On eve of nomination, how Mitt Romney's Mormonism looks through journalism's eyes

Since the middle of summer, candidate Mitt Romney's mantra when asked about his religion has been variations of, "I'm running for commander-in-chief, not pastor-in-chief."

Lately, though, the wraps are coming off the topic. On Sunday August 19, Romney invited several reporters to attend Mormon services with his family near their New Hampshire summer retreat.

A Mormon minister will give the invocation before Romney's acceptance speech Thursday night. Late last week it was announced that a tribute video to the candidate will include testimonials from associates and people he helped in his many years as a lay Mormon bishop in the Boston area.

ABC World News Tonight ran a two-part series on the Mormonism last week, and NBC's Rock Center devoted its entire hour to the topic Thursday night.

Having convened a conference on covering religion and politics last December in Washington, while monitoring at least some of what has been written about Romney's faith, I have a couple of thoughts for journalists and interested citizens coming fresh to the topic.

Typically, religion only becomes a major theme of presidential coverage if there is a precipitating event. There hasn't and probably won't be one this campaign. A representative example was candidate Barack Obama's sequence of statements and interviews in 2008 distancing himself from the more inflammatory statements of his former pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright. Another example, former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee took some digs at Romney's Mormonism while courting the Evangelical vote and winning the 2008 Iowa primary.

The stage was set for that sort of flareup in October 2011, when Evangelical pastor Robert Jeffress said he would rather have a born-again Christian like Texas Governor Rick Perry as the candidate and labelled Mormonism a "cult."

Romney deflected questions on the matter with a mild comment on the American tradition of respect for varying religious beliefs -- and the issue quickly faded. Jeffress has since said that he will vote for Romney.

Romney has been saying in recent interviews that he is proud of his faith and that it has been an important part of his life. I doubt he will go much beyond that no matter the course of the campaign.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has not endorsed Romney's candidacy and won't. Not to say individual Mormons will be numb to the historic occasion or sitting on their wallets, but officially the church stays out of politics.The church-owned Deseret News will also continue a long tradition of not endorsing a candidate, CEO Clark Gilbert told me.

To underscore the formal separation, church spokesman Michael Otterson told me, he will stay 2,300 miles away in Salt Lake City rather than coming to Tampa.

The Evangelical-Mormon split is at play in a few primaries but not in the general election. Like Pastor Jeffress, voters on the Evangelical right may think Mormons are not their kind of Christians and prefer kindred thinkers as a Republican standard bearer. But against a candidate like Obama, at total variance with their conservative views on social issues, they will vote for the available Republican.

Polling by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, most recently in July, suggests that discomfort with Romney's religious beliefs will play a tiny role, if any, in November's result.

By their own definitions and most others, Mormons are Christians.  They are accustomed to a degree of separation from the mainstream but understandably offended by hostile mocking. So attention via the Romney candidacy is on the whole welcome as a teachable moment, to dispel the perceived "weirdness" of some Mormon beliefs and practices.

Otterson addressed the matter at our conference last December with a Stephen Colbert clip. Colbert, in his overbearing, eye-rolling stage persona, is aghast at the notion that God presented Joseph Smith sacred revelations in a field in Western New York state, when, he said, everyone knows God emerged from a burning bush and told Moses to lead the Israelites out of Egypt.

The Tampa Bay Times reported Saturday that local Mormons have been deputized to make the case that they are normal, should any visiting reporters ask. And that despite Romney's two years as a Mormon missionary in France, he will not be out to convert anyone as president.

Even with all this demystifying in progress, I am left with two substantial Mormon questions.

Is Romney's Mormonism one among several important influences in his life or is it THE key to understanding him? In "The Real Romney," authors Michael Kranish and Scott Helman provide a rich picture of his family history, missionary work, time as a regional church official and extraordinary commitment to family life. Still, that's an aspect of Romney's biography perhaps more relevant as a shaping influence earlier than now. As a candidate he is equally or more focused on closing the deal with voters, then applying business insights to the nation's economic and fiscal issues.

At a Poynter Institute forum Sunday afternoon, Kranish made the point, responding to questions about Romney's various abortion positions, that he has said a number of times that church doctrine does not determine or even influence his stand on policy issues.

Other commentators -- notably liberal columnists Frank Rich and Michael Kinsley -- hypothesize that Mormonism is what really makes Romney tick, and that his near silence on his faith has been the biggest reason some are still asking, "Who is this guy?"

Rich puts it this way in a January New York Magazine piece titled "Who In God's Name is Mitt Romney?":

Romney’s faith has contributed to his self-segregation from the actual 'real streets of America.' His closest circle comes from within his faith ... Much as the isolating cocoon of Romney’s wealth can lead him to dismiss $347,327 in speaking fees as 'not very much' (to take just one recent example of his cluelessness about how the other 99 percent lives), so the demographic isolation imposed by his religion takes its own political toll. When he’s forced to interact with the America beyond his hermetically sealed Mormon orbit, we get instant YouTube classics.

Kinsley put it more succinctly in a July column:

The important point is that Romney may be a fool even to want to bottle up his faith and pack it away for the duration because it could be the best thing about him. It certainly humanizes him, which he needs.

If the election cycle is the occasion for the 98.3 percent of us who are not Mormon to learn more about it, what's the takeaway? Knowing Clark Gilbert for several years as a professional friend gave me a head start, and he and others at Deseret provided a lot of help in putting together the Poynter politics and religion conference. I'm coming to accept that there is a more than a grain of truth to several Mormon stereotypes.

Good at business? Yes, a number are. Romney and the founder of Jet Blue Airlines. And Gilbert was among a so-called "Mormon mafia" at Harvard Business School including former dean Kim Clark and innovation guru Clayton Christensen.

Big families? Often yes. The religion views families as an unmixed blessing. And if I understand correctly, one of the church's unusual tenets is that the souls of unborn children exist already and are waiting to find a body. So parents with the health and means to have lots of children should.

I think the devotion to family values, abstinence from liquor and caffeine, tithing and community outreach are important. Conversely, the church can be an uncomfortable place for the non-conforming -- gays and feminists especially.

What do those component parts add up to? One of the best answers I have found came in a long personal article by novelist Walter Kirn ("Up in the Air") this summer in The New Republic. Though he ultimately left the church, Kirn writes movingly of a time of great family dysfunction while he was teenager, when Mormon missionaries came knocking and provided the lifeline of a supportive community.

I also was taken by a summary view from Ross Douthat, a conservative Catholic scholar of religion and New York Times columnist. Perhaps because of a history of persecution and isolation, he said during a twice yearly get together of religious thinkers called Faith Angle, the Mormons have been far more successful than his own and other religions at getting members to practice what the church teaches in increasingly secular and hedonistic times.

The result, Douthat said, is a sort of time warp:

To many outsiders to Mormon culture, it does seem like Mormons are stuck in the ‘50s. That the reason they've been so resilient is that they've just sort of walled themselves off from these trends and they still seem like the Cleavers or Donny and Marie.

I'm old enough to remember (I was 13 at the time) John Kennedy's run for president and the earnest discussion of whether a Catholic was fit to be president. I'm embarrassed, in retrospect, that my liberal WASP family and church seemed to think that was a legitimate question. History would seem to show that JFK was not taking direction from the Pope on how to govern or much else.

So I guess the biggest Mormon question on the table is really one of acceptance. Will a bias against Romney on religious grounds look just as silly as that against Kennedy within a few years?


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