How Romney should talk about religion

Michael Conroy AP Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney waves after speaking at the National Rifle Association convention … Continued

Michael Conroy

AP

Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney waves after speaking at the National Rifle Association convention in St. Louis, Friday, April 13, 2012.

That deafening, churning, leather-on-wood sound you just heard is the sound of the entire Romney campaign “pivoting to the general,” as the pundits like to say.

In the coming months Romney and his faith and values team will need to figure out how to draw lucrative religious voting blocs to the Republican side of the ledger. Faith-based politicking is always a complicated affair, and for these reasons I offer a few hopefully helpful suggestions on how the Romney team ought proceed:

Don’t bait the secularists:
Secular-bashing is among the easiest, and most intellectually dishonest, forms of faith and values politicking out there. Easy, because there is widespread confusion as to what “secularism” means. The dreaded “ism” can conveniently stand in for anything a politician loathes: godlessness, gang violence, pornography–it’s all good. Or, bad as the case may be.

It is intellectually dishonest because it fails to identify the benefits of secular policies or try to understand why after two centuries American democracy settled–temporarily it increasingly seems–on this form of governance.

Romney already signaled his willingness to straw man secularism in his 2007 “Faith in America” speech. Until secularism gets its acts together (a project to which my forthcoming book is devoted), secular-bashing will remain an effective, if unoriginal and unfortunate, campaign strategy.

Associate Obama with “the religion of secularism”: The trailblazer here is Newt Gingrich who has written a book–though not a very convincing one–decrying Obama’s “secular-socialist” machine. Back in February Romney experimented with this technology. He did so again in early April where he lamented Obama’s “war on religion” and his establishment of a religion “known as secularism.”

It’s a plausible ploy, but that’s not because Obama is the high priest of the secular church. On the contrary, speak to secular activists and they will express a seething frustration with the administration about things like the President’s Office of Faith-based Initiatives and Neighborhood Partnerships, among other perceived indiscretions.

Rather, the plausibility of equating Obama with secularism lies in the aforementioned malleability of the term “secularism.” Too, the Democratic party was virtually addicted to secularism for decades (an addiction, incidentally, which Obama and his “awesome blue state God” labored to cure).

Obama is no friend of secularism, at least not separationist secularism. Still, if I were Romney’s team I would continue to give this talking point a spin; let Obama try to re-define his position on the ever unpopular notion of secularism and see if he inadvertently stumbles.

Forget about those evangelicals who will never give you a fair shake: Lambasting secularism, fun as it may be, is simply not going to be enough. Romney needs to give evangelicals, a quarter of the American electorate, a reason to vote for him.

In 2008 he tried running as an “evangelical Mormon.” The concept was clever, but it was never implemented in a way that yielded results. In order for Romney to energize this lucrative voting bloc he is first going to have to concede that for a certain theological minority of evangelicals he is never going to be acceptable. He needs to stop worrying about them. If it’s any consolation they won’t be voting for Obama either.

And campaign hard among the evangelicals who will: The big story, however, is that many, probably most, American Evangelicals are willing to look beyond theological differences and consider voting for a Mormon candidate. It is here where Romney’s team will need to distinguish faith and values from religion.

A recent Politico story raised the possibility that the GOP wants Romney to “own his Mormonism.” I agree, but he has to own it in his own way. It would be a mistake for the campaign to draw attention to the doctrines and rituals of the LDS Church. They will strike others as peculiar. I stress this not because they are peculiar in and of themselves. Rather, they are perceived as peculiar because as John Locke reminded us, “everyone is orthodox to himself.”

Romney needs to attract evangelicals by focusing not on his religion, but on his values. Let him not linger on Mormon teachings about baptism, but on the immensely large role the church plays in his life. Let Romney’s intense commitment to faith come to the fore. It is here where many evangelicals will likely see glaring similarities.

In a dust-up with a Ron Paul supporter recently Romney responded “we’re just not going to have a discussion about religion.” Aside, from the defensiveness in his tone, this was the correct answer. Romney should not spend time talking about his religion’s doctrines. It’s not what he believes; it’s how he lives his beliefs.

Stress Romney’s character: In his personal life Romney is a high character fellow; no adultery, drug abuse, corruption. No skeletons in the closet, not even a tibia. Against almost any other candidate this would be a huge selling point, but Obama has little personal baggage either.

