Saturday, December 8, 2007
Mitt's Mormon Moment
As usual, I tend to have something of a delayed reaction to a lot of the presidential campaign developments. From the safe distance of Paris, I'm only as surrounded by the wall-to-wall media coverage as I choose to be. And my exposure to what other people are actually talking about is limited to what I gather from political blogs.
So it's taken me a couple of days to gather my thoughts about Mitt Romney's speech on the place of religion in politics. In the meantime, I've done some (admittedly cursory) reading on Mormonism. And I have to say that in all the attention being paid to whether or not Romney can convince the Christian right that he's on the same side as they are in the fight against evil liberal secularists, there's another element to this story that people seem to be tiptoeing around, and understandably so.
Namely, that Mormonism is a pretty strange religion. Not only that, it's a pretty strange religion that was "revealed" (read: invented) relatively recently by concrete historical figures (as opposed to mythic historical figures) on whom contemporaneous records don't reflect too well, which makes it even stranger. (People have mentioned Scientology, but for me the theological comparison that comes to mind is Elijah Mohammed and the Nation of Islam.)
Now I understand that on a certain level, all religions are strange and that by some unspoken rule of common courtesy, the word "religion" functions as a sort of catch-all barrier behind which we all agree not to poke around too closely or too indelicately. (All of us except for Christopher Hitchens, that is, who gets a pass because he's so damn good at eviscerating the logical inconsistencies upon which religion is based.) But be all that as it may, Mormonism is really pretty weird.
Which raises the question that Romney tried to dodge by couching his argument in Constitutional terms and tossing his faith in Jesus in the same grand "faith basket" he thinks will get him off the Christian right's shit list. And that question is, Do voters have a right to judge candidates by the farfetched ideas they hold to be true, even if those ideas are part and parcel of their religious faith?
As a point of comparison, consider that in the context of a Democratic debate, Dennis Kucinich was asked about an account that implied he'd seen what he considered to be at least a UFO, and perhaps a vessel carrying intelligent extra-terrestrial life forms that were trying to communicate with him. He responded by citing the percentage of Americans who claim to have seen UFO's. But what if he'd responded that he's a New Ager, and that the belief in ET-carrying UFO's is part of his religion? The fact is, it's hard to imagine that kind of belief system not being a disqualifying criterion for the vast majority of voters.
Romney was successful in business and was a pretty popular governor of Massachusetts from what I understand. There's no reasonable basis to claim that his belief in some of the imagination-stretching aspects of the Mormon faith have interfered with his ability to make decisions in the real world. But my hunch is that that really won't matter.
I feel strange saying this, and even stranger being somewhat ambivalent about it, because it borders on the "Is America ready for a [Fill in the blank] President?" discussion that I personally find absurd when directed towards Hillary or Obama. By addressing his religion, though, Romney's introduced it as a legitimate campaign issue. Which means that if it's fair game to ask Huckabee whether he believes in evolution, it's fair game to ask Romney whether he believes he'll inherit a planet and ascend to godhood once he dies, or whether his underwear will protect him better than the Secret Service. The problem for Romney is that unlike Huckabee, whose rejection of modern science will cost him quite dearly among those whose view of the world is based on the fossil record but will endear him to the Christian right, Romney's belief in the bedrock tenets of his faith will most likely cost him dearly with both.
While that might be a measure of prejudice towards Mormons in general, I can't say I'll shed any tears for Mitt about it. His campaign's approach to religion has been cynical from the very start. His fifty-member Faith & Values Steering Committee doesn't even have a single representative from his own Faith & Values. No Mormons, no Muslims, and one Jew. So if it's finally his own religion that trips him up, I won't have much sympathy for him. I also won't be very surprised.