Mormons Feeling Stung By Their ‘Moment’

Suzanne Sataline, the Wall Street Journal’s crack religion reporter, filed a front page piece today in the Journal titled “Mormons Dismayed by Harsh Spotlight.” Although I spoke with Ms. Sataline several times over the writing of her piece (and am lightly quoted near the end), I was still surprised at the depth, breadth, and understanding of Mormonism it managed so gracefully. Mormons licking their wounds this morning as they contemplate the beating their religion took over the last year may find some small consolation in this sympathetic piece. (more…)

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…)

Round Up: Was it Religion Killed the Candidate?

Now that Mitt Romney’s candidacy is officially dead, there’s one big burning question left: Whodunnit? If the failure of the Romney run had anything to do with Mormonism, it will be important for the country to know it. I imagine that many will offer their own answer to the question, and I will certainly do so myself when I’ve had a moment to step back and think about it. In the meantime, here is how some others have answered the question: “Did Mormonism kill Romney’s candidacy?” (The Article VI post and the Times and Seasons comments are especially interesting for those wondering how America’s Mormons are feeling about all this as well).

Article VI Blog: Sort of.

I am convinced that my own experience, as the Romney candidacy has unfolded, has been shared by most of my fellow Latter-day Saints. We have been genuinely surprised by the reactions to the Governor’s run. We did not expect Al Mohler to agonize publicly over whether he could, as “a matter of Christian discipleship,” justify voting for a Mormon. We did not see Huckabee’s question, “Don’t Mormons believe Jesus and Satan are brothers?” coming, and we were stunned when it did. (The outrage came later.) The Iowa outcome caught most of us flat-footed too.

This group saw these developments “in sorrow more than anger.”

God-O-Meter: Partially.

An advisor to the Romney campaign says that Mormonism was a big issue, but that Huckabee was a bigger one. “I heard from people that he did not have conservative record and the Mormonism, I never stopped hearing about that,” the advisor said. “But if Huckabee would have dropped out earlier, we’d have a horserace going on. He divided the vote.”

At the same time, Romney’s Mormonism and Huckabee’s rise probably have a lot to do with each other. Would Huckabee have risen as strongly as he did, almost entirely on the strength of evangelical support, if evangelicals were less disinclined to support a Mormon?

Russell Arben Fox of Times and Seasons: No. (Commenters: Yes!).

I would be sad–I would be angry, I would be frustrated and depressed and pissed–if the only message here was “no one will listen to a Mormon, because they hate us.” But at most, I think the message here is “if a Mormon without any deep roots in or even much of a relationship with the Christian rights decides, for some mix of personal conviction and political calculation, to make a play for Christian right voters against a former Southern Baptist preacher, one that will not be above making jokes and comments here and there to demonstrate his bona fides to his core supporters, prepare to not win.” The anti-Mormonism out there–which surely is real, but is just as surely, I think at least, to be mostly implicit and/or subconscious and/or in the eye of the beholder–is just going to the icing on your farewell cake.

T&S commenter Dave:

Hate is kind of a strong word; contempt is the better word. It’s not because he ran against Romney or caused Romney’s candidacy to fail that Huckabee deserves contempt, that’s just part of politics. It’s because he used a sly form of religious bigotry to drum up support for himself (a bad thing on general principles) and because it was directed at my religion (a bad thing for me and my family). Huckabee merits contempt and I’m happy to oblige him. He’s a religious edition of Richard Nixon.

Exit polls: Possibly

Now, if Romney hadn’t given evangelicals second thoughts simply over his religion, would Mike Huckabee have happened? It may be Romney needs another four years to convince evangelicals his religion won’t interfere with their priorities.

Huckabee: Let’s chat about this sometime over lunch at the Naval Observatory.

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. 

Movie Review: Article VI

Most politically-minded Americans are now very familiar with Article VI of the U.S. Constitution. As I’ve said before, it’s been a particularly good year for this article, kind of like how that famous clause in the constitution that gives us all the right to privacy got a big boost 35 years ago. (wait . . . there’s no clause?)

But for those still unfamiliar, here’s the text of Article VI, in pertinent part:

The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.

This becomes both the foundational text and the jumping off point of a new movie about religion and politics in America, called, simply Article VI. (click here to visit the official site). Contrary to what you might think, this movie is not about Mitt Romney. In fact, it uses the 2008 race merely as a frame for bringing out a multitude of opinions on the core religious values that govern spiritual America, and the political values that attempt to share that same space without causing too much disruption. The result is a fascinating mixture of vituperation, rumination, and condemnation, with lots of different people participating.