Without drawing invidious comparison, then, it might be worthwhile to stress the large family, the absence of personal vice, the complete absence of scandal. In short, character is a winner for Romney (though not as much a winner as it could be against any one other than Obama).

Reach out to conservative African-Americans in swing states: One trouble spot for Romney consists of his church’s now abrogated teachings on ordination of Black clergy and interracial marriage. It is safe to say that most African-American voters will vote for Obama in large numbers. Yet some studies indicate that the Bush 2004 campaign prevailed in Ohio precisely because of inroads it made among Black religious conservatives. Explicitly distancing himself from former LDS teachings here is both morally and tactically correct.

  • ccnl1

    IF THE PILL AND MALE CONDOMS WERE USED PROPERLY, ABORTION WOULD NOT BE AN ISSUE AND OBAMA WOULD NOT BE PRESIDENT.

  • sbrian

    Many Mormons are wonderful people, but their church will always lack integrity as long as it continues to revere Joseph Smith; a man who immorally abused his ministerial authority and had a bad habit of deception. Joseph Smith illegally “married” at least 30 women, several of whom were teenagers and others who were already married to other followers (in today’s courts he would have gone to jail just as Warren Jeffs has for “marrying” girls). At the time he lied to the world, in the name of God, that he only had one wife. In the name of God, he commanded his first wife to accept his polygamous relationships or she would go to hell (D&C 132). All religions have their bad historical moments, but the religions with integrity disavow the bad and “choose the right.” Mormons will always be compromised as long as they continue to revere Smith as a prophet of God.

  • gbrown4

    Black evangelical Christians are predominately liberal Democrats. White evangelical Christians are predominately conservative Republicans. Black evangelicals will overwhelmingly vote for President Obama, although he really has not done anything for them as President. The question is will white evangelicals vote for Romney or stay home?

    As much as white evangelicals do not want to vote for Romney because of his religion, they will vote for him because President Obama is liberal, black and they have questions about his faith.

    I am not saying this is how it should be, I am just saying that is the way it is.

  • gbrown4

    Mormons will no more disavow Joseph Smith than Lutherans will disavow Martin Luther.

    Claims about Joseph Smith cannot be proven one way or the other. Everyone associated with him has been dead for over 100 years, there is no documentation regarding these alleged marriages and all the DNA tests for alleged descendents from these alleged marriages have failed.

    Mormons will believe he is a prophet, you will believe he is not. The world will continue to spin on its axis.

  • commonman1

    dear sbrian,

    This is the puzzle. And you set it so nicely. “Many Mormons are wonderful people. and then “If only they would disavow Joseph Smith.”

    This is the thing: You do not get “wonderful people” from “rotten doctrine.” Jesus said it in the New Testament: “By their fruits ye shall know them.”

    I leave you with words received by Joseph Smith. A charlatan does not create words like these.

    “No power or influence can or ought to be maintained by virtue of the priesthood, only by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned; By kindness, and pure knowledge, which shall greatly enlarge the soul without hypocrisy, and without guile—Reproving betimes with sharpness, when moved upon by the Holy Ghost; and then showing forth afterwards an increase of love toward him whom thou hast reproved, lest he esteem thee to be his enemy; That he may know that thy faithfulness is stronger than the cords of death.
    Let thy bowels also be full of charity towards all men, and to the household of faith, and let virtue garnish thy thoughts unceasingly; then shall thy confidence wax strong in the presence of God; and the doctrine of the priesthood shall distil upon thy soul as the dews from heaven. The Holy Ghost shall be thy constant companion, and thy scepter an unchanging scepter of righteousness and truth; and thy dominion shall be an everlasting dominion, and without compulsory means it shall flow unto thee forever and ever.”

  • mahonri99

    Sounds like Muslims and their prophet Muhammad.

  • Janeway2

    As a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints it is hard to state how your faith informs you. Being raised in the Church, like Mitt, is just is – value of following the teachings of Jesus Christ trying to become more like Him. Our particular doctrines may be interesting to an outside observer but only reinforce out faith. Knowing that all men are the sons and daughters of God makes us more tolerant of our brothers and sisters on earth who through culture or choice have different ways of thinking. Knowing that each individual has value to God so we should value them also.

