Romney- Too Religious, But Also Lacking in Conviction

Today brings one of the strangest attacks so far, from a Rhonda Chriss Lokeman writing for the Columbia Free Press. The title is “Big Love’s Big Problem.” This is confusing for a bit, until the reader realizes that “Big Love” appears to be this writer’s pet name for Mitt Romney. She does not explain the appellation, nor does she even announce it. She just uses it as if everyone knows what we’re talking about. And if this writer weren’t so eminently dismiss-able, one might find the energy to be truly taken aback by the casual, disdainful use of this nickname.

Big Love, in case you’re not aware, is HBO’s series about a family of non-Mormon polygamists seeking to live normal lives in Utah. Mitt Romney, in case you hadn’t heard, is candidate for the presidency who happens to be Mormon. It is a gargantuan strain to connect these two dots, but without even a sentence of explanation, this woman has done it. To get a sense for how dehumanizing this is, imagine some trite, demeaning popular depiction of blacks in the 1940’s, and then append the name of the character or show to a black person without any connection thereto. Try the same with a woman or a Jewish person. What if we called Hillary, “June Cleaver” without any explanation? It may be more egregious in the case of a woman or racial minority, given the difficulty each group still has in overcoming real prejudice, but it’s exactly the same ugly tendency. There is simply no reason to call Mitt Romney “Big Love” except to slur him, connect him with polygamy, and convey the opinion that he is not worth dignified consideration.

But this is not her only sin. The writer also dabbles in a favorite pastime for those covering Romney’s religion. Namely, she tries her hand at constructing an argument for why Mitt Romney’s religion is in play in the campaign, and why he should have to explain himself on the topic. We’ve seen a few different arguments on this point in the past, and they just keep coming- (including in this column today by Richard Cohen- HT: EFM).

Ms. Lokeman takes a somewhat original angle. First, she argues that

Mitt Romney can’t claim to be the new darling of the Religious Right while claiming it’s wrong to bring up religion in discussions about his presidential aspirations.

Then she goes on to say that

Mitt Romney isn’t just a casual practitioner of his faith; he has held church positions. I know good Catholics who never were part of their parish councils. I know Baptists who never taught Sunday school. When you take the step to ascend your church’s hierarchy, it does suggest some passion, to say nothing about ambition.

This is a remarkable line of attack. First, it’s important to note how wrong this author’s assumptions are. The entry of a Mormon into positions of leadership in the LDS Church says absolutely nothing about his or her ambition, and very little about his or her passion. That’s because Mormons serve in all sorts of positions at all times, and every such position is taken at the request of a leader. There is no position in the Mormon church for which you can sign up or volunteer. Mitt Romney was a Mormon Bishop and Stake President because someone asked him to be, not because he campaigned for it.

But those are just factual misconceptions. The much larger issue is the attempt to use Mitt Romney’s religious conviction against him. It’s as if Ms. Lokeman is saying that Mitt Romney could skate by on this religion thing if he were just a little less devout. But since we’ve got proof he actually tries to live his religion, well now he’s got some ‘splainin to do. Too bad Mitt wasn’t smart enough to avoid such unsavory entanglements as serving the people in his Church.

The idea that Mitt Romney has to answer for his religion because he is passionate about it, and because he wants the votes of the Religious right, is hogwash. These are tests without any logic behind them, driven more by suspicion of religious people than by any tailored inquiry for specific data. More importantly, it would be deeply prejudicial (not to mention paradoxical) to expect more confessional depth from the very devout than from the tepidly religious. The result is that the more privately religious you are, the more publicly suspect you are. If you don’t carry your burden of proof by explaining exactly how you approach your religion (preferably in secularly digestable trivialities), you’ll be dumped for someone who’s more . . . circumspect about his faith.

The other argument leveled today is that of WaPo columnist Richard Cohen, who argues that Romney’s religion is fair game, despite his constant protestations to the contrary, because he has cited the Bible during the campaign, and has “emphasized his Christian bona fides.” This argument is not an original one. As we’ve discussed before, it constructs a trap for any candidate that seems to be influenced by his or her religion, in three easy steps. First, Romney is compelled to explain who he is in the campaign, including stating that he is religious. Second, because he’s a religious minority, he has to let people know his religious values are mainstream. Third, any person who tries to appear to have mainstream religious values is required to answer for the whole of his religious belief system.

If you think Romney could have navigated this campaign with any modicum of success without taking those first two steps, you don’t understand American politics. Thus, Romney had no choice but to wander right into this trap. Fortunately, the third step is based on a misunderstanding as well. There is no reason to think that a person’s entire religious philosophy is on the table simply because he portrays himself as within the mainstream of American life. On the contrary, we allow people every day to position themselves as typical Americans while they carry on very non-typical lives in private. That’s a quintessentially American indulgence. The courtesy ought to extend to the guy whose private religiosity is clearly beyond reproach.

The kind of attack seen from these two authors rests on a strange kind of distrust, the view that people with religious convictions may be too deviant to let slip through the system without an advanced screening. What’s ironic about this position is how often it is combined with the charge that Mitt Romney doesn’t believe anything at all. Ms. Lokeman closes her column with just such a jab- “Makes you wonder about his convictions, assuming he has any real ones.” This is the same woman who earlier accused Mitt Romney of being disconcertingly passionate about his religion– and yet he lacks conviction. Apparently we’ve come to a point where the only genuine conviction is one’s refusal to view his religion as a significant part of his life. As for religious passion, that’s not quite as much “conviction” as it is “psychosis.”