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April 10, 2012 9:58 AM Will Mitt Help Make the General Election Godless?

By Ed Kilgore

I’d say it’s a pretty solid—and by that I mean not only widely shared, but logical—part of the political CW that once Mitt Romney’s gets out of the primary season, he’ll want to leave any discussion of the intersection of politics and religion far, far behind. After all, that seems to be his basic inclination, as reflected in his I’ll-address-this-once-and-for-all speech on the subject in 2007. He’s had to tightrope his way through a religion-laden primary season in which Christian Right poohbahs conspired against him endlessly (but could never really got behind one rival until it was too late). He knows conservative evangelicals—and not only conservative evangelicals—are less than happy about his own LDS faith, and he certainly doesn’t want to go down the rabbit hole of a public discussion of Mormon doctrine or history. So he’ll encourage a relatively Godless general election, right?

Maybe, but maybe not at all. It didn’t get a great deal of distinct attention outside conservative circles, but when other Republicans linked arms with the Catholic bishops back in February to accuse the Obama administration of waging a “war on religion” via its contraception coverage mandate, Romney was bellowing with the best of them, authoring an op-ed in the Washington Examiner that made this inflammatory charge:

Liberals and conservatives have made common cause to defend the rights of religious minorities in the past. But somehow, today, when it comes to the agenda of the left-wing of the Democratic Party—those who brought us abortion on demand and who fight against the teaching of abstinence education in our children’s schools—their devotion to religious freedom goes out the window. They would force Catholics and others who have beliefs rooted in their faith to sacrifice the teachings of their faith to the mandate of federal bureaucrats.

Romney’s line on the subject goes well beyond selective pandering to conservative Catholics and other culture-warriors, and goes right to the heart of the Christian Nationalist belief that separating church and state actually means a First-Amendment-violating Religious Establishment of “secularism,” as he made plain in a recent speech in Wisconsin:

At an event in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, a supporter asked the candidate what the Obama administration’s motive was for mandating that the health insurance provided by all religious institutions cover contraceptives for women.
“I think there is in this country a war on religion,” Romney replied. “I think there is a desire to establish a religion in America known as secularism.”
“They gave it a lot of thought and they decided to say that in this country that a church — in this case, the Catholic Church — would be required to violate its principles and its conscience and be required to provide contraceptives, sterilization and morning after pills to the employees of the church. … We are now all Catholics. Those of us who are people of faith recognize this is — an attack on one religion is an attack on all religion.”

It’s reasonably clear from this pattern of rhetoric that Romney’s way of dealing with conservative evangelical mistrust of his LDS faith is to talk more, not less, about religion and cultural issues, which is exactly what Christian Right leaders expect and demand of him. It’s significant that the best-known and most aggressive evangelical critic of Romney’s religious outlook, Bryan Fischer of the American Family Association, has repeatedly followed the line that Mitt is “not Mormon enough” in his commitment to the culture wars, and can only bury concerns about LDS doctrine by doubling-down on political points of agreement with the Christian Right.

Contrary to the CW, the very people most likely to have questions about Romney’s religion will keep pressure on him to talk the godly talk in the general election—or at least support others who do.

As the intrepid Christian-Right-watcher Sarah Posner suggested just yesterday at Religion Dispatches: “[I]t looks like Romney will try to bury questions his own base has about his religion by questioning and letting his surrogates attack Obama’s.”

But there’s another reason Romney may surprise those who expect him to conspire with Obama to keep the general election relatively godless: his apparent affection for the classic Rovian tactic of going on the offensive to hit opponents at his own weakest points. We saw this just last week in his speech to the association of newspaper editors, when this serial prevaricator criticized journalists for insufficient “sourcing” and “quality control,” and this champion flip-flopper attacked Obama for flip-flopping and hiding his future policy plans. Even more recently, Romney, who holds two degrees from Harvard and famously struggles with perceptions that he’s a deeply out-of-touch rich guy, went after Obama for “spending too much time at Harvard” and not understanding the real world.

So it would be perfectly in character for Mitt to practice this same sort of Rovian jiu jitsu on issues relating to faith and politics. Those expecting a general election free of religio-cultural venom had better get ready for some supernatural fireworks.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

Comments

  • Ralph Kramden on April 10, 2012 11:20 AM:

    Maybe religion won't play all that big an explicit role, but I bet you won't hear anything about "the candidate you'd rather have a beer with".

  • Mimikatz on April 10, 2012 11:34 AM:

    It sounds like we are getting ready for a series of Schiavo moments. The fastest growing segments of the electorate are seculars, especially young seculars, and nondenominational, quasi religious people. This level of pandering will lead Romney to back people with the most intrusive, misogynist policies and it will alienate these groups and women. At this point in the campaign it is largely the most partisan people who are involved, and the rest will be horrified as they tune in and see Obama's replaying of Mitt's greatest hits. Not a victory strategy, not in 2012,

  • jpeckjr on April 10, 2012 11:39 AM:

    An examination of LDS doctrine would reveal some beliefs that, indeed, are not congruent with those held by Christians of all brands. However, that kind of examination won't be very interesting to the general public, and it certainly won't be done by the Obama campaign. Plenty of resources exist about LDS doctrine. Some of the most thorough are published by Southern Baptists.