    That will inform his thinking not ritual or particular theology about the nature of God. Faith is much bigger than mere ritual. I am sure a Catholic priest would tell you the same thing as would a Rabbi. C.S. Lewis, not a “Mormon”, may have had the best ever book on the subject -”Mere Christianity”. Romney has lived his faith his whole life, he didn’t do it perfectly as no one can – if so we would have no need for repentance, salvation or the Atonement of Jesus Christ. Romney will not push his particular brand of religion on anyone nor it’s doctrines as that is not the roll of the President, any President, nor will he impede any religion operating within the law. Want to know about the doctrines, invite some missonaries over for dinner as Mitt will not and should not engage in theology anymore than Obama should.

  • XVIIHailSkins

    Obama’s 08 campaign actually offers a perfect example of the simple steps Mitt needs to take to win over a whole bunch of American moderates. Wish I could find the speech to link to it, but he said something to the effect of; ‘Christianity is a wonderful distillation of human ethics, but in the modern world we cannot afford to be literalists because of what is written in leviticus, deuteronomy, etc.’

    Now one major difference is that Obama is a highly transparent atheist who simply goes through the motions to assuage our majority’s visceral fear of all things non-christian. That’s why it is even more important that Mitt come out and renounce doctrinal racism, homophobia, and all the other unpleasant baggage that accompanies the mormon faith. This would not be very painful for him, and would not be a betrayal of his church, he simply needs to throw a bone to thinking Americans that are increasingly uneasy over the prospect of a believing religionist carrying the keys to the nukes.

  • XVIIHailSkins

    Obama’s 08 campaign actually offers a perfect example of the simple steps Mitt needs to take to win over a whole bunch of American moderates. Wish I could find the speech to link to it, but he said something to the effect of; ‘Christianity is a wonderful distillation of human ethics, but in the modern world we cannot afford to be literalists because of what is written in leviticus, deuteronomy, etc.’

    Now one major difference is that Obama is a highly transparent atheist who simply goes through the motions to assuage our majority’s visceral fear of all things non-christian. That’s why it is even more important that Mitt come out and renounce doctrinal racism, homophobia, and all the other unpleasant baggage that accompanies the mormon faith. This would not be very painful for him, and would not be a betrayal of his church, he simply needs to throw a bone to thinking Americans that are increasingly uneasy over the prospect of a believing religionist carrying the keys to the nukes.

  • XVIIHailSkins

    Sorry about the double post, this was in reply to Janeway

  • EW88

    Good points. I wish only to add that Romney has been talking about faith and values pretty consistently, at least throughout the debate season, but that these comments are not reported in the press. So until news media is going to report what he says instead of question what he’s not saying, I’m not sure that he needs to stress faith and values any more than he already has.

    I am a Mormon. There are so many more similarities between us and every other person of faith than there are differences, that it seems silly at this point to allow a few distinctions to separate and divide rather than coming to understand and respect each other more. In invite you to fact-check media articles or find answers to your own questions about Mormonism by using lds.org, mormon.org, and mormonnewsroom.org.
    Thanks for listening.
    http://www.conservativemormonmom.blogspot.com

  • jvmbl

    I’d like to know why the media or Obama’s people aren’t asking Harry Reid all these questions about “Mormonism”? Why Romney and not Reid? Reid is a “faithful” member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints we are told by many, so why not just go to him for their information? Another thing, and it should make everyone think twice. If they are going after Romney on his Religion and Reid doesn’t stand up for him, then what does that say about the trust worthiness of Reid???

  • redsoxfan21

    Not true. Homosexuals would only be living a “sinful choice” if they acted on their sexual tendencies, just as would any heterosexual who acted on their sexual tendencies outside the bonds of marriage. The LDC church does not distinguish between individuals based on their orientation, only on their actions, and has no policy regarding “curing” one’s orientation. Furthermore, it should be noted that Romney took no actions as Governor that were detrimental to the homosexual community, thus there is no reason to believe he would do so as President. While he did try to preserve traditional marriage (based on preserving religious freedoms, not on a desire to hinder homosexual’s ability to commit to one another), to the best of my knowledge he otherwise acted to treat homosexuals like everyone else. Please do not make claims about a candidate or church about which you clearly do not have the facts.

