The dominant headline coming out of the Ames Straw Poll is that Mitt Romney won handily. As it should be. But that’s been adequately covered elsewhere. There are a few other stories related to Ames that are a bit less relevant to the campaign, and more relevant to Mitt Romney’s religion. And no, the latter is not the same as the former.
The worst first: Marc Ambinder reports on the inevitable- an anti-Mormon whisper campaign in Ames. Iowa-based “Christians for Truth” distributed a handout called “Would Jesus Christ Vote for Mitt Romney?” The money quote:
We strongly believe that Jesus Christ, if he were alive in the flesh and voted, would never vote for Mitt Romney in any circumstances. Mitt Romney represents Mormonism which is counterfeit Christianity, a cult.”
While there are few who will take this seriously at the national level, it’s hard to dismiss the impact such things have on the ground right before a critical vote. But this handout’s obvious inaccuracies probably made it a bit easier for most Ames voters to see through. First, what kind of Christian group hypothesizes about whether Jesus is alive? Say what you will about Mitt Romney’s beliefs, but at least he does believe Jesus lives today. Second, who would Jesus vote for? It’s an interesting question, but not one that allows any interesting answers. That’s because a person’s response invariably answers for the Jesus they have in their own mind– of which many thousand versions must exist. The fact that one group thinks Jesus would never vote for Mitt Romney says absolutely nothing about any other person or group, let alone what Jesus actually thinks. But you have to give them credit for the audacity of claiming to know Jesus’s politics and voting preferences (and by the way, Brownback, T. Thompson, Huckabee, Paul, Tancredo and Hunter are all on Jesus’s list of maybes, according to this group). Finally, there is the most scurrilous claim of all– that Mitt Romney “represents” Mormonism. Nothing could be further from the truth. Romney and the Church have stated repeatedly that the only connection between them is his private religious membership in the Church. There is no political or civic affiliation whatsoever. Mitt Romney represents himself. The LDS Church is completely neutral in this election. Anyone saying otherwise is intentionally spreading untruths to trick somebody. (And of course, we’ve already dealt at length with the claim that Mormonism is a cult).
Elsewhere, the Washington Post’s campaign diary ran a story called “The Mormon Factor,” in which it speculated about the effect Mitt’s co-religionists could have on the straw poll. Given that there are 3 million Iowans, and only about 20,000 Iowan Mormons, it’s hard to imagine a big Mormon effect. But the Post’s quotations from a few enthusiastic Latter-day Saints serve to sow the seeds of a larger paranoia– that Mitt has a shadow campaign made up of vast armies of highly-efficient Mormons. It bears noting (as the Post has done) that the LDS Church has absolutely no role in organizing or politicking in this event or any other. If some Mormons show up to such things, it’s because they were contacted by or volunteered for the campaign, not because any church leader, or anyone else at church, told them to.
Stories like this one, when responsibly written, report on something people are legitimately interested in. And the questions about the depth and level of Mitt’s Mormon support will continue. But such pieces should always be read with two things in mind. First, every presidential candidate that hails from any demographic minority will garner strong support from others in that minority. Second, it takes a lot more than Mormons to win the Ames Straw Poll, lead other polls in Iowa and New Hampshire, and be touted nationally as the most effectively run campaign in the race. So yeah, the Mormon thing is there, but let’s not overdo it, okay?
Other stories in CBS News (pointing out, oddly, that Mormons happen to believe the verses in the Bible that discuss Jesus’s siblings) and the UK’s Times Online (with unscrupulous headline labeling the candidate “Mitt the Mormon.” No word whether the paper will start using other references like Rudy the Catholic and Barack the Church of Christ-er).
I wrote a few weeks ago that coverage of Romney’s religion seemed to be cooling off. Well, rumors of the death of this issues were premature, to put it mildly.