual challenges of having a Mormon in the White House.

My initial response to such thinking was, and remains, “Did the presidency of George W. Bush cause the United Methodist Church to mount some sort of religious offensive?”  And on a more religious level, when the first Christians and early church thrived under a persecuting pagan Roman Emperor, to be concerned about an elected democratic official of a different religion harming one’s faith is to have a very weak faith indeed.  Even today the Christian church thrives under regimes that routinely persecute it.  I have a hard time understanding what “potential spiritual challenges” a Romney, or any other Mormon, presidency would present.

Kevin McCollough – We had what ended up being a pretty cordial exchange with radio talker Kevin McCollough.  You can read all about it by following the links from the link naming him.  McCollough is the classic and, frankly, least harmful of the “religion firsters.”  He just wanted to make the point that “Mormons are not Christians.”  Now, in the end, that is a theological question, not a political one.  But when it is asked, how it is asked, and other contextual concerns can give it enormous political impact.  Such was our concern when McCollough brought it up, and it is the problem with religion first in politics generally.

Mormons are religiously quite distinct from more orthodox forms of Christianity.  However, given the breadth of expressions, theologically, institutionally, and culturally that is generally considered within orthodox Christianity they are not nearly so far off the mark as any particular expression might want to make you believe.  One traditional Christian group might pick on one thing, and another might pick on something different, but taken as a whole, you can probably find someone inside traditional Christianity that is only one step away from the Mormon expression, even if they may be miles from other traditionally Christian expressions in that area.

But that is not really the point here; the point is, when that is what you choose to discuss, when the question really is who to vote for as POTUS, you are one, changing the subject and two, emphasizing differences when similarities are more important.  If one thinks that a Mormon candidate is a good, even great candidate for the job, when religion is not considered, to “worry out loud” about religion is to essentially look for a reason not to vote for a highly qualified candidate.  And even if you arrive at the conclusion that you will vote for him/her, your public worries have by that time given many the opportunity to opt out.

In the end, that’s the problem with all the “religion firsters” we have discussed here – its creating difference where likeness is called for.  There is one simple question when deciding whom to vote for – who will best advance my concerns.   All other questions are important and meaningful and maybe even religiously significant, but they are secondary in the political arena.

And The Rest…

In our summary here, we have just hit the highlights of what came out of the right wing side of the aisle.  We have not mentioned people like Gary Glenn, or the recently appearing, but undoubtedly in the background then, Conservatives For Truth.  We engaged with many during the course of the campaign, often not because we wanted to convince them (we knew we couldn’t) but because we thought the discussion would help us sharpen our arguments on a particular point, or simply formulate them to begin with.  But here we have tried to limit our discussion to encounters and attacks that had national significance and drew national press.

It is hard to judge the impact of these regional and local skirmishes with The Question.  In the end it may be on them, and not the big national things that an election really turns, but such is very hard to tell from this perspective and available data.

In Sum…

When it came to religiously-based attacks from the right that hurt the Romney ’08 campaign, it was something of a perfect storm scenario – death by a thousand cuts.  For some this was strategic, but for most it was simply an accident of the pursuit of other agendas, some personal, some religious, and some political – but few were in actual open opposition.

All these factors will exist in Campaign ’12 as well, should Romney elect to run.  But this observer thinks their effects will be radically different, not because of any change in the people, but because three years of a radically left-wing administration and at least two years of a radically left wing Congress.  There is nothing like watching the opposition work to place things in proper perspective.

After being out of power for several years, the differences between Mormon and Evangelical theology will not be nearly so important. Should Obamacare become a reality, we will be far more concerned with turning back as much of it as we can as opposed to making sure Mormons do not gain a greater level of “cultural acceptance.”

But a discussion of the future needs to wait for one more post.  We next turn our attention in this series to “the Good Guys.”  Who were those traditional Christians that backed the potential for “A Mormon in The White House?”  We’ll find out in the next post in the Telling The Story series.

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