Notably, and perhaps not surprisingly, all of the condemnation and harsh judgments come from members of one broad group- evangelical Christians. We see different members of this group ranting bitterly at Mormons attending a conference, praying loudly from the gallery of the U.S. Senate to drown out the opening prayer being offered by a Hindu clergyman, peddling messages like “truth is hate . . . to those who hate the truth” from the sidewalks, and even condemning Mormonism from the pulpit. We also see evangelicals (including Richard Land, and EFM’s David French) offering reasoned exhortations to moderation and exploring the boundaries of their own political theology as well.

The focus on evangelicals is predictable, given that group’s centrality to the discussion of religion and politics in America. Conservative Christians make up a very large percentage of total Americans, are often well-organized, and can wield great political power. Either as a cause or effect of that power, they often feel comfortable taking sharp political action motivated by their faith. Thus, it’s not uncommon to see an evangelical leader judge a candidate by his faith, and spew the unlucky pol from his mouth upon findings of lukewarmness, which always makes for great cinema.

But while the focus on evangelicals may be predictable, their treatment in this movie is far from standard. The movie casts several villains, willing to say all the right (read: mean) things about Mormons, Hindus, and everyone else that is obviously going to hell. However, somewhere near the middle of the film, there’s a transition in which these people move from being hateful talking heads to people full of real concern for America with actual notions of love for those they’re hoping to reach. The stock evangelical villains suddenly become quite sympathetic and are allowed to step out of the caricatures set out for them in the early part of the movie, as well as in countless media profiles.

It’s a brilliant film-making choice, as it allows the viewer to conclude that these issues are far more complex than one might think at first glance. The issues gain complexity not because they are hard to work out (they are), but because most points of view are heartfelt and motivated by sincere and unimpeachable intentions. One telling example of this perspective is in the movie’s portrayal of Reverend Bill Keller, by far the most vehement condemnor of Mormonism in the whole pantheon of anti-Mormon spokesmen this year (see here for one example). Keller is up to his usual tricks here, but near the end, he gives a very credible testimony of his hopes for those that wander in evil/Mormon paths, signaling that perhaps we can no longer divide our religious characters neatly into loving spiritualists and hateful firebreathers.

Article VI is a surprisingly personal movie, following the film’s director in his interviews with others, and in his attempts to reach and understand those who criticize his Mormon faith. This dynamic adds an emotional perspective to the film, showing the punches thrown by many critics of Mormonism alongside a person that is to some extent absorbing those punches. However, there may be moments in which the use of personal narrative passes just a bit too far from perspective-enhancement to self-indulgence. If the movie has a weakness, it is that it takes this personal viewpoint just a shade too far, casting Mormons more as victims in this fight than participants in the hurly-burly of sectarian give and take.

On the whole, however, this is the work of a mature film-maker, skillfully meshing controversy with analysis and deeply-felt spiritual feeling, and still packed with historical and political information that will be new even to those that have followed this issue closely. This is a great entry in our ongoing debate about the role of religion in our nation’s government. One only hopes it can gain the exposure it deserves while these questions remain as pressing as they are. If you care about faith and politics and the crazy, fiery ways in which they intersect, Article VI is a great way to get your fix.

Mona Charen: Mormon Church Produces “Excellent Americans”

I hate to write many posts that just link to other stories, without adding any substance myself.  But the rigors of the close of the billable year call me to other pursuits at the moment.  Nevertheless, you won’t regret reading this article by Mona Charen.  She sounds many notes we’ve heard before, but her framework is new.  Isn’t it true that every election year, we see people wondering why our crop of candidates is so pathetic, when there are so many successful, competent people in America?  Anyone saying that this year clearly hasn’t thought hard enough about Mitt Romney, who perfectly fits the bill:

The question as to whether someone’s religious convictions are a fit subject for public scrutiny is not as simple as it sounds. It’s too pat to say, “There should be no religious test for public office and there’s the end of it.” If a candidate were, say, a fundamentalist Mormon like Warren Jeffs, or a Scientologist, that would be an obstacle. But the mainstream Mormon Church has enough of a track record in producing excellent Americans that the particularities of its doctrine are by now a matter of purely scholarly interest.

* * *

When Mitt Romney took office as governor of Massachusetts, the state had a $1.2 billion deficit. Four years later it was in surplus. He boasts that fourth and eighth graders in Massachusetts achieved the highest scores in the nation in reading and math, though they were doing so before he became governor as well. But his program of assessment, merit pay for good teachers, English immersion and a focus on math and science may have helped keep them at the top.

