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.