Commentary Magazine


Topic: Mormon Church

Romney’s Faith is an Asset, Not a Problem

Heading into this year’s Republican primaries, it was an open question as to whether Mitt Romney’s Mormon faith would be a hindrance to his presidential hopes, as it may have been four years earlier. Evangelical resistance to voting for a Mormon was exploited by Mike Huckabee in 2008. Last October, when a pastor affiliated with Texas Governor Rick Perry spoke up about Mormons being part of a cult and said it was acceptable for voters to reject a candidate because of his faith, it was reasonable to wonder whether religious prejudice might play a role in this election too. But this time the attacks on Mormonism didn’t work and tonight Romney will be in the spotlight as he accepts his party’s nomination.

Just how much Romney will talk about his faith in the speech is a subject for speculation. But rather than shy away from it, tonight’s convention program will talk about the subject openly. Given that faith has always been central to him, that’s appropriate. But it’s also good politics. Though Democrats have at times spoken as if they could profit from a campaign aimed at portraying Romney as “weird” — coded language that could only be a reference to the uber-conventional Republican’s faith — the more the public understands about the candidate’s religiosity, charitable giving and belief in helping others, it can only help him.

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Heading into this year’s Republican primaries, it was an open question as to whether Mitt Romney’s Mormon faith would be a hindrance to his presidential hopes, as it may have been four years earlier. Evangelical resistance to voting for a Mormon was exploited by Mike Huckabee in 2008. Last October, when a pastor affiliated with Texas Governor Rick Perry spoke up about Mormons being part of a cult and said it was acceptable for voters to reject a candidate because of his faith, it was reasonable to wonder whether religious prejudice might play a role in this election too. But this time the attacks on Mormonism didn’t work and tonight Romney will be in the spotlight as he accepts his party’s nomination.

Just how much Romney will talk about his faith in the speech is a subject for speculation. But rather than shy away from it, tonight’s convention program will talk about the subject openly. Given that faith has always been central to him, that’s appropriate. But it’s also good politics. Though Democrats have at times spoken as if they could profit from a campaign aimed at portraying Romney as “weird” — coded language that could only be a reference to the uber-conventional Republican’s faith — the more the public understands about the candidate’s religiosity, charitable giving and belief in helping others, it can only help him.

Too many political pundits make the mistake of forgetting how religious Americans are as a people. It’s true that there are fewer Mormons than Jews in this country, but most voters have a deep respect for faith. That’s a lesson Democrats should have learned in 2000 when Joe Lieberman’s observance of Judaism proved to be an asset in terms of building respect for both him and Al Gore’s ticket.

Talking about Romney’s faith is important because it illustrates that the Obama campaign’s caricature of him as a heartless plutocrat bears little resemblance to the person running for president. As much as Ann Romney’s impressive speech about her husband helped fill in some of the blanks in his profile for most viewers, they also need to hear more about the way religion shaped the choices he made and the way he has always conducted himself.

Democratic opposition researchers wasted a lot of time this year trying to dig up non-existent dirt about Romney. The best they could do was a half-baked story about a high school prank. The connection between Romney’s dedication to his faith and the lack of success that such fishing expeditions experienced is obvious.

It is true that bias against Mormons is still a potent factor in American life and may exceed even anti-Semitism in terms of its influence. Though the bias that created pogroms in the early years of the faith and even a shooting war between Mormons and the United States in the 1950s is not a subject most voters know about, the image of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as a cult is far from dead.

Nevertheless, Democrats ought not to be happy about more discussion of Romney’s faith. The more Republicans talk about it, the better their chances of convincing the public that he is the sort of person who can be trusted with the nation’s affairs and, of ultimately prevailing in the election, will be.

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Would Bloomberg Mock Islam Like That?