  • larri3

    The LDS Church itself distances itself from racism and recently issued a statement that it deplores racism both inside and outside the church, now and in the past. Is that enough to end the discussion? Not in an election year.

  • XVIIHailSkins

    The man whose name is on Mitt Romney’s college degree once wrote the following;

    “Shall I tell you the law of God in regard to the African race? If the white man who belongs to the chosen seed mixes his blood with the seed of Cain, the penalty, under the law of God, is death on the spot. This will always be so.”
    - Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses, 10:109, March 8, 1863

    Perhaps we should be having this discussion.

  • redsoxfan21

    Mormons do not believe that their leaders are infallible, and they accept that their leaders sometimes speak from their own perspective, and not that of the Lord. As such, they can make mistakes. Brigham Young was obviously mistaken, and history has born that out. For those who wish to proclaim racism where none exists, I ask you this – if Mormons are racist, why do they send missionaries to Africa and build temples on that continent for the benefit of the growing number of black church members? I see far too many other Christians (black, white and hispanic) who show far less love, tolerance and acceptance to those of other races than do Mormons.

  • XVIIHailSkins

    And yet, each of these ‘prophetic’ leaders each made claims of infallibility in their own time. What gives you the right to pick and choose which preachments of Brigham Young you will ignore? The man is the second most venerated prophet of your faith, and individually led the church for thirty years. I’m afraid that if you’re going to cherry pick which pieces of mormon doctrine you will follow, then your the claim that mormonism is the one true faith kind of flies out the window doesn’t it?

    If god is omnipotent and omniscient, why would he allow his earthly prophets to speak so forcefully, only to renounce their teaching a century later through a new ‘revelation’ (one that coincided conveniently with the American civil rights movement)? Why would a just and loving god allow his most important representative on planet earth to preach racism if god is not racist? Your faith has always been sublimely malleable, changing freely and continually in order to square itself with the modern world. Is there nothing fishy about that to you?

  • XVIIHailSkins

    I think there are more than a few victims of both shunning and electroshock ‘therapy’ that would disagree with you.

  • csintala79

    The white conservative Christian is in such a quandary; which group do I hate the most? One has to pity them. Why do they question his faith? He is black. Why do they consider him such an extreme liberal? He is black. I don’t think we have to think too hard to know what group they hate the most.

  • csintala79

    Aren’t you lucky you escaped.

  • plattitudes

    ‘Joseph Smith illegally “married” at least 30 women’

    You’ll actually find that is not the case… Polygamy was not illegal in the United States until well after the civil war.

  • XVIIHailSkins

    How about Orson Pratt then? An original member of the Twelve apostles who remained married to ten women until his death in 1881, including one 16-year-old girl he married at the age of 57.

    Regardless of the legality of the practice, I think the point you are missing is that the founding leaders of your church convicted themselves of some serious Freudian lapses in personal conduct, and used deliriously absurd religious rhetoric to justify their behavior. Funny how a man who wants to lie with more than his fair share of women, collect more than his fair share of property, and wiled more than his fair share of influence can easily accomplish all of these things by claiming a divine right.

  • csintala79

    It is not what he believes; it is how he lives his beliefs? To know how he is supposed to live, as the touchstone is how he lives his beliefs, we have to know and discuss what his beleifs are. All religions of the book base their doctrine and ethics on the same thing, scripture. What validates the compelling nature of their values? Scripture. If you only want to discuss values and not belief, then you are making yourself indistinguishable form a secularist; yes, Virginia, secularists can have values and morals. Even the Roman Church recognizes the moral pagans, such as Aristotle. What distinguishes the religious from the secularist; it isn’t behavior or acts, it is what one bases this on. For the religious it is scripture and the redeeming God it reveals. Fundamentalist Christians question whether an atheist can have morals (the implication of this seems to be they wouldn’t behave morally if it weren’t for the existence of God). If you want to tout your religious family values, then you have to be prepared to discuss all aspects of your religion.

  • XVIIHailSkins

    Very well said. In the immortal words of Stan Marsh from South Park;

    “No, it’s a matter of logic! If you’re gonna say things that have been proven wrong, like that the first man and woman lived in Missouri, and that Native Americans came from Jerusalem, then you’d better have something to back it up. All you’ve got are a bunch of stories about some a**wipe who read plates nobody ever saw out of a hat, and then couldn’t do it again when the translations were hidden!”

