You Can’t Run on Religion

The idea continues to circulate that Republican nominee Mitt Romney ought to make his religious heritage a more central part of his campaign messaging.  There are two related rationales for this line of thinking.  First, there’s the notion (most recently forwarded by Joanna Brooks, an LDS writer and commentator) that only through understanding Romney’s experience of Mormonism can we fully grasp the character and leadership that he would bring to the presidency.  Second, there’s the idea that Romney’s life of serving in his church provides a great opportunity to humanize him, by showing the diversity of people he has worked with, and the real acts of thoughtfulness and charity that marked his labors.  Slate’s John Dickerson makes this point here.  Dickerson draws on a presentation given Monday by Michael Otterson (head of the LDS Church’s public affairs outfit) and Clayton Christensen, a prominent business professor and author, in which Christensen argued that being a Mormon is something to be very proud of, and would bring needed balance and color to Romney’s public resume.  I respect Joanna Brooks and Clayton Christensen.  Both are wise and thoughtful commentators on Mormon issues.  But to the extent either actually believes that Mitt Romney needs to educate the American public about his lived experience of Mormonism, I think they’re dead wrong.

First, Professor Brooks.  In her Washington Post op-ed, Brooks argues that Romney must certainly have drawn conclusions through the prism of his faith on issues like gay rights, gender discrimination, and racial equality.  She also hypothesizes that Romney’s leadership style and views of foreign affairs must also have been formed by religious belief.  The question, as Brooks puts it, is whether Romney “consults his faith” in making decisions on all sorts of different issues.  And for me, the answer that comes to mind is: if so, we’ve already seen it.  Like every human, Mitt Romney is a complex person, having been influenced by all kinds of different people, institutions, and ideas.  Some these influences are undoubtedly religious.  But does anyone really know how much of their own views on foreign policy can be traced to one’s theology?  So far, it’s clear that Mitt Romney consults a variety of sources in making decisions– including past experiences, his reading of history and sociology and demographics, conservative ideology, polling, and campaign and policy advisers.  It isn’t plausible to think that this mix of influences would dramatically change once a President Romney sat down for the first time at his desk in the Oval Office.  Whatever his style might be once elected, it is very unlikely to be dominated by religious thinking after all his years operating as a secular public figure.  It may be interesting to know how a prominent person responded to various movements in his religious community.  But that would bring almost no light to figuring out how that person might govern a country.  What is far more relevant are the public decisions and pronouncements he has made about his thinking and positions.  Psychologizing a person’s faith never leads to firm conclusions, for the very same reason that Harry Reid and Mitt Romney view the world so differently– individuals respond differently to experiences of faith.*

By the same token, there’s also very little reason to believe that Romney would benefit politically from re-casting himself as a compassionate Mormon leader, as Dickerson (half-heartedly) suggests.  If our political dialogue were more sensible, I believe the country would have a lot to gain from this sort of conversation, as would Mr. Romney.  But in the current climate, there is no room at all for discussion of marginalia.  A candidate is allowed two or three main messages, and any departure from the core themes of a campaign inevitably leads to distraction and sensationalized coverage.  In a room of inquisitive, open-minded people, I have no doubt that Romney could use his religious biography to dramatically increase his sympathy quotient.  But that is not the room we live in.  Numbers released just today indicate that 18% of Americans remain unwilling to vote for a Mormon for president.  Even more interesting, only 57% of people know Romney is a Mormon.  While some evidence suggests that learning of his religion reduces unwillingness to vote for a Mormon, it may also be the case that many within that number, upon realizing Romney is LDS, would immediately turn against him, given that nearly a fifth of our populace will not vote for a member of the LDS faith.  It is a very strange idea to ask a candidate with one very controversial aspect of his biography to focus specifically on that part of his life as a campaign tactic.

There are better ways to humanize a robotic-looking candidate.  Put your sons on Conan with some funny stories, or rely on some really sweet photos of you hanging with your grandkids, for example.  But as a presidential candidate, Romney has very little to gain from focusing on his religious experiences.  In the end the prescriptions from Dickerson and Brooks would make it harder, not easier, not only for Mitt Romney to get elected, but for any Mormon to get elected.  This is because Mormons remain a very small minority in American life, and focusing on what makes one different from everyone else is never good politics.  If a candidate really owes it to the electorate to explain how his religion colors all of his other thinking, then we’ll just have fewer religious candidates– especially from minority faiths like Mormonism.  We as a people should avoid any standard that has that result.

*It’s worth noting that Romney’s own silence on his religious life has not kept these stories from the public view.  A number of intrepid journalists have put together well-sourced articles detailing much of that experience: see here, here, here, and here.  In other words, it’s the job of journalists to tell these stories; it’s the job of a candidate to focus on the issues that he thinks will win for him.

Photo via Washington Post

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