It is difficult to find any significant weakness in Romney. He is refreshingly articulate, exceedingly well prepared and self-disciplined, clearly an excellent manager with both private and government experience, happily married with a large, supportive family, and well within the mainstream of conservatism on every major issue. His nomination would not divide the base.

He is just the sort of candidate people complain that they never get.

Read the whole thing.  And have a good weekend, everyone.

National Review Endorses Mitt Romney for President

RomneyExperience doesn’t often stray from the center of its niche of religion/politics, but once in a while, there’s an issue important enough on one or the other side of that combination that it’s worth discussing. Today, there are two, one on each side.

First, and most important, the editors of the National Review have officially endorsed the candidacy of Mitt Romney. In their editorial, they make the detailed case for Mitt Romney as the right man at the right moment, far better qualified and better positioned to win the presidency and lead the country than any other Republican candidate. Here’s the kernel of the argument, in my view:

Romney is an intelligent, articulate, and accomplished former businessman and governor. At a time when others yearn for competence and have soured on Washington because too often the Bush administration has not demonstrated it, Romney offers proven executive skill. He has demonstrated it in everything he has done in his professional life, and his tightly organized, disciplined campaign is no exception. He himself has shown impressive focus and energy.

I think it would be really difficult to argue with that statement. There’s no question that viewing the field solely in terms of competence, focus and energy, Romney is far and away the best choice on either side of the aisle. Of course, Romney’s got so much more to recommend him, including his broadly conservative stances on most important issues. The NR editors also deal with every major objection to Romney, from the claims of inauthenticity and flip-flopping, to distaste for Mormonism. I recommend reading the entire article. It’s the second strong piece of evidence in a week (after last week’s Faith in America) that Romney has what it takes to become the nation’s president. And the accompanying illustration pushes the total to three, clearly.

Secondly, on the religion side, one of the biggest questions in the public discussion of Mormonism is whether Mormons are Christians. RomneyExperience has dealt several glancing blows to this question, but hasn’t yet confronted it head on. If this is a topic that interests you, please read this piece by Mike Otterson, who is the official spokesman for the LDS Church. Otterson writes on Newsweek’s “On Faith” blog, and offers his own answer to the question of whether Mormons are Christian. The money quote:

But for Mormons, these belief differences have nothing to do with whether or not they are Christian in the true meaning of the word. Mormons believe in the Jesus of the Bible, the same that was born at Bethlehem, grew up in Nazareth, preached His gospel in Galilee and Judea, healed the sick, raised the dead, and finally offered Himself as a sinless ransom for the sins of the world. They believe that Jesus Christ was literally resurrected, that He lives today, and that He is the only name under heaven by which mankind can be saved. This is the Jesus whose name is depicted on the front of every Mormon place of worship. This is the Jesus in whose name every Mormon prays and every sermon is preached. This is the Jesus whose body and blood are commemorated in weekly worship services by Latter-day Saints from Nigeria to New Zealand, from Michigan to Mongolia. For Latter-day Saints who try to live their lives as they believe Jesus taught, assertions that they aren’t Christian are as bewildering as they are wounding.

It’s a great piece, worth a few minutes of your time.

The Speech: Final Reactions Post

I notice that Matt Evans, from the Mormon blog Times and Seasons, has done the hard work of collecting numerous full-length responses to Romney’s speech, again, mostly very positive. Instead of re-creating a complete summary for myself, I’m cribbing it verbatim from him, with apologies (and a hearty hat tip, of course!) to Matt. Original link is here.

Romney defends faith in speech he shouldn’t have to give, Editors, USA Today

One Nation Under Mitt, Kathleen Parker, Southern Illinoisian

Boldness, Watered Down, E. J. Dionne, Washington Post

Mitt Romney Raised the Bar, Rush Limbaugh, RushLimbaugh.com

What Iowans Should Know About Mormons, Naomi Schaefer Riley, Wall Street Journal

Latter-day Speaker, Maggie Gallager et al, National Review

Faith vs. the Faithless, David Brooks, New York Times

Answering Critics — and Kennedy, Michael Gerson, Washington Post

Romney’s Achievement, Fred Barnes, Weekly Standard

I’m a Mormon: Take it or leave it, Romney says, Jessica Van Sack, Boston Herald

Mitt Romney’s Case for Pastor in Chief, Domke and Coe, Seattle Intelligencer

VIDEO: Fred Barnes, Mora Liasson and Charles Krauthamer

VIDEO: Sean Hannity with Evangelical Leaders

And by the way, in case you had forgotten that there are seething, irrational people out there who hate Mitt Romney as much as they hate religion itself, our old friend Christopher Hitchens has a new tirade out, to Slate.com’s continuing shame. This is another piece of completely unhinged teeth-gnashing without any basis in facts. I may get to a point by point rebuttal today, but if not, please see my last post detailing the numerous inaccuracies relied upon in the ravings of this increasingly dismissable antagonist.

