It is time for the next installment in our “Telling The Story” series wherein we try to review the primaries in ’08 as they relate to Mitt Romney’s candidacy and its relationship to his religion. We have looked at the basic primary narrative, the bad actors on the left, and the bad actors on the right. But who were the “good guys” in all this? – Were there any? What even constitutes a good guy in a situation like this?
We need to start with the proposition that there was an essential prejudice against Romney because of his Mormon faith. Not all of it is anti-Mormon bigotry either. For people of the left, Mormons are viewed, essentially, as über-Christians. That is to say that Mormons represent all the bad things about religious people in general (“sexual repression,” “lack of creativity,” insert your tired and untrue cliche here) taken way more seriously than even normal religious people take them. This is the sort of “Oh, my gosh – Mormons really believe this stuff!” category.
For people on the right, at least those who are not predisposed to declare all Mormons headed for hell right now, Mormons are just “weird.” Even amongst the more reasonable there is just this sense that “Mormons believe strange things.”
The Good Guys
In light of that, can someone be said to be a “good guy” by simply ignoring religion in the campaign altogether? Back in July of ’07 we contended that acknowledging the prejudices we just mentioned and then designing our political decisions in avoidance of them amounted to enabling bigotry. Could simply ignoring the existence of those prejudices, without confronting them, amount to the same thing? Must prejudice be directly confronted to be done away with? The answer, frankly, is in how one “ignores” them.
For purposes of this post, to be considered a “good guy” someone has to have been actively involved in confronting the prejudices and bigotries that were present in the campaign. That confrontation took two distinctive forms. The first, and most easily identifiable, were people, particularly religious non-Mormons, who directly supported Mitt Romney’s candidacy. All such people by example, and many by argument, stood in the face of the prejudices and bigotries, looked them dead in the eye, and said, “No!” We will call this group “The Campaigners.”
The other form of such confrontation is much harder to pin down. Many people, especially people in positions of religious leadership, do not, as a matter of principle, endorse candidates. Such people can speak out, however, against religious bigotries. This is a very sharp edge along which to walk. To decry bigotry against those who are suffering deep bigotry is, seemingly, to endorse those people. Thus in 2007-08, those decrying bigotry against Romney took the risk of appearing to endorse Romney, and violating their principles against endorsement. We will call this group of people “The Principled.”
Many people similarly have a difficult time making the distinction between speaking out against religious bigotry and endorsing the religion that is the object of the bigotry. I find myself personally often accused of thinking Mormon doctrine is “correct” because of my eventual support of Romney, and my longstanding fight against bigotry aimed at him. Nothing could be further from the truth. In the interest of preserving my friendships with Mormons, I do not speak of it often, but Mormon doctrine is distinctly aberrant to my way of thinking. But that fact does not preclude Mormons from a place in the public square. Should I ever differ with my Mormon friends on a policy matter we will do political battle in the finest traditions of the American political system. Which means we will argue the merits of the situation, we will not sling accusations of religious mind-muddling at each other.
What Went Wrong?
The list of names we have assembled as “good guys” is impressive, a virtual “Who’s Who” of religious right activism. And yet clearly they were not nearly as effective as one would hope. Before we sing their praises, we need to devote a few paragraphs to their failings. This list should have meant an almost automatic win. What went wrong?
Two factors seem most salient. Number one, the depth of anti-Mormon prejudice was grossly underestimated. This is not unreasonable because the mainstays of that prejudice are not typically politically active. The average political consultant and religion watcher are not going to have this group on their radar.
Which brings us to the second factor: New media. It gave this “off the radar” group a platform for both voice and organization. We made the case early in this series that Mike Huckabee was the spoiler for Romney and Huckabee ran, in a very real sense, a “virtual” campaign. Operating practically without budget and with a grassroots organization to-speak-of only in Iowa, Huckabee relied heavily on the Internet. We have previously discussed the heinous nature of comments that found their way to the Huckster’s official campaign web site. That web site is now gone, and what remains is “unofficial,” but when you combine it with the anti-establishment sentiment that has come to the fore at formerly great conservative sites like Free Republic and Red State, it is clear that the Republican party in general, and Mitt Romney in particular, need to formulate an effective, highly active, and well-funded new media operation, or else the party runs the risk of being rendered ineffective, or – more likely - hostage to its own extremes, which is the situation the Democrats now find themselves in.
