Explain Your Faith! (But) Don’t Run on Your Faith!

In an interesting column at U.S. News’ religion blog, Jay Tolson makes the following assertion:

Would Romney do more for himself and his church by being more forthright about what he thinks makes Mormonism different and even, presumably, special? It is hard to say. But such candor might be a better strategy than vague generalities, which arguably have had the effect of heightening suspicions about both Romney and his church.

Tolson believes, perhaps correctly, that Romney’s reticence regarding the specifics of his Mormon beliefs could be hurting him with voters. Perhaps the only thing wrong with Romney’s Mormonism is that no one understands it, so if he would explain it, the whole problem would go away.

Romney has so far employed various strategies in dealing with the issue of his faith. Asked about Mormon beliefs by Judy Woodruff, he told her she’d have to ask the Church, not him. Asked by Chris Matthews whether his religion would hurt him, he opined that Americans just want a person of faith who shares their values. In other words, Romney will deflect questions about being Mormon, or he’ll use them to find common ground with other faiths, but he will not come out and say what it means for him to be a Mormon. Admittedly, this can raise an appearance of being dodgy, as if he has something to hide.

But those who believe Romney’s answers are simply evasive do not understand the entire dilemma he faces. Note this blog post from two days ago, which alleges that Romney has affirmatively made his faith the center of his campaign, so of course we can ask him questions about it. The theme was repeated by ABC’s Jake Tapper as well (to which I have more fully responded here). You’ll have to take it on faith that I’ve seen numerous blog commenters making the same point: Romney is running as a man of faith, so he’s put his beliefs at issue. Ergo . . . open season on questions about polygamy!

Here’s the problem: Romney has decidedly NOT run as a man of faith. He has run on a host of things, including his bio, his competency, experience, and positions. But it is exceedingly rare to see Romney affirmatively bring up his religious beliefs. So why have you heard him say he is a man of faith so many times? Because he has HAD to say so in response to so many questions about his faith. In other words, people can’t stop talking about the fact that Mitt Romney’s a Mormon, so of course he has mentioned that yes, he is a believer, but his values are similar to everyone else’s.

Tapper’s logic is an excellent illustration of the fallacy at work. Romney, he says, put his faith at issue by . . . trying to avoid a question about his faith by George Stephanopoulos. What was Romney supposed to do, stare blankly until the next question came along? He had to answer it, just as he has had to answer the same questions from Woodruff, Matthews and hundreds of other journalists and voters. If there is one thing that is clear about Romney’s campaign to date, it is that he’d like nothing more than to leave his Mormon faith at home, letting it remain a completely private issue. To say, then, that his stock answer to questions about his beliefs– that he has faith and mainstream values– waives any right to privacy about his deeply held beliefs is preposterous.

And thus we come full circle. Jay Tolson says that Mitt Romney is suspect because he refuses to broach the topic of his faith. Jake Tapper et. al. say that even the slightest whisper in answer to an irrelevant question is a concession by Romney that Mormonism is a central part of his campaign. And now you see the difficulty of Mitt Romney’s position. To remain silent on the issue allegedly hurts him. But to even mention his beliefs in the broadest generalities supposedly opens him up to intense scrutiny on every Mormon doctrine. He can’t afford to explain himself, and yet he must.

The opposing arguments (we might term Tolson’s position “rock,” and Tapper’s “hard place”) highlight a somewhat surprising fact: that it remains very, very difficult to navigate a national campaign in America as a religious minority. Whether you explain your faith or keep it in the background, you will never be able to provide the freakshow so many people demand to see. And so a new kind of “soft bigotry” emerges- that of making minorities answer for beliefs they’d rather not discuss, and then mocking them when they do. How sad it would be to see these artificial obstacles defeat the most consummate winner in the race.

Update: Readers have pointed out that this post gives the impression that Tapper, et. al., endorse mocking Romney for his faith. That is not the intention of the post, nor do I believe that to be true. Rather, the post is meant to caution that mockery would surely follow any explanation by Romney of his beliefs, (as it would the explanation of any faith in the political sphere), and this expectation is therefore unfair.

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