Mitt Romney’s “Symphony of Faith”

The speech is over and the reviews are pouring in. I thought I’d take a moment to give my own preliminary thoughts before launching into full-scale analysis.

First, some of my favorite lines:

In John Adams’ words: ‘We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion. Our constitution was made for a moral and religious people.’

****

I will put no doctrine of any church above the plain duties of the office and the sovereign authority of the law. . . .When I place my hand on the Bible and take the oath of office, that oath becomes my highest promise to God. If I am fortunate to become your president, I will serve no one religion, no one group, no one cause, and no one interest. A President must serve only the common cause of the people of the United States.

****

No candidate should become the spokesman for his faith. For if he becomes President he will need the prayers of the people of all faiths.

****

I am moved by the Lord’s words: ‘For I was an hungered, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: naked, and ye clothed me.’

My faith is grounded on these truths. You can witness them in Ann and my marriage and in our family. We are a long way from perfect and we have surely stumbled along the way, but our aspirations, our values, are the self-same as those from the other faiths that stand upon this common foundation. And these convictions will indeed inform my presidency.

****

And the inspiring closing passage:

And so it is for hundreds of millions of our countrymen: we do not insist on a single strain of religion – rather, we welcome our nation’s symphony of faith. .

Recall the early days of the First Continental Congress in Philadelphia, during the fall of 1774. With Boston occupied by British troops, there were rumors of imminent hostilities and fears of an impending war. In this time of peril, someone suggested that they pray. But there were objections. ‘They were too divided in religious sentiments’, what with Episcopalians and Quakers, Anabaptists and Congregationalists, Presbyterians and Catholics.

Then Sam Adams rose, and said he would hear a prayer from anyone of piety and good character, as long as they were a patriot.

And so together they prayed, and together they fought, and together, by the grace of God. they founded this great nation.

In that spirit, let us give thanks to the divine ‘author of liberty.’ And together, let us pray that this land may always be blessed, ‘with freedom’s holy light.’

I thought this was a passionate, inspiring, even sometimes rousing speech. First and foremost, my main takeaway was the same I always come up with after hearing Mitt Romney speak at length: that regardless of the substance, this guy has serious presidential chops. As a communicator and a spokesman for big ideas, you can’t beat Mitt Romney. I think the biggest result of this speech will be that American media, and to a lesser extent American voters, got to see Mitt Romney at his impassioned best. Against that backdrop, the charge of plasticity is hard to maintain.

Second, I thought the content was pretty masterful, especially given that it was written almost exclusively by the candidate himself. It displayed a deep grasp of the American milieu, the interdependence of religion and public life, and respect for minority viewpoints. As a message directed at an audience, it struck the right tone of independence combined with conciliation.

I’ve already heard critiques that it wasn’t Mormon enough. It’s true, there was little specific Mormon content here, which the campaign has been prepping us for all week. Still, I think the Governor missed an opportunity when discussing some of the appealing distinctives of other faiths (which was very nice, by the way), to insert a paragraph about what makes Mormonism appealing. He also has a lot of material about Mormon patriotism and Liberalism that could have been used. (But slyly inserting Brigham Young into Roger Williams’ and Anne Hutchison’s club of venerable religious dissenters was brilliant.).  But Mormons recognized something very Mormon about this speech- the choking up.  That was an poignant convergence between the impassioned but stony mode of American public speaking and the more emotional, sometimes teary delivery of Mormon religious speakers.

In sum, this was a speech with many strong moments, and not one flat note that comes to mind. He handled the potentially divisive topic of empty European churches with grace, and came off strong against both secularism and jihadism.

Personally, I think he nailed it.

Article VI

Article VI of the U.S. Constitution is having a great year. Rarely has it been as famous as it is right now. It is regularly invoked as a guiding principle in America’s management of the relationship between religion and government. It’s even lent its name to a pretty good blog. Now it’s getting an even snazzier treatment: Hollywood!

Okay, maybe not Hollywood per se, but it is being made into a movie. Here’s the trailer to the upcoming film “Article VI.”

The film also received a nice writeup today at Politico.com. Its basic purpose is to help people understand the ways in which they bring religious preconceptions and criteria to their political behavior, and maybe help people be a bit more open-minded on these issues. I’ve only seen the trailer, but I’m hearing good things about this movie, which will be released right in the middle of primary season, mid-January. Take a look and pass the word along.