On Being a Mormon Candidate in America

Not yet twenty-four hours after Mitt Romney announced the end of his campaign, we’ve already seen several people telling him what he did wrong. Most of these post-mortems are limited by their failure to view the race as it was when Romney got in it. The consensus now seems to be that he sealed his fate by running to the right, acting the part of the red-meat conservative instead of the brainy technocrat with the ability to fix our country as if it were a slightly larger version of Dominoes Pizza. But a year ago, when Mitt Romney was receiving raves at the CPAC conference and being hailed as the perfect answer to the inevitability that enveloped Giuliani and McCain (depending on who you asked), that kind of advice would have sounded pathetically misguided.

What the commentators aren’t remembering were both the anonymity of Mitt Romney and the gaping hole on the right end of the GOP field. The man needed a niche to fill, and that niche was there for the taking. One more thoughtful moderate refusing to speak to the base would have flamed out instantly, and Romney was smart enough to know where he could fit in. But he wasn’t smart enough to anticipate the less visible, but far more serious threat to his candidacy- the rise of the “Authentic Christian Leader.”

Long before Mike Huckabee, there was plenty of talk about whether a Mormon could be elected president. Many doubted, and the polls seemed to back them up. But for the optimists (of whom Mitt Romney was one), there was abundant counter-evidence. Those same polls showed voter resistance to a “Mormon candidate” steadily decreasing from spring to summer to fall. Romney saw a corresponding bump in his numbers in Iowa and New Hampshire. For every big story in the mainstream press about nutty Mormon beliefs, there were three or four small-town papers running pieces on the very normal, upstanding Mormons in their own communities. The press became better informed about Romney’s faith, and slowly stopped mentioning it in every story about the “Mormon candidate.” Romney had a chance. (more…)

Romney Never “Acknowledged that Mormonism is Not a Christian Faith”

In an article about the positions of Focus on the Family regarding each Republican candidate, Time magazine quoted evangelical leader Tom Minnery as saying that “Mitt Romney has acknowledged that Mormonism is not a Christian faith.” Minnery means this in a good way, as in “Now we can consider supporting Romney because he admits he’s no follower of Christ.” Funny how evangelicals, many of whom have ranted for some time now about insisting on electing a Christian president, think it’s a positive for Romney to have admitted he’s not Christian. But any time you let your religion mix too closely with your politics, the offspring is going to look a little weird.

But for many who have followed the Romney-religion discussion closely, hearing Minnery talk about Romney’s ‘acknowledgement’ came as quite a surprise. Romney has walked a fine line on his religion, but it’s been rare to see him make any big mistakes on this issue. Admitting that his faith is not a Christian one would be a very big mistake– it would anger a lot of Mormons, which would likely result in countless stories that he has distanced himself from his faith, and play into more ‘flip-flopper’ charges.

Fortunately for everyone involved (except for Minnery, I suppose), it’s just not true. In a followup article, Time tracks down Minnery’s basis for believing that Romney concedes that he’s no Christian. Minnery said there was a passage in Romney’s ‘Faith in America’ speech that gave him the impression that Romney admitted he wasn’t a Christian. Here’s the passage:

There is one fundamental question about which I often am asked. What do I believe about Jesus Christ? I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and the Savior of mankind. My church’s beliefs about Christ may not all be the same as those of other faiths. Each religion has its own unique doctrines and history.

See the part where he says Mormons aren’t Christians? Well, I didn’t actually include that part. Neither did Romney. The above is the full statement regarding Romney’s belief in Jesus Christ. And it was deemed sufficient by Focus on the Family to conclude that Romney concedes Mormons aren’t Christians.

To most people that seems like a horrible misinterpretation, even a willful one. And I agree, but there is some extra nuance that makes it even more interesting. That is, this little controversy plays up the strange, convoluted logic of evangelicals who claim to know what exactly it means to be a Christian. For most people, seeing a person declare faith in Jesus Christ as the “Savior of mankind” is more than enough basis to call that person a Christian. Not so with modern evangelicals, for whom ‘Christian’ has become more a signifier of denominational purity than adoration of Christ. In their attempts to exclude Mormons from the club, evangelicals have had to do all kinds of gymnastics to tell us what “Christian” really means, and have ended up throwing Christ right out of the analysis. Reliance solely on the Bible, but also adherence to certain extra-biblical creeds, and emphasis on this New Testament passage (but not this one!) and historical unity with other Christian churches (except for all the disunity all the Christian churches have had with one another) are all more important than a declaration of Christ as savior.

Rather than engage in the nonsensical philosophizing one must do to make sense of this, the Romney campaign has kept their response very simple, in the process taking a much firmer stance on the “Christian” issue than they ever have before. Here’s Time quoting a Romney spokesman:

Now some people define ‘Christianity’ differently,” Fehrnstrom continued. “Some people believe that ‘Christianity’ is a group of evangelical churches. Others believe that ‘Christianity’ is any church that follows the teaching of Jesus Christ, and that is what the LDS church believes.” I asked Fehrnstrom if that was also what Romney believed. He said yes.

It’s hard to believe we’ve come to a point where a “Christian” leader sees a candidate claim Christ as personal savior and then (1) concludes from the statement that the candidate is not a Christian and then (2) announces that conclusion as a reason to support the candidate. Strange times we’re living in. Anyone else think politics would be better off without all this religion stuff? It’s worth considering.

P.S. David Brody posts on this story, and draws a spot-on conclusion: that the Mormon issue has now completely expired.  I heartily agree.