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

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Setting The Stage, Part III: So, Whither The Mormon Question?

Posted by: John Schroeder at 04:57 pm, November 12th 2010     —    7 Comments »

In the 2008 election cycle, there were three basic strands to the Mormon Question:

  • Religious opposition – those that were opposed to electing a Mormon because they believed his religion was wrong.  The classic example would be the Belz “Mormons lie” argument.
  • Opposition to religion – those that are opposed to religion in government generally and view Mormons as particularly odious because they are somehow viewed as “uber- religious.”  This is the vast majority of the left and could be best summed up in the discussions of Andrew Sullivan and Jacob Weisberg.
  • Identity Politics – those that are opposed because Mormons are simply different and therefore somehow strange.  This is the vein that Mike Huckabee tapped with his NYTimes interview just before Iowa.

Before we dive into the changes that have occurred in each of those strands since the last cycle, it must be pointed out that although social issues are not dead, they are not primary concerns this cycle unless things change drastically between now and the campaign season.  None of these strands are going to matter as much as they did in ’08 because people are going to be paying far more attention to economic policy than abortion or same-sex marriage.  The recently discovered Yemeni-originated bomb plots are a sign that foreign policy and national security are likely to step forward before then as well.  High unemployment and terrorist attacks have a tendency to focus people’s attention.

But that said, attacks along those strands will continue.  In the increasingly niche marketed world of the internet age, broad campaigns like those for POTUS will be conducted in any number of smaller battlefields.  There are certainly people for whom those things will matter and someone will be using the fact that they matter to reach them and convince them.

That said, let’s now turn our attention to what had happened in those strands between than and now and try and think about how they will play in 2012.

Of the three strands, the one that affected the most people in ’08 was…

Identity Politics

Most people have religious convictions of some sort, but most of them also lack enough definition to those beliefs to object on theological grounds to any religion, and they certainly would not object to religion generally.

There were attempts to tap into this vein in two races in 2010 - Nevada senate and Idaho governor.  In the end in those races it did not seem to matter.  Reid won in Nevada because of a series of missteps by Angle.  The fact that she got as close as she did is testament to the anti-Democrat mood out there more than anything else we saw in these mid-terms.  Her campaign in the general was a disaster pretty much from beginning to end.  The utterances by her pastor were a fairly minor incident in a campaign full of incidents.

In Idaho, the non-Mormon won – right in the heart of the Jello Belt.  He had significant LDS backing, but his margin of victory is such that the event he did with Romney did not appear decisive.

When it comes to POTUS 2012, the last thing people are going to want is identity politics.  That consideration is a large part of how we got to where we are today.  Opposition to the policies of Barack Obama is not always racist but it would be foolish to deny that race was a consideration of many when it came to electing him.  There was a general sense that the nation felt it was somehow “time” to elect an African-American president – not because he was black, but as some sort of national catharsis to make up for the ugliness of first slavery and then segregation.  We forgot that inattention to labels  is the ideal.  Given the policy disasters that we have seen in the last two years, I think it likely that voters will consider policy before label in the next cycle.  Certainly the Idaho race would indicate that.

Religious Opposition

This has always been a very vocal but somewhat smallish group of people.  The problem is that the vocal nature of the group has allowed them to play on the identity politics strand of the issue.  That said, Christians through out the nation are reexamining the interplay of faith and politics on philosophical and theological levels.

They are asking important questions.  As I said last Wednesday:

I think religious people are learning that in some sense we have been winning battles but losing the war.  Many of the liberal agenda items that upset us so – abortion, same sex marriage – are not the heart of the problem – there is something deeper at play.

That is certainly what we wrote about in the prior post in this series.

On a more practical level people are trying to overcome the kinds of religious bias that build up in tight communities.  And most importantly, we are learning the lesson that this blog has pointed out from the very beginning - our attacks on Mormonism will result in similar attacks on us at a later date.

In fact, governmental attempts to delegitimize a minority or unpopular religion and undermine the rights of its adherents by labeling it a cult, political system, or ideology is a tired ploy that dates back to before the American Founding and colors much of American history.

Which brings us to the third strain…

Opposition To Religion

Nowhere was this seen more blatantly than in the attempts to discredit Rand Paul.  Said Paul after the election:

“I think that you shouldn’t attack a person’s faith, and I think it did backfire on them,” Paul told the AP on Wednesday. “My hope is that when someone loses and that issue appears to have had an influence that maybe it discourages people from those attacks.”

Amen to that.  People are learning that this administration’s policies are on some level linked to its lack of overt religiosity.  Obama’s fumbled attempts to effectively alter the Declaration of Independence have accomplished nothing but reinforce that linkage.  Liberal policies are rooted in a lack of understanding that there is a personal supernatural deity, and as such they will remain opposed to religion.  But these attempts are teaching them that overt opposition will backfire on them.  They will have to get clandestine.

They will do so by trying, very hard, to saw on the other two strands of anti-Mormon sentiment.  They will likely again this cycle find unwitting allies in those opposed to a Mormon president on theological grounds.  However, as we have examined that is a small group of players and because the identity politics strand is at least for the moment reasonably neutralized, it is questionable how effective the tactic will be.

That said; however, I expect there once again to be a lot of noise about this issue.  The press cannot resist it, so whenever anyone says anything about it, it will get covered over and over again.   They will attempt to bait Romney into another speech – something that would be a huge mistake this time.  That noise will backfire as it has this cycle.

But there is a way the issue may play out “in disguise.”  Most people, even religious people, like their religion in small controlled doses.  Evangelicals take their religion seriously, but not too seriously. Jeremy Lott has written a review of John McCain’s daughter’s latest tome.  In it, he talks about her view of Romney as a running mate for her dad last cycle:

Meghan takes pride in taking politics very personally, so we aren’t surprised to learn that she has strong opinions about the person her dad should have picked as his running mate to lose to Barack Obama. She wanted Joe Lieberman and hoped that it wouldn’t be Mike Huckabee (who should go “lead the evangelicals”) or — shudder — Mitt Romney.

Miss McCain worried about “campaigning across the country with five married Mormon men” — Romney’s five sons — “and all those baby grandchildren…” The Romneys were “all so handsome, in a tooth-whitener commercial kind of way, and so seriously wholesome” that they might object to the “constant drinking and swearing that went on in our campaign…[n]ot to mention all the tawdry stories about crazy-sex…” that she insists, loudly, she didn’t participate in.

She graciously allows that she could have accepted the Romneys but she worried that “they’d disapprove of me — my bleached hair, my swearing, my ‘edgy’ clothes, not to mention my gay friends. Would they accept me or scorn me as some kind of closet liberal who didn’t fit in?”

The key this cycle will be for Romney, as the presumptive front-runner, to give people enough to vote for that they will ignore reasons to vote against him.

I’d call this the “Osmond view” of the Romney’s.  While toned down it really is a swipe at religion generally – note the Huckabee slam as well.  This could be an effective argument aimed at Romney and based in his religion.  This is a space we need to watch.

And so the stage is set.  In the next few months the candidates will make their decisions, and January is likely to be announcement season.  That will set the field which will determine many of the details of campaign ’12.  Religion will probably be center stage, though I do not think Mormonism will be – save in the fevered mind of the increasingly ignored MSM.

One thing is for sure – it’ll be interesting.

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