So, who are the “good guys?” We’ll look at them in the groups we previously defined.
Some of the Campaigners
Hugh Hewitt - Do we really need to talk about Hugh Hewitt on this blog? He’s why Lowell and I are here and his encouragement of and friendship with us is the base on which we stood when we started. Hugh wrote THE book on the Romney/religion issue (we interviewed Hugh on the release of that book here) as well as being downright prophetic in another book about the role new media would play in politics generally. Hugh did C-Span on the issues at hand.
Hugh has said in speeches we have heard that he underestimated the anti-Mormon forces that came into play in the campaign. He had thought that those forces were far enough removed from the mainstream that they would be relegated to a sideshow for the press. Perhaps by the time he got to this issue, he had forgotten the lessons of his prophetic book on blogging, which had come out several years earlier? But regardless of having missed that call to some extent, Hugh more than almost anyone else saw the issue of religion as it related to the Romney campaign.
We stretch things a bit in calling Hugh a “campaigner.” He did not formally endorse a candidate until it was time for him to cast his own vote in the California primary, via absentee ballot, several weeks before Super Tuesday. Hugh was also the primary example of fighting the prejudice without necessarily endorsing the candidate. Which brings up an interesting issue. Virtually none of Talk Radio endorsed in the primaries. They refrain from doing so for practical reasons. They want all the candidates to appear on their shows throughout the campaign; if they endorse, they run the risk of alienating and losing the interview(s). Yet, on the day before Super Tuesday almost all of conservative Talk Radio sounded dangerously close to endorsing Romney – Bill Bennett – Laura Ingraham – Sean Hannity – Dennis Prager – even Rush Limbaugh himself – not to mention the hundred of others out there with local or smaller audiences – all emphasized with great zeal the advantages of Romney over McCain.
Talk Radio walks a fine line between information and activism and one wonders what the future holds in terms of endorsements for this bunch. Formal endorsements earlier in the game could have made a huge difference in the outcome. In the new media age of niche marketing, endorsements might not be as alienating as typically thought. Certainly they could be more active in fighting the prejudice without endorsing the candidate.
In Talk Radio, Hugh Hewitt led the way regarding this issue.
“Evangelicals for Mitt” – David and Nancy French and Charles Mitchell ran this aptly named blog and frankly garnered the lion’s share of the “whom to call when you want to write a story” action as the MSM tried to cover the issue. As such they probably had the largest profile, other than the aforementioned Hugh Hewitt, on this issue. David French as a regular contributor to National Review had a particularly high profile, only enhanced by his service in Iraq during a significant portion of the campaign. We did an interview with David and Nancy that was never published due to any number of failures on our part.
What was most fascinating to watch was that they covered the campaign largely as any normal political blog would. They freely acknowledged that Mormons were quite different in their beliefs than traditional Christians and argued a “big so what.” Then they went about covering the campaign. In some ways it was a very different approach than the one we took here, but to analyze that in depth would definitely take us into the tall grass and outside the main thrust of this piece.
What matters most, though, is that there were few of us in the new media that tackled this issue head on and EFM was one of the few and one of the effective. As we have said, new media mattered a lot on this issue. If will be interesting to watch New Media’s role as things move forward. EFM as a site is still occasionally active, and we hope it will become increasingly so. The name alone is worth gold. It would be great to see it become the kind of on-line community center that we saw develop in the anti-Mormon forces.
Mark DeMoss – When it comes to public relations among Christian organizations and in Evangelical circles, Mark DeMoss is THE MAN. His DeMoss Group handles the PR for everything from PromiseKeepers to Franklin Graham’s Christmas Gift Child operation. Mark went to Mitt Romney early in the process and told him, as Mark describes it in our interview with him:
I said, “I’d like to help you. I’m not a political consultant but I do know this evangelical world pretty well. So, I would like to help you. And secondly, I am not for hire. You can’t pay me. Now or ever.” And that was a beginning of a friendship and a respect that we have for each other now.
