The Washington Post’s Jason Horowitz has an interesting piece discussing the difficulty of covering Mitt Romney’s religion in the presidential campaign. The question in the headline: “Is Mitt Romney’s Mormonism Fair Game?” Horowitz appears to make some good faith attempts at tracking down a fair answer, but is ultimately too caught up in perceived dilemmas to bring any real light to the problem.
Horowitz argues that “Romney hasn’t made identification of [religious] boundaries any easier. He has highlighted his devoutness and churchgoing, but he has avoided discussing the substance of his religion.” Horowitz assumes, without arguing, that this is an illogical position. But the opposite is true. In almost every current example of American norms on what is public and private in personal identity, we view practice and lifestyle as publicly evident and relevant, and theology as private.
First, think of your own friends and acquaintances. Most of us know people of other faiths. What is on the table for discussion with most of them? That they practice their faith, that they celebrate this or that holy day, that they live their family life a certain way. These are things that are very frequently chatted about among friends of different faiths. Now suppose you start to wonder if your friend really believes that crazy thing you heard those people believe. Is that an appropriate thing to bring up over a lunch with co-workers? If this is a really close friend, maybe. But not in polite society, no way.
It turns out that that basic social norm is applied in politics and public life all the time as well. It is a matter of public record what church President Obama attends. It is understood that he celebrates Easter, just as it was well known that President Bush prayed frequently. These are outward expressions of private faith, and contribute to a complete public profile of these men. Similarly, the church spokesman in the Horowitz piece notes that “it is a matter of public record that [Romney] served as a Mormon bishop and a stake president.” No one expects the press to ignore these biographical facts.
Where Horowitz and the rest of the press get hung up is their desire to move from basic details of Romney’s lived religion to deeper abstractions of theology. There will be time enough over the coming campaign to explain all of the problems with this type of inquiry, but here is the simplest: It’s never been done before. No one ever cared to know how Bill Clinton felt about the resurrection of Jesus. President Obama was asked some pointed questions about the statements of a reverend, but those were explicitly political in nature (and his supporters consistently cried foul every time those questions came up). Presidents and public figures have come and gone for decades without ever being required to explain theology or church history or unusual beliefs or idiosyncrasies.
So the question is: Why must Mitt Romney? And the answer we often receive is that Mormonism is new, it’s unfamiliar, so if we’re going to vote for this man, his religion must be vetted along with everything else in his life. The answer is flawed because it assumes that only Mormonism– the unfamiliar faith– is weird. This is demonstrably untrue. There are numerous doctrines in Barack Obama’s Christianity, George W. Bush’s Episcopalian belief, and Bill Clinton’s Southern Baptist faith (and etc.) that would be hard to defend in secular conversation in the public square. No one has ever been able to translate private religious belief for a secular civic audience. So why would we only expect members of minority faiths to try? Note the featured episode in the Horowitz story in which a random questioner at a town hall gets up and questions Romney about doctrinal beliefs about mixed-race marriage. While some may find this sort of inquisition entertaining, it would be hard to argue that the public gains anything from it.
The media has done a good job educating the public on Mitt Romney’s biography– including his religious biography. Well-reported pieces have been published regarding his church service, his missionary service, and his family life. These historical facts coalesce to form the profile of a man running for office. Pushing those inquiries to another level– to examine how he relates to the story of Joseph Smith (as suggested by Horowitz) for example, would be not only discriminatory, but unprecedented. The media should maintain its focus on biography and public policy. Leave theology to the theologians.
(Photo from Romney Campaign, via Washington Post)