    The LDS church in its earliest days had frequent conflict with government authorities. One reason they migrated to the Salt Lake Valley was because those authorities, including Federal authorities, had proven inadequate to protect them from vigilante violence in Ohio, Illinois, and Missouri. Romney can allude to that history -- "My church knows what it's like to be persecuted" -- without saying much about the details, like the abandonment of polygamy so Utah could be admitted to the union.

  • Kathryn on April 10, 2012 11:40 AM:

    Think Romney won't be shy about attacking on reliigious grounds because he knows that the Obama campaign won't attack his Mormon faith and if they dared to even touch it through surrogates or such the media will cry foul because IOKIYAR but not if you're a Democrat. What is less sure is how attacking Obama on faith will play with the elusive independents, but it's a winner with the GOP base. What we need are debates, think three are scheduled, I'd like to see five and where are those tax records Mr. Romney, you naughty boy?

  • DisgustedWithItAll on April 10, 2012 11:46 AM:

    This one's easy. What Rmoney is doing is saying to the Faithful who don't like him and the LDS is that he and they are both the Faithful and the other side is the Enemy Against the Faithful, so they have to stick together for all the Faithful.

  • Steve P on April 10, 2012 11:54 AM:

    Juvenile questions about underwear degrade the listener and the process--further degradation of the asker may not be possible.
    However, once you start talking about your own deep religious morality, you have opened the door to questions about this:
    http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/07/05/AR2007070501305.html

  • This Guy on April 10, 2012 12:03 PM:

    After every word was under examination for months upon months of the preacher of a black candidate. We should now ignore the teachings of the white candidate's church all together and those who pose any questions about his religion should be ashamed of themselves?

    Of course some will say they do no participate in such racial bias, but they are very quick to give a pass to the white candidate or keep quiet while others partake in such games that divide us as a nation.

  • Shane Taylor on April 10, 2012 12:30 PM:

    When Christian Nationalists deny that they are seeking a theocracy, it's important to remember that they are also _redefining_ theocracy. For them, as Julie Ingersoll noted, the belief that all law must be based in God's law is "theonomy." They fabricated a distinction between theonomy and theocracy, Ingersoll said, "on the basis of what they claim is a biblical division of earthly authority set forth by God."

    http://www.religiondispatches.org/archive/atheologies/5845

  • jjm on April 10, 2012 12:50 PM:

    Mitt already injected religion in with his nonsensical comment that "Obama wants to establish a religion of secularism" didn't he?

    The GOP is right to be leery of exposing the doctrines of Mormonism to general scrutiny, so they're trying to tie Democrats' hands and claim they are going to bring it up unfairly.

    But as the largest religion whose doctrines were concocted AFTER the Enlightenment Mormonism does constitute a strong negative reaction against reason and rationality.

    As it also teaches that its faithful must strive to take over any organization they belong to, one has to wonder if that is not Romney's main motivation in seeking the presidency so persistently and for such a long time. After all, this devoted family man with multimillions in his pocket has never really told us why he wants the office, rather than enjoying his home life.

    He has shown zero passion for ideas, for improving the quality of life for Americans, for defining and facing the future. So WHY IS MITT RUNNING AT ALL?

    Perhaps he's aiming for that planet that he can rule over after death if he makes it to the top of the USA in life.

  • SYSPROG on April 10, 2012 1:24 PM:

    Don't worry Kathryn...the surrogates for Obama and the liberal SUPERPACS will indeed attack Romney on religion. The RIGHT will call foul, FOX will show OUTRAGE and voters will think about it.

  • cmdicely on April 10, 2012 1:40 PM:

    When Christian Nationalists deny that they are seeking a theocracy, it's important to remember that they are also _redefining_ theocracy. For them, as Julie Ingersoll noted, the belief that all law must be based in God's law is "theonomy."

    But that's not a redefinition. Theocracy is rule by religious authorities, not merely government which is guided by principles which originate in religious sentiment. Aligning law with religious principles without granting religious authorities direct rule isn't theocracy.

    Christian nationalist tend to favor, in practice, something that is not mere theonomy, but actually caesaropapism, which is the inversion of theocracy in which government rules over religious institutions, since as well as conforming law to religious principles they expressly do not favor institutional separation of church and state, but favor the state having the power to fund, govern, and direct religious activity (though they often oppose specific instances of this direction that clash with their own theology as violations of "religious freedom".)

    Theonomy through democratic selection (i.e., voting for representatives that will share and vote based on religious values that they share with you) is generally consistent with the Constitution so long as it doesn't head in the direction of either theocracy (which runs afoul of the religious test clause) or caesaropapism (which runs afoul of the establishment and free exercise clauses.)

  • schtick on April 10, 2012 1:47 PM:

    Personally, whenever the tealiban has won anything in the last 20 years, I think is "Godless".