Mark’s initial action was to set up a meeting for Romney with a number of highly placed and influential Evangelical leaders. Then throughout the campaign Mark served to make introductions, provide advice, and do whatever else he could to help Mitt Romney get elected. Mark was a “campaigner” for Romney in the truest sense of the word and he stood on the front lines of the campaign in the Evangelical world. Mark was very succinct when he said (again in our interview with him):
I think this has really become a passion of mine of late, and that is, what got me interested in this particular man to begin with was this conventional wisdom that actually a national religion reporter posed to me, a year and a half ago and that was in the form of a question: Did I think evangelicals could ever support a Mormon? Or did I think a candidate’s being Mormon would automatically disqualify him from considerations by evangelicals?
And that really bothered me. That whole mindset troubled me. So I began to look into Mitt Romney and his life and his record and everything I could find out about him. And I finally reached this conclusion, and that was, to ask whether I could support a Mormon is the wrong question. I think the question should be: Could I support this Mormon, this particular Mormon.
That about sums it up as well as it can be summed up.
Wayne Grudem – is a highly noted and influential Evangelical Theologian. He came as perhaps the most significant of traditional Christian endorsements that came Mitt Romney’s way around the fall of ’07 Values Voter Summit. (Some of the links in that piece are broken, you can hear Hugh Hewitt’s interview with him, if you are a “Hughinverse” subscriber, here.) Grudem matters more than many of the other endorsement precisely because he was not a “leader” in the political or ecclesiastical sense, but because he was a theologian.
When people talk about the differences between Mormons and traditional Christians it always ends up focusing on the theology, because frankly, that is the only significant difference. Grudem’s endorsement said almost nothing about theology and a lot about political and organizational savvy and a lot about values – placing theology in a proper perspective, something only a theologian can do, when it comes to electing presidents.
The fact that Grudem’s endorsement, along with so many others, did nothing to really move polls, or even the straw poll at the Values Voters Summit, remains one of the more fascinating facts of that campaign. It says, at least in part, that the Evangelical world can be divided into a couple of distinct groups – those that use religion as a political tool and those that use politics as a religious tool. For the former group, a proper understanding of the place of theology did not matter, what mattered was being able to use theology as a tool to help their candidate or eliminate one they do not like. For the latter group, theology was placed in its proper perspective and did not matter much as the campaign proceeded.
In the category of “might have beens,” it would have been great to see someone like Grudem enter into the countless debates about “what Mormons believe” that occurred around the Internet, or at least have his work up earlier and an army of people quoting it in those discussion. The recurring mantra, “Yes, but this theologian says it is immaterial as to whom to vote for,” could have had an interesting effect.
But we get a bit ahead of ourselves. Evangelical leadership, particularly political leadership, is examined in detail and pretty much as a group in our next entry in the list of “good guys.”
Jay Sekulow/James Bopp/Gary Marx – The campaign’s Faith and Values Steering Committee – As we have eluded to, Romney was backed by most of the big names in Christian political activism. They coalesced into his campaign’s “Faith and Values Steering Committee.” (Please note that link is to leftie coverage of the formation of the committee – a fact to which we will return in a moment.) Heading the group were the three names just cited: Jay Sekulow, Chief Counsel for the American Center for Law and Justice; Gary Marx, Executive Director of the Judicial Conformation Network; and James Bopp, probably the preeminent anti-abortion attorney in the nation. Also on the committee were names like Lou Sheldon, Matt Spaulding, Barbara Comstock and groups like the Alliance Defense Fund and Citizens for Traditional Values were represented. These people worked hard to elect Mitt Romney and the fact that in the end Romney was not successful has more to do with the state of religious activism in politics than it does with their extraordinary efforts.
There are three things to note about this group, aside from their outstanding credentials. First, they are lawyers or judicially active, not necessarily legislatively active. Secondly, they garnered little press save from the lefties, as we noted above. Finally, they did not bring much in the way of grassroots Evangelicalism along with them. This is worthy of a bit of discussion.
The fact of the matter is that most of the “action” with regards to the erosion of traditional values in the society is judicial in nature, Roe v. Wade being the classic example. In light of sweeping court decisions of this type the legislative and executive branches of the government can do little to change things except trim the edges of the law a bit. Under such circumstances there is little for the average concerned voter to do but send money to guys like these, and the average concerned voter in America likes to do more than write checks. Romney, in working with this particular group, was typical Romney – he put effectiveness in front of votes, expecting the votes to come when people figured out what he was up to. This is not something that is going to change – Mitt Romney is who he is. However, the actions of the current administration are rapidly bringing into focus the value of substance over style, emphasizing that effectiveness is what counts. Votes should follow.
