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

United States Constitution — Article VI:

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The Religious Message In The Political Space

Posted by: John Schroeder at 07:29 am, March 5th 2013     —    2 Comments »

Chris Cillizza took Ann Romney “to task” yesterday:

While the media is a convenient (and common) scapegoat, Ann Romney is simply wrong when she says: “I believe it was the media’s fault as well, is that he was not giv[en] — being given a fair shake, that people weren’t allowed to see him for who he was.”

Here’s why. (Make sure to read WaPo’s Erik Wemple’s piece on Ann Romney too. It’s here.)

Mitt Romney had two great positive selling points when it came to introducing himself to the American public: his business record and his faith. He talked about neither at any great length — or on the sort of terms that might have helped his chances.

Let’s start with Romney’s Mormon faith. It was no secret that many within Romneyworld viewed the fact that he was a Mormon as a major reason for why his campaign never caught on among social conservatives in places like Iowa and South Carolina in 2008.

And so, coming into the 2012 race,  it was clear from very early on that Romney would not speak extensively (or really at all) about his Mormonism. Romney avoided talking about his faith even in openly religious settings; in his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention, Romney gave his faith only a passing mention.

We understand why Romney was worried about putting his faith at the center (or somewhere close to it) of his campaign. Mormonism is still a religion with single digit percentages of adherents in the United States and its newness — within the broader scale of spiritual movements — has led to widespread skepticism.

Still, what Romney never could prove to people during the campaign was that he had a core set of beliefs — that he was something more than just a politician’s politician, willing to bend whichever way the prevailing wind was blowing. And, what’s evident from the stories that were written about Romney’s work with the Mormon church is a) it was and is a huge part of his life and b) his actions were, by and large, quite admirable, and would have endeared him to the general public.

I am not sure Cillizza’s political math adds up here.  He acknowledges, even if he does not admit, that Romney’s Mormon faith would have been a huge issue, had Romney brought it to the fore in the primary.  And there is evidence that it hurt him significantly in the general.  (Regular readers will recall that in the month or so after the election we looked at numbers indicating that the Evangelical vote did a lot of staying home last November.)  Cillizza seems to think that Romney’s unwillingness to tie this stone around his neck and jump in the water indicated a lack of a core, but what would happened if he had?  Would he have appealed to those that Cillizza seems to think he would have?

I doubt it seriously.  For Evangelicals, the lack of conviction charge was rooted in and code for Romney’s faith, not a result of his failure to discuss it.  Cillizza clearly does not understand the Evangelical mind, such as it is.  To the average Evangelical, Mormonism is precisely a lack of a core – in the hardcore Evangelical world, if Romney had a core he would be an Evangelical.  So with the base, the move Cillizza proposes would have served only in more stay-at-homes on election day.

Given the massive burst on same-sex marriage we have seen post election I think it is safe to say that during the general campaign a move to more strongly embrace his faith would have resulted,  as it seems Mormons are enemy #1 for the LGBT crowd, in such vitriolic and spiteful attacks from the left that he would have been forced off message.  The undercurrent from that community was immense as it was.

I truly believe we have reached a point where overt religious messaging will simply not play in the political space.

So, what is our message?  Well, let me pull together a few thing and suggest something.

Conor Friedersdorf has been hosting a bit of a discussion over at The Atlantic on religion and same sex marriage.  The latest entry in the discussion contains this:

In the ’60s and ’70s I was told and believed I was a deviant. In the ’80s I was told the AIDS epidemic was God’s judgment upon people like me. In the ’90s, DOMA and DADT became law to keep me in “my place.” Today my place is in Congress, on the school board, in the military and yes, at City Hall, applying for a marriage license. My personal struggle for equal treatment has done more than defined my life, it has made me whole.

“I…me…my…,” is what justifies this person’s political action.  Not “we,” not “us,” not “society or culture.”

I also ran across this at First Things:

In Habits of the Heart, written almost thirty years ago, sociologist Robert Bellah and his co-authors came up with a term to describe a new American religion: “Sheilaism.” The phrase comes from an interview Bellah conducted with a woman called Sheila, who described her religion as follows:

I believe in God. I am not a fanatic. I can’t remember the last time I went to church. My faith has carried me a long way. It’s Sheilaism. Just my own little voice. . . . My own Sheilaism . . . is just to try to love yourself and be gentle with yourself. You know, I guess, take care of each other.

You don’t have to be a sociologist to appreciate how well Sheila’s comments reflect the mindset of millions of Americans. You can dismiss that mindset as empty and self-indulgent, but in the land of postmodern individualism, Sheilaism has powerful rhetorical appeal.

Now, if you put those things together, there is no core to appeal to.  Ask yourself this, “What’s Obama’s core?”  From a campaign rhetoric standpoint (his philosophical/ideological core described n his writings aside) it is simple “feed your need” and “”protect you from the boogie man.”  That’s not a core, that’s pandering, but it appeals precisely to the “I…me…my…” crowd.

Do you remember a couple of weeks ago when we mentioned a Dennis Prager interview with an author?:

Here is a link to John J Miller’s NRO Interview with Jonathon Last on his new book, “What To Expect When No One’s Expecting.”  I have not had time to watch the Miller interview, but I did hear Last interviewed by Dennis Prager and Last has a startling conclusion.  Of course, the book is about declining birth rates.  Last found that the highest birth rates were amongst the religious.  He pointed to statistics that having a child makes couples demonstrably unhappier and more financially burdened and concluded that only a frame of reference that included something larger than self, which is something only religion can provide, is the only thing that can motivate reproduction.  He went out of his way to say it was not a matter of theological formulation, but simply the understanding that there is more than our individual wants and desires.

I think it is this “larger than self” message that is the only one that can propel us forward.  That can be religious, it can be civic duty, it can be a simple appeal to the common good is good for the individual, but it is the essential point.

Romney lives that idea and then some.  The press did not talk about it and Romney did not sell it.  And perhaps that’s the real issue here.  In the end, Cillizza seems to be saying it is not up to the press to investigate and report, but it is up to the candidate to message.  Someone who really understands the idea of “larger than self” takes from it a humility that should prevent “messaging” about it – for to do so would make it appear that even that charity was self-serving.

So, I think Ann Romney was right after all – and the press is self-serving.

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