Over the last 5 years or so we have documented more than once the inherently distracting silliness that usually results when the news media focus on any presidential candidate’s religion. Molly Ball and Jonathan Martin at Politico have written a piece that (unintentionally, of course) illustrates that problem.
Martin, who is a good if occasionally left-leaning reporter, usually tries hard to get it right. I think he whiffed badly in this one, which you can read in its entirety at The Mormon primary: Mitt Romney vs. Jon Huntsman. Here are a few samples:
Strike one. Here we have reporters pushing a story line much too hard. Romney is the scion of an old Michigan family. I am not sure Romney’s ancestors were even in Utah for more than a few years back in the 1800s, before being sent off to colonize other parts of the Great Basin. One might as well say Steve Young is the scion of an old Utah family because he’s a descendant of Brigham Young, even though he’s never lived in the state except while going to school there.
The presence of a second Mormon in the race could help Romney by making the church seem less unusual to those who are unfamiliar with it. But it seems just as likely that Huntsman, with his strikingly similar profile, would erode Romney’s base of support, reordering the GOP field.
Strike two. It amazes me (maybe it shouldn’t) that writers who should know better keep making statements like this. Please indulge me as I quote myself from a few days ago:
There are just over 6 million Mormons in the USA, about the same number as the Jewish population in America. Of those 6 million Latter-day Saints, about half claim active affiliation with the church. So we have 3 million individuals scattered across the country who claim to take their Mormon faith seriously, and perhaps half of those are voters, most of whom are concentrated in the Western USA. And Romney and Huntsman are going to fight over those votes? And the outcome of that battle is going to make a difference? And it’s going to be a serious fight, even though Huntsman has no organization, no fund-raising network, and no experience in a national campaign, while Romney has all those things in spades? If you believe all that, I want to talk to you about a great deal on shares in a bridge spanning the Great Salt Lake.
I understand the idea that dividing the Mormon base might have some fund-raising implications and might affect the outcome of some smaller state primaries (think Utah, Idaho and Nevada) , but I remain to be convinced that “the Mormon vote” is going to be signficant at the presidential level.
One Utahn put it this way: Romney is Brigham Young University, Huntsman is the University of Utah.
Ball one. The authors get some credit for diligence and cleverness on this one. Huntsman is much more centrist than Romney, whose positions make him a standard mainstream conservative. To a Utah graduate like me, with family members who went to BYU, this analogy makes immediate sense. I guess it’s a bit of inside baseball for Mormons.
A competition for Mormon bona fides between the two men would end in a draw. Romney’s great-great-grandfather was a 19th-century church leader who moved to the Utah Territory before statehood. Huntsman’s father and namesake is still a top official in the church who lends his Gulfstream jet to other LDS leaders, while his wife’s grandfather was in the church’s Quorom of the 12 Apostles, top figures in the hierarchy.
Ball two (just missed the corner). Not to pick too many nits, but it is Jon Huntsman Jr.’s grandfather, David Haight, who was a member of the Council of Twelve. I don’t know what position Huntsman’s father, Jon Huntsman, Sr., now holds – he was once an LDS mission president in Washington, D.C. – but such vague references like ”a top official in the church” don’t tell us anything and look like mere filler.
Huntsman, too, went on a two-year mission, to Taiwan. It was there that he became fluent in Chinese. But his family — wife Mary Kaye and their seven children, two of them adopted from Asia — are not strict Mormons, and he has never served in church leadership. More than a few eyebrows were raised in the church when Huntsman’s eldest daughter, Abigail, was married last year not in a Mormon temple, but at the National Cathedral by an Episcopal priest.
Strike three. Where to begin with this one? It is hard enough for members of a faith to judge one another’s devoutness; now we thave the news media doing it? What does “never served in church leadership” mean? And if a Mormon’s child chooses not to follow his or her parents’ faith, are we supposed to draw conclusions about the parents’ own religious commitment? Like those of all faiths, Mormon children do depart from the faith of their fathers. This is not interesting or worthy of comment in the news media.
In Utah, the hope is that two Mormons running at a time when the Democratic Majority Leader of the U.S. Senate is also LDS would make the church seem less exotic—something that is undoubtedly beneficial to Romney.
Now Martin and Ball are in danger of being ejected from the ballpark. ”In Utah, the hope is….” Whose hope? Are these two journalists able to divine the views of an entire state?
I’ll close with some wisdom from none other than Karl Rove, who happened to be in Utah yesterday to speak at a political dinner:
Rove, an Anglican who attended high school in Utah, believes the Mormon issue was overblown in 2008 and doesn’t think it will be much of a factor in 2012.
“This makes me queasy,” he said of the close scrutiny the LDS religion got during Romney’s candidacy.
“I think people do want to know what motivates any candidate for president, so they want to know what their faith is. But there’s a difference between wanting to identify someone’s faith and come to some sense about their authenticity and what happened to Romney, which was look at his faith and ‘let’s examine its tenets and hold them up for public scrutiny,’ ” he said. “It just makes me queasy.”
(Emphasis added.) Ball and Martin should pay attention to Rove. Focusing on the religious tenets and commitment of presidential aspirants is problematic, to say the least. Rather than delve into such distracting material, Politico should tell us something helpful about the candidates.
John adds his two cents…
Lord please save us from “make news” news. When I read this piece I had one reaction – How come we have not read the same sort of article about, say, Tim Pawlenty and Mike Huckabee. Both come with extraordinarily strong mainstream Christian credentials. Professions of faith figure very strongly in both possibles bios. Huckabee is well known and Pawlenty’s recent book at points reads like a spiritual autobiography, not a political one.
Or consider Mitch Daniels and John Thune. Both are professed Christians, men of deep and abiding faith.
Do I have to go on? This piece, and many like it (yes there is more than we have linked to this week – watch for Monday’s post) are, by their very existence in the absence of similar articles about others of differing faiths, religiously biased.
Let’s return to the question we ask so often here – Suppose Al Sharpton entered the Democratic primary process for 2012. Would be be treated to piece after piece about he and Obama and the black vote? Would that not be considered somehow racist? In fact, we do not have to suppose anymore. Is not virtually any opposition offered against the president now charged with being racist? Articles about the role race may or may not have played in the election of Barack Obama as president seem to be verboten – I have not read one, have you? The occassional passing reference, perhaps – but where is the polling? The investigation?
Certainly if the “Romney v Huntsman” question is legitimate for such an esteemed outlet as Politico to examine, so then should be the role of race in Obama’s last campaign.
And let’s not even go to the place about the MSM doing whatever it can to damage the presupposed Republican frontrunner (Romney) as early as possible. I mean there is just no way the MSM is politically biased, is there? (Smirk, guffaw…)