People don’t like feeling powerless, something most of us feel when confronted with judicial activism. Thus powerlessness does not sell papers, and people like those on this committee don’t generate a lot of press. Court rooms are not dramatic places, unless you see the ones in TV fiction and they have little connection to reality. There are no polls, no big crowds to take pictures of, argument is done in increments too small for the average person to follow without taking notes. The fact of the matter is Jay Sekulow may have done more to try to limit or eliminate abortion in this nation than any other single person, but very few people that are not insiders know who he is. Abortion will only even be able to be made illegal in this nation when Roe v Wade is overturned and that means myriad court cases until a sufficient mass is built to attract the Supreme Court’s attention. That does not really make good ink, or even electrons.
The average Evangelical just does not understand this. They want press, they want heat, they want to march in front of abortion clinics and they want something to happen now. Thus they gravitate to the agitators with media outlets instead the slow and effective types like those represented on Romney’s committee.
What emerges is an interesting picture. The “agitators with media outlets” (think James Dobson) did not line up behind Romney because they feared backlash from their constituencies due to the Mormon thing. This bunch did line up behind him because they knew his effectiveness and they knew it was the best path to actually getting things done.
There is a political circle here that needs to be broken somehow. Either Evangelicals need to learn where real effectiveness lies or Romney has got to find a way to attract at least one of the loudmouths. Better, maybe the loudmouths need to educate their audiences on where genuine change can be made. This problem does not just apply to Romney; virtually any politician that wants to be effective on these issues faces the same political conundrum. Romney’s conundrum is complicated by his Mormon faith, but the fundamental misunderstanding of the legal situation with regards to many social issue remains.
Frankly, this is where new media can have the best positive effect in terms of a potential future Romney run. As new media gave the bigoted a place to organize, so it can the truly effective. If I am a Romney political adviser, the Faith and Values Committee of a future campaign is going to have a huge new media presence.
National Review and NRO – While a diverse group, the heart of National Review is Roman Catholic. Their endorsement of Romney should have been a much bigger deal to the election than it ended up being – a fact that illustrates that the Mormon issue is, in some ways, less about “being Mormon” and more about “not being Evangelical.” This endorsement just did not move the polls much. It likely reflects that Evangelicals were not interested in who was best, but who was most like them. Since the editors of NR are not like them either, they ignored.
It would be very interesting to see how things would have worked were there not a candidate in the race who was so much “like them.” Under such circumstances would Evangelicals have gravitated towards Romney? My thinking is not likely – they would have stayed home. Prior to the emergence of the Huckster that seemed to be the handwriting on the wall. Now, that could very well have resulted in a primary victory for Romney, but would not have boded well for the general.
In its various online outlets NR covered the religion question to an extent but tended towards straightforward reporting and political analysis. With a few notable exceptions they did not argue its merits or lack thereof. This author would have very much liked to have see the formidable intellectual talent that resides there address the issue in deep detail. But they did fight hard for the Romney candidacy and they did so with a largely religious audience.
John Mark Reynolds – Dr. Reynolds heads the Torrey Honors Institute at Biola University. In August 2006 he published at his blog what has become the classic apologia for an evangelical Christian voting for a Mormon. He allowed us to reprint that piece in May of 2007. He continues to reassert and defend the arguments he put forth then in any venue available to him where the issue arises today.
On the intellectual level JMR did most of the heavy lifting for the issue of Romney and religion during the entire campaign. He was in early and he worked hard. He has not gotten the credit he deserved for a couple of reasons. For one, those opposed to Romney on religious grounds are generally not of an intellectual bent. (There are notable exceptions.) Secondly, since most of the real grunt work of the issue happened in the virtual netherworld of blog post comments, etc., it does not lend itself to the kind of extensive reasoning Dr. Reynold brought to the fore.
Reynold’s work was largely complete before Grudem’s endorsement, which garnered much more attention. Grudem is a theologian and Reynolds a philosopher, which also made a big difference in who attracted attention. But Reynolds work had a “real world” quality to it that should have made it much more effective than it was. Once again testament to the fact that prejudice is generally about the absence of reason.