Two years ago when the Ground Zero mosque controversy was at its height, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg was not only among the most ardent defenders of the plan to put an Islamic center in the shadow of the site of the 9/11 attack, he was also among the loudest of those accusing the project’s critics of bigotry. Saying that those who questioned the appropriateness of the plan should be “ashamed of themselves,” the mayor proclaimed that nothing less than the principle of religious liberty was at stake in building the center. But as the cover of the latest issue of Bloomberg Businessweek demonstrates, squeamishness among our elites — even those who run a magazine that is named for the mayor’s business empire — about even the appearance of prejudice is often limited these days to things that might offend Muslims. When it comes to Mormons, anything still goes.

The cover, which takes a piece of Mormon iconography in which Jesus is depicted as speaking to Mormon prophets, provides a caption bubble in which he instructs them, “And thou shalt build a shopping mall, buy stock in Burger King and open a Polynesian theme park in Hawaii that shall be largely exempt from the frustrations of tax…” to which one of the prophets responds, “Hallelujah.”

While the business affairs of the Mormon church are fair game for coverage, one has to ask the same question about this cover that can be posed about many of the cheap shots at the Mormons (or Catholics, for that matter): Would Businessweek be any more likely to mock the Prophet Mohammad in this manner than the veterans of the South Park comedy series were when they produced a Broadway hit satirizing the church?

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Two years ago when the Ground Zero mosque controversy was at its height, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg was not only among the most ardent defenders of the plan to put an Islamic center in the shadow of the site of the 9/11 attack, he was also among the loudest of those accusing the project’s critics of bigotry. Saying that those who questioned the appropriateness of the plan should be “ashamed of themselves,” the mayor proclaimed that nothing less than the principle of religious liberty was at stake in building the center. But as the cover of the latest issue of Bloomberg Businessweek demonstrates, squeamishness among our elites — even those who run a magazine that is named for the mayor’s business empire — about even the appearance of prejudice is often limited these days to things that might offend Muslims. When it comes to Mormons, anything still goes.

The cover, which takes a piece of Mormon iconography in which Jesus is depicted as speaking to Mormon prophets, provides a caption bubble in which he instructs them, “And thou shalt build a shopping mall, buy stock in Burger King and open a Polynesian theme park in Hawaii that shall be largely exempt from the frustrations of tax…” to which one of the prophets responds, “Hallelujah.”

While the business affairs of the Mormon church are fair game for coverage, one has to ask the same question about this cover that can be posed about many of the cheap shots at the Mormons (or Catholics, for that matter): Would Businessweek be any more likely to mock the Prophet Mohammad in this manner than the veterans of the South Park comedy series were when they produced a Broadway hit satirizing the church?

The article that the cover illustration teases actually doesn’t do much, if any, harm to the Mormons. Despite the best efforts of the magazine to find disgruntled ex-employees who would dish some juicy dirt about Mormon skullduggery, there’s little here to disgrace the church. If anything, what comes across is the portrait of a prosperous faith community that has applied the values of its church to the business world and produced entities that are largely successful as well as popular.

Much of the scrutiny of the Mormons is clearly the product of Mitt Romney’s presidential candidacy. But rather than the prospect of the first Mormon president being the subject of stories emphasizing the historic nature of this potential breakthrough for a minority group that comprises slightly more than one percent of the population and which suffered terrible discrimination in its early years, the tenor of most of the coverage comes from a very different frame of reference. Much like the Obama campaign’s desire to portray the Republican candidate as “weird,” the notion that there is something unwholesome or unusual about a faith group that runs thriving businesses is rooted in a view of the otherwise all-American Mormons as aliens in our midst.

Unlike Muslims who have reacted to even the mildest of satire about their faith with terror and violence, the Mormons are too smart and too sane to even take much notice of insults directed at their faith. But while the Mormon business empire should not be exempt from scrutiny, the attitude that treats anti-Mormon prejudice as a species of prejudice that is somehow acceptable in mainstream and even liberal publications is an indication of the selective definition of religious bias practiced by some in our chattering classes. Mayor Bloomberg doesn’t make decisions about the magazine that bears his name. Yet when you put the cover in the context of the mayor’s speech about the mosque, the double standard about religious prejudice that is the norm these days is all too obvious.

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