As I reviewed over the weekend the latest presidential campaign news and commentary, I noticed the distinctive themes different players were advancing. Those themes seemed to find a voice, and I was struck by the way each voice calls to us as voters.
Mitt Romney’s Voice
Kathryn Jean Lopez, always insightful, may be on to something once again. In Mitt Romney and the Tower of Babel, she talks about Romney’s emerging role as a spokesman for the hopes and values of Americans who are conservative and religious. “Our politics,” she says, “has become a bit terrifyingly like the biblical story of the tower of Babel. All too often, political communicators are speaking — or texting — to someone, but very rarely outside our comfort zone. Very rarely advancing conversations. Very rarely doing much more than talking in circles with one another….”
Ms. Lopez lists as an example of the problem the controversy over the contraception issue and the Obama administration’s attempt to force Catholic institutions to provide insurance benefits that violate their religious beliefs. She goes to Romney’s comments on the subject:
“I feel we’re all Catholic today,” he said at a community center in Bowling Green, Ohio. “The president and his administration,” he continued, “said they are going to usurp your religious freedom by demanding that you provide products to your employees, if you’re the Catholic Church, that violates your own conscience.”
“Whether it’s a Catholic businessperson or the Catholic Church itself they’re being told what they have to do that violates their religious conscience,” he said, clarifying the fullness of the impact of the Department of Health and Human Services contraception, sterilization, and abortion-inducing-drug mandate. “That attack on religious freedom, I think, is a dangerous and unfortunate precedent… In our battle to preserve religious freedom and tolerance . . . in this country, it is essential for us to push back against that.”
To us that sounds like a candidate speaking from the standpoint of “civil religion,” a notion that Lincoln advanced and which we’ve written about before.
K-Lo thinks Romney’s voice is important:
Mitt Romney may not have the office of the president and the communications advantage that comes with it, but he has increasingly been using the megaphone that comes with being the alternative to the president in a presidential election. He has a compelling counter-narrative to advance. He can educate like no one other than the sitting president, as everything he says now has the potential to make headlines. And he’s been doing that lately. It may not all get covered on the top of the news like his tax returns are, but in our current social-media age, the old media don’t have the monopolistic stranglehold on information dissemination they used to. You read this and you pass it on on e-mail, on Facebook, Tweet a little, have a Pinterest — and there is still the old-school getting-it-in-print and passing it on at the diner or kitchen table.
K-Lo’s entire post is a must-read.
The Evangelical Voice
We can offer two contrasting voices in this category. First, Richard Mouw thinks it’s more important than ever for Evangelicals to listen to Mormons. Mr. Mouw, long a voice for Evangelical-Mormon dialogue, doesn’t have much to say about the presidential race, but does have a vision for how the two faith communities should interact:
I have two rules for interfaith dialogue: First, don’t tell people what they believe; ask them and listen carefully to what they say. Second, don’t pit the best things in your perspective against the worst things in their perspective. For me, that has meant acknowledging to Mormons some of our evangelical defects, as well as admitting to some good things in Mormonism. We need to account for the many wonderful people in other religious traditions. Instead of just criticizing religious movements and their founders, we need to understand their teachings and the communities built around them.
David Brody offers a different voice, and wants to talk about “trust and authenticity,” which he thinks is “the real issue” with Romney:
Romney has always had these problems with the base to begin with. If the Obama campaign can convince Independent voters that the guy is a liar and untrustworthy, then it works to their advantage….
As for releasing his tax returns, it goes to the same issue of trust. Every day that goes by where Romney doesn’t release these years of his tax returns will simply be another day where some voters wonder whether he is hiding something. That’s not a good place for Romney of all people to be. The last thing he needs is a voter to suspect that he’s a rich guy who has something to hide.
Look, here’s the deal: maybe there’s something in those tax returns that makes Romney unflattering to some in the middle class but maybe he just needs to take the hit and suffer the short-term consequences.
(Emphasis added.) When the chief political correspondent for the Christian Broadcasting Network refers to the “base,” is there any doubt what he means? Brody’s comments are perilously close to a dog whistle message to some of his readers: When one of those slippery Mormons runs for president, he needs to do all he can to avoid looking slippery.
I don’t think Romney needs any more allies like Brody or any CBN readers who share his bias. This is a voice of doubt and suspicion based on a candidate’s faith, and the country needs no more such voices.
The Obama Campaign’s Voice
Meanwhile, the Obama campaign team cheerfully admits that they intend to “define and destroy Mitt Romney.”
[T]his kind of thing is nothing new for campaign honcho [David] Axelrod. “Axelrod’s strategy is always to run unopposed, literally if possible,” says a Democratic insider in Chicago. “He wants to take the opponent out—there’s a long tradition in Illinois of trying to force your opponent off the ballot—and if that doesn’t work, literally, then do whatever needs to be done to destroy him figuratively.”
So here we have the amoral voice of “just win, baby.” If that means knocking your candidate off the ballot so the voters have no choice but your candidate, then so be it. If it means digging up sealed divorce records to destroy your opponent, then do it. And if it means planting in the minds of the electorate that your squeaky-clean opponent is a felon, then you’d better do that too.
(UPDATE: I just noticed, thanks to Guy Benson’s tweet, that the Democratic National Committee is still running their ad ridiculing Ann Romney’s ownership of a dressage horse that is competing in the Olympics. Guy wonders if the Democrat “really believe wives are ‘off limits,’” as President Obama said they are.)
Which voice will prevail? The Romney voice of mainstream civil religion, appealing to the “better angels of our nature” — another Lincolnism? Brody’s voice of sectarian suspicion? Or the Obama campaign’s voice — the voice of those seeking to gain and hold power by any means necessary, however dishonest and cynical?
When people say “this is the most important election of our lifetimes,” my initial reaction is always to think, “Oh, come on. People say that every election.”
Then again, when I think about the voices we are hearing and the choice we will eventually make, one way or another, I think those people may well be right.