Also, of course, it is testament to the fact that the New Media activity on this issues fell well short of what was needed that Reynold’s work did not spread farther. Reynold’s work should have been linked, reprinted, discussed and commented upon throughout the online world. Romney supporters need to get active across the Internet. See our online activism page for what YOU can do.
Some of the Principled
Richard Land – Dr. Land is essentially the political face of the Southern Baptist Convention, which is the biggest denomination in America today. As a matter of course Dr. Land does not endorse candidates. Therefore he never said “vote for Mitt Romney.” In fact, if one were to look at the uncountable times he was quoted in the press on the issue of Romney’s faith, one would suspect he opposed Romney on religious basis. But that was just the press at work. Dr. Land speaks extensively on the issue in the Article VI movie, and that is the only place we saw him quoted at sufficient length to know that he in fact thought it would be fine to vote for Mitt Romney. It should also be noted that we never attended a Romney event of national scope where Dr. Land was not present. In fact the photo that appears here is one that Lowell took of Dr. Land at Romney’s “Faith in America” speech in December of 2007.
Dr. Land did suffer from “theology first” syndrome and whenever he did say it was OK for a Baptist to vote for a Mormon, he lead with the observation that Mormons are heterodox – although he usually used stronger terminology than that. This, frankly, is why he was so often misrepresented by a press eager to show a problem with Romney and religion. The quotations never extended beyond the heterodox point, even though Dr. Land routinely went on to put that observation in a broader context.
It would be very interesting to interview Dr. Land at this point and see if he might not adjust how he makes comments in the future, should Romney elect to run again. It would be fascinating to have a discussion with him not on Romney per se, but on religious bias generally and the role of religion in the public square.
Regardless of this singular weakness, Dr. Land supported Mitt Romney’s candidacy as best as the constraints of his position would allow him too. Even if his presentation was not perfectly honed, Dr. Land did stand for the right of an American of minority faith to stand for election and perhaps win. And for that he is one of the good guys.
Charles Chaput – Like Richard Land, Roman Catholic Archbishop (Denver) Charles Chaput does not do candidate endorsements. But he is probably the most politically visible and active of all the Roman Catholic hierarchy in the United States, and he is staunchly conservative. He was one of the first and most extensive interviews Hugh Hewitt went after when he did his Romney book.
Funny, he did not get much press after that. Probably because he is so identifiably conservative. When it came to Roman Catholic comment, the press tended to turn to the late Father Richard John Neuhaus who is a bit more politically moderate, and far more “theology first.”
Regardless, Archbishop Chaput’s comments in the Hewitt book, and his few press comments later in the campaign were right on. One would think that Roman Catholics, with their long history of suffering similar political bias in America, would have a well formed and unified view of such things. But the divide between Neuhaus and Chaput demonstrates most likely is that the Roman Catholic church does not have a unified view on much of anything.
A hypothetical Romney campaign cannot stand “the principled” up because such people do not do endorsement and do not wish to be perceived as Romney, or any other candidate, partisans. What is a more interesting question is why the cause of anti-religious political bias in politics has not become a movement unto itself. There is such a clear bias from the left against any religious voice in politics that one would think it would become a cause célèbre amongst the religiously motivated and politically active. Any such movement would have to defend all religion, not just its own. And therein, I think lies the problem. The Lands and Chaputs of the world are far more rare than the people who are interested only in protecting their own religion. Such a movement just cannot seem to get any traction.
As I review this list of “good guys,” I am heartened. Religion was indeed problematic for Romney 2008, but this list of people gives one hope. They are the smart people – not because they supported Romney directly or indirectly – but because they are the people that do politics, or comment upon it regularly. They are leaders and opinion makers. Such talent and ability may not have the instantaneous gratification of pop cultural impact, but it seems to always prevail in the long run.
As the political ground is shifting under our feet, as those of us who are religiously motivated and politically active find ourselves increasingly “on the outs,” substance will begin to matter more than flash, and this is a group of much substance. It gives one hope that regardless of what decision Mitt Romney comes to, there is a good conservative future for America. People like this cannot help but make it happen.