Religion And Politics

[ Posted Tuesday, April 29th, 2008 – 17:28 UTC ]

[Note: Due to everyone else blathering about it, I am going to write this column without once mentioning Barack Obama or Reverend Jeremiah Wright. I am also going to break this blog's motto and escape reality-based politics for one day. Hope you don't mind.]


I invite you to enter an alternate reality with me. One in which the media was in a feeding frenzy over religion in American politics, a presidential candidate had to give a major speech about his religious affiliation in order to fight back hard against a guilt-by-association campaign against him, in order to assure Americans that his religion was "normal" and not something to be afraid of.

This may sound familiar -- but remember, I said an alternate reality.

In this "What if?" universe, Mitt Romney is the Republican nominee for president. It's not so very hard to imagine this outcome -- John McCain, having never recovered, sank into obscurity, and Mike Huckabee was eventually overcome by Romney's financial advantage in the race.

Now, Romney was actually the first candidate who "had" to give a speech about religion in the race. Because he is a member of the Church of Latter-Day Saints, also known as the LDS Church, or (more commonly) the Mormons. And if you have watched any television news in the past few weeks, you probably can see where I'm going with this.

If Mitt Romney was the Republican nominee at this point in time (all else being equal), he would be forced to give another speech on religion. Because his own family tree is involved. Mitt's father, George (who also ran for the Republican presidential nomination) was born in Mexico. The reason Mitt's great-great-grandfather moved his family to Mexico in the first place (back in 1884) was because the U.S. Supreme Court had upheld making polygamy illegal. Which Mitt's great-great-grandfather practiced. As did his great-grandfather.

Now, Mitt Romney has been pretty unequivocal about denouncing polygamy. Here's what he has said about it in the past:

There is nothing more awful, in my view, than the violation of the marriage covenant that one has with one’s wife. The practice of polygamy is abhorrent, it’s awful, and it drives me nuts that people who are polygamists keep pretending to use the umbrella of my church....My church abhors it, it excommunicates people who practice it, and it's got nothing to do with my faith.

But Romney also used it as a joke on the campaign trail ("I believe marriage should be between a man and a woman... and a woman... and a woman").

These are fine distinctions, it should be pointed out. Mitt's not a polygamist, and nobody has even suggested it. Great-grandfather is pretty far removed. The LDS Church is definitely not the FLDS (they add "Fundamentalist" to the title), which is a splinter group that left mainstream Mormonism a century ago -- and which is the sect responsible for the "polygamist compound" in Texas which has been making all the recent headlines.

All fine distinctions indeed, and all in Mitt's favor. But think about it for a minute -- does the mainstream media ever do a good job with "fine distinctions," or do they just dumb-down the storyline into a "gotcha" question that refuses to die? It's pretty easy to see them drawing a line from Mitt Romney to Mormonism to the FLDS to sexually abusing children.

Now (this may sound familiar), Mitt could give another impressive speech on religion. He could adequately answer any possible question about where he stands on the issue. The question is, would that be enough? The entire episode would certainly remind every voter in America that Mitt's a Mormon, reviving uncertainties among certain demographics (most notably in the South) in the Republican base who are uncomfortable (at best) with Mormonism as a whole.

The issue of what actually happened in Texas, and whether the state was right to do what it did or could have handled things differently is a completely different subject, I should add. I do not condemn polygamy out of hand, and have written before that if we're contemplating gay marriage as a possibility then we should also consider whether polygamy should also be legal. But, as I wrote back then:

Polygamy could certainly use some good press. Most Americans have a view of polygamy as being Mormon fundamentalists holed up in a town and marrying 14 year-old girls. This reputation is not entirely undeserved, as the recent case of Warren Jeffs, the FLDS church, and the domination of the towns of Colorado City, AZ and Hildale, UT proves. But while the ugliness of child-rape and forced marriage is undeniable, all polygamy simply cannot be tarred with the same brush. The gay rights movement has had to work long and hard to separate its cause from the public's misguided perception of its association with pedophilia, and the polygamy movement will have the same tough road ahead of it.

The concept of polygamous relationships (or even marriages) between consenting adults is one thing. Warren Jeffs and the FLDS forcing girls as young as 13 and 14 to bear children is quite another (the Texas compound was part of Jeffs' sect). A not-so-fine distinction, but again, one the media may just gloss over.

Part of the reason, of course, that I posit this entire alternate reality is to wonder what the media would be doing at this point if Romney were indeed the GOP nominee. Call it wishful-thinking Democratic schadenfreude if you will. It certainly would be more fun for me to see Republicans sweating profusely about their chances in November than what's going on right now in the race, I freely admit.

But my larger point is that I truly wish America treated religious beliefs a little differently. Rather than just an alternate reality where Mitt Romney is getting mercilessly raked over the coals by the media, in my ideal alternate universe, I wish that it was possible for America to elect an atheist as president. Or a Jew, a Muslim, a Hindu, or a Wiccan. But I just don't see it happening any time soon (OK, maybe a Jewish president -- I could picture that -- but I just can't see any of the others as realistic possibilities in my lifetime). Because while the Constitution forbids any sort of "religious test" for holding office in America, the American voters have their own "religious test" when they pull a lever in the voting booth. And just like any bigotry, there are some voters who wouldn't vote for someone who wasn't sufficiently "like me" in worship, no matter what else the candidate believed or stood for. Especially since the definition of "like me" is up to each and every individual voter to decide.


-- Chris Weigant


2 Comments on “Religion And Politics”

  1. [1] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    I like your ideal alternate universe.

    In my ideal alternate universe, I would only wish that it was possible for America to elect the most qualified candidate to be the next POTUS. In my alternate universe, the media - mainstream and otherwise - and blogosphere would not ignore, and otherwise dismiss, the most qualified candidate or perpetuate negative national myths about him...or, when they’re not ignoring him, misrepresent his policy proposals.

    In my alternate universe, the most qualified candidate for POTUS wouldn't have to endure anything like the fiasco in Iowa, 2008 edition, which would force such a candidate out of the race while elevating candidates less competent and qualified to meet the critical challenges of the day, at home and abroad.

    But, I just don't see it happening anytime soon, either. I guess we had better resign ourselves to setting our sights decidedly lower than the stars and to settling for so much less than the very best.


  2. [2] 
    fstanley wrote:

    In my alternate universe not only would the voting public be able to separate a candidate's religion from his/her ability to be President but that the candidate could also set aside his/her religious beliefs and represent the entire nation.

    Public Policy should not be faith based.

    Good post.

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