NRO: Does Mitt’s Mormonism Matter?

See updates below.

It’s been a long time since we’ve seen an argument on how to treat Mitt Romney’s faith over the course of the campaign that deserved to be treated seriously. So the Joshua Trevino column published yesterday at National Republic Online is a welcome bit of sanity. But despite his intelligent discussion, Trevino reaches some questionable conclusions. He suggests that in dealing with religion and politics, there are only three options- treat everything as being fair game, or act as if nothing is, or, just “obfuscate” until the topic goes away. (He accuses Romney of the latter). Further, Trevino argues that Romney must explain his religion to the masses because people are legitimately curious about it, Mormonism being not quite as famous as the better established sister denominations. I think these arguments, measured though they may be, lead us down a dangerous path and should be rejected. For those who suggest that Romney’s religion ought to be a completely open topic, I have three questions: why? to what extent? and at what cost?

Why?

Trevino’s justification for calling for openness on Romney’s faith is that Americans know very little about it, and deserve to know. This is hard to argue with- it would be awkward for America to live under the administration of a man whose faith they know nothing about. So he’s right to that extent- there’s no sense insisting that Romney should be elected without a word ever being mentioned about his religion. But no one has argued that Americans aren’t allowed to learn about Mormonism—only that Romney shouldn’t have to be the one teaching the class.

If all that is wanted is information on the LDS faith, why not look to any of the numerous sources that have always existed on Mormonism, from official LDS Church websites, literature, and spokespeople, to the numerous outlets and sites run by individual Mormons (like this one), or even to the six million people wandering around our country that know the faith from the inside? If the concern is simply that America doesn’t understand Mormonism, it’s an easy problem to remedy. In fact, the press has done a creditable job of explaining Mormonism on its own, without Romney’s help. There’s no question that between the Church and its many surrogates and the intensity of recent press coverage, America has already leapt light years ahead of where it was a few years ago in terms of understanding Mormonism. So it’s just not plausible that Mitt Romney will walk into the White House in January 2009 and somebody will suddenly say “Hey, did anyone check into this guy’s church?”

But my guess is the above resources are unsatisfactory to Trevino and those who share his position. Why? Probably because the desire is not really for America to understand Mormonism, but rather for America to be able to hear Mitt Romney talk about Mormonism. No one has yet made a real case for why the latter should be preferable to the former, if knowledge about the religion is all that is sought. Which is not to say the case couldn’t be made. I think there could be certain topics on which legitimate questions might be asked regarding Romney’s faith. Problem is, no one has ever asked them! Maybe the world needs to know how the Mormon worldview would influence policy in the Holy Land, or whether Mormon beliefs would push a president to hawkishness or pacifism. While it would still be unfair to interpret all Romney policies through the prism of his faith (no one’s going to make that mistake as to Obama and his race), at least these would be honest attempts to understand how Romney’s faith would inform his administration.

If Mormon beliefs are an important part of understanding Romney the politician, it would be nice if someone would ask a question that makes that case. And until the day such a question is invented, the constant harping that Romney ‘evades’ questions on his faith—see Trevino’s accusation of “obfuscation,”– is deeply unfair. How are we to know that he’ll evade serious questions, if he’s never actually gotten one? Who knows—maybe Romney would answer a question on his faith if it rose above the level a Mormonized version of “boxers or briefs?”

To What Extent?

One of the other weaknesses of Trevino’s argument is that it draws no lines at all. He reasonably observes that it’s okay to ask Catholic politicians how they would handle conflicts between Church and policy, but then leaps from that to opening up the wide spectrum of Mormon doctrine for investigation as a means of evaluating the Romney candidacy. That’s a rapid and unprincipled escalation. One can give a concrete political reason for the first kind of question. It’s hard to come up with a similar justification for the second. You wouldn’t imagine interviewing Rudy Giuliani on the reality of the stigmata, would you? Then can we agree that there are some lines to be drawn here?

As I’ve suggested before, those lines should include two kinds of questions. If there is a legitimate chance that some point of Mormon doctrine would directly influence the policies or official acts of a President Romney, questions on that doctrine are fair game. The same goes for Mormon beliefs that are closely related to the candidate’s core values. Thus, if you find a prominent belief related to the validity of capitalism or stability of the family, feel free to ask what its effect might be. But if your burning question involves trivia or base titillation, and offers no link to policies or core character, save it for when the LDS missionaries knock on your door. It’s not Romney’s concern.

At What Cost?

The final point to be made—something that might be hard for those not in a religious minority to see—is that a broad openness of inquiry about a candidate’s religion would raise a de facto bar to adherents of minority religions seeking public office. Put it this way: If John McCain had to spend a significant part of his air time discussing and defending the doctrines of his religion, taking positions on everything from the great flood to the burning bush to the resurrection of Jesus, would you like his chances at getting elected? Not likely. It’s not because McCain’s Episcopalianism is extra weird, it’s because Americans are not programmed to digest religious dogma in the public square. Thus, anyone who talks much about it will come off as a religious nut.

But if we were to broaden the rules of political discussion to include the entire range of a candidate’s religious beliefs, no one would be asking those questions to John McCain, because he’s no religious novelty. All that time McCain would spend telling reporters why he’s actually a conservative, Romney would have to spend answering questions about Joseph Smith, Salt Lake City, and what he did at church last Sunday. In short, only those from faiths outside of the traditional religious mainstream would be burdened with the duty to talk about faith and worship, a bar that would surely eliminate all such candidates from serious contention.

Why is that a desirable thing? Mitt Romney has worked hard to achieve what he has in this race so far. Forcing him to speak repeatedly about his novel religion would push him further into a box that we have no right to make him inhabit. He deserves to be evaluated for all he brings to this campaign- his impressive bio, his charisma, record, and platform. But despite the relevance of all of those characteristics, ask yourself this: If Mitt Romney had to get up on stage and tell the nation why he believes in the Book of Mormon, would you see any of those things? Or would you just say “there’s that Mormon again.”

Update: Mr. Trevino has posted a correction to his piece on the version posted on his site (here), in which he backs off his earlier charge that Romney obfuscated about Mormon eschatology. This appears to be a reversal of his earlier position that Romney has been less than forthright about his faith, although he may actually be limiting the correction to that single point. Either way, the correction is welcome.

Second Update: Reader Greg adds a fourth question to my above list– With what result? Here’s his (very persuasive) argument:

If Mitt were to declaim thoughtfully on his beliefs about the Book of Mormon, would the media convey that in any meaningful way? Could they?– given the format of soundbite news? And if he did, how would Mitt convince his listeners that was he was saying is relevant? Yes, that’s a circular question, but the media would, without a doubt, upon hearing such an explanation say something like, “That’s right Ted, at a unique news conference-cum-religious service today, Romney delved into issues no presidential candidate in modern times has ever done. Sounding more like a religious exponent than a political candidate, he spent nearly an hour stumping for Mormon beliefs based on the controversial Book of Mormon. While Romney stated the purpose for his remarks was to answer his opponents’ and the media’s repeated assaults on his Mormonism . . . his performance today raised serious questions about the appropriateness of him bringing religion into the public square. A senior staffer for a Republican opponent was quoted as saying, “I’m sure Mitt Romney was a great missionary, but the American people are not going to let him turn this race into a religious revival. We’ll have to see, Ted, but many think this attempt to raise the level of piety in this campaign will seriously hurt Romney’s chances with rank-and-file Republicans and certainly with the voters generally. His candor may have backfired. Was this, as some commentators are saying, a one hour gaffe? We’ll have to see. Back to you, Ted.

Hard to argue with.