    “That’s another thing! Why do you have to be so freakin’ nice all the time?! It isn’t normal! You just weasel people into your way of thinking by acting like the happiest family in the world and being so nice to everyone that you just blindside dumb people like my Dad!”

    Romney’s wonderful family-man values have nothing to do with the preachments of mormonism. It is pure intellectual cowardice for him and the media to avoid the hard questions about his faith.

  • haveaheart

    “Let him not linger on Mormon teachings . . .but on the immensely large role the church plays in his life.”

    I don’t think these two can — or should — be separated in this case. The Mormon church teaches absolute obedience to church hierarchy. If you don’t follow this tenet, you don’t get into the temple. We know that Romney is a temple Mormon, so it is imperative to know how much of that church indoctrination will figure into his decision-making abilities.

  • catatonicjones

    How about if Mitt doesn’t talk about religion at all? He’s likely to freak out the evangelicals and we independents … well, we don’t want to hear about it. Keep your religion to yourself.

  • haveaheart

    “In his personal life Romney is a high character fellow; no adultery, drug abuse, corruption. No skeletons in the closet, not even a tibia.”

    Gotta take issue with this one, too.

    Since when does ethical and moral behavior comprise mere abstinence from using drugs and cheating on your wife? There is a decency factor involved here. Romney (in his own words) does not care about the poor. He clearly believes in situational ethics — as in, tell your audience whatever they need to hear in order to give you their note. He has been caught lying — not once or twice, but habitually.

    No, he’s not a “high-character guy.” And, frankly, I wouldn’t suggest that “stress the large family” thing, either. Sure he’s got five great, strapping sons who all look like him. But, in an America that still sends its poor sons and daughters to fight useless wars while enabling the rich ones to stay at home, drawing attention to those five able-bodied fellows who all declined to serve their country (as did their dad a generation earlier) isn’t going to help burnish the Romney brand.

  • catatonicjones

    Mormons send missionaries to Africa because their relatives aren’t rich enough. Also, to help ‘their little brown brothers’ … pat them on their fuzzy heads and tell them there there, it’s not your fault you’re black.

  • ccnl1

    IF THE PILL AND MALE CONDOMS WERE USED PROPERLY, ABORTION WOULD NOT BE AN ISSUE AND OBAMA WOULD NOT BE PRESIDENT.

    ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

  • catatonicjones

    Romney should do himself a favor and not talk about religion. His being a mormon has zero significance in my mind as I’m considering voting for him.
    His trumpeting his religion to the fanatics in his party … that is something that makes me not want to vote for him. If the republican religious fanatic Big Government social conservatives want and get a seat at Romney’s presidential council, I’m voting against him.

  • savvyMichael

    Incorrect and misleading. To get into the temple, you have to affirm that you sustain the president of the church and the 12 apostles as prophets. You do *not*, at any point in Mormon worship commit to “absolute obedience to church hierarchy.”

    As is often discussed in Mormon sunday school meetings (which the public are invited to attend) “sustain” means “support,” which does *not* mean “obey.”

    That’s not to say that some Mormons don’t interpret things to mean that they would have to “obey” the church hierarchy, which is why, as I’ve suggested before, the following question to Mitt Romney would be perfectly appropriate:

    “Mr. Romney — If, as POTUS, you received instructions from someone in your church hierarchy to take some action that was any way not in keeping with your oath and responsibilities as POTUS, would you obey them?”

    That question gets to the heart of the matter… how his religious belief affects his life. As a man who’s been in public office before, I’m certain his answer would be “No, of course not.”

    Evidence? He was approached by church leadership to support Prop 8 in California and turned them down, with no repercussions to follow from the church.

    This idea that a Mormon president would somehow be a risk, due to his ties to the LDS hierarchy, is an obvious absurdity to the vast majority of Mormons. There are plenty of reasons not to like Mitt Romney. This isn’t one of them.

  • SODDI

    Does Romney HAVE any values except making money? He has no discernable ethics. He hides millions and millions of dollars in secret offshore and Swiss bank accounts. He’ll say anything, do anything, pal around with violent right-wing terrorists and wannabe assassins to get his party’s nomination.

    He is exactly like that slug-like alien critter in the sci-fi movie, “The Hidden” when it inhabits the Senator at the end. “I WANT to be President!”

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