Mitt Happens (Feel The Big Love Edition)


The Wash Times reports that outgoing Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney is officially throwing his hat in the presidential ring:

[American Enterprise Institute scholar John C. Fortier] said [the lack of a clearly conservative frontrunner] has left an opening for Mr. Romney, who early in his governorship seemed to stake out moderate positions but moved toward the conservative side later in his single term.

"There's a lot of mystery here because he's got a lot of ways he could go, but politically the place to go in the Republican field is to the right of McCain, to the more traditional part of the Republican Party," Mr. Fortier said.

Romney's run is setting off discussions about religion and politics. Romney is a Mormon, the religion not only at the center of HBO's popular polygamous dramedy Big Love but the very first Sherlock Holmes story, A Study in Scarlet, and, if memory serves, Zane Grey's Riders of the Purple Sage and John Ford's underappreciated pre-revisionist revisionist Western, Wagon Train (1950). Which is a way of saying that Mormonism has long been a real wild card in discussions of religion and politics, as many traditional Christians view the creed with skepticism and scorn, and many secularists see it as little short of a cult that's even more bizarre than good ol' fashioned religion that's been around for thousands of years rather than since 1829.

The New Republic has an ish out apparently attacking Romney for buying into Joseph Smith's dogma (I say apparently because I haven't read the story, which is not available online, but is the pretext for an online debate at TNR's website). In the first entry, Richard Lyman Bushman attacks the author of the TNR piece, Damon Linker, for fomenting historically unfounded hysteria about Mormons. He writes:

We can judge the actual dangers of the Mormon Church to national politics from the historical record. Have any of the church presidents tried to manage Smoot, Ezra Taft Benson, Harry Reid, or Gordon Smith? The record is innocuous to say the least. There is no evidence that the church has used its influence in Washington to set up a millennial kingdom where Mormons will govern the world or even to exercise much sway on lesser matters. It's a long way from actual history to the conclusion that "under a President Romney, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints would truly be in charge of the country–with its leadership having final say on matters of right and wrong."

But over at American Heritage's excellent and lively blog, Joshua Zeitz makes a strong case that Romney's statements about religious faith, if not Mormonism per se, need some real explicating precisely because Romney says religion is central to his political identity.

In a campaign swing last year, Mitt Romney said, "Most people in South Carolina want a person of faith as their leader. But they [South Carolina voters] don't care what brand of faith that is. . . . I believe Jesus Christ is my savior. I believe in God. I'm a person of faith and I believe that's the type of person Americans want."

There is considerable ambiguity in this statement. Does Mitt Romney mean to suggest that Americans want a person of "faith" to govern their affairs, or someone who accepts Christ as his or her personal savior? If he means the latter, then I beg to differ. If he means the former, then is it not fair to ask, faith in what?

I find Romney's statement quoted above fully in line with a significant shift in American culture over, say, the past 25 years or so. Back then, the divides between and among religious groups were much sharper–evangelical Christians would routinely refuse to endorse Catholicism, much less less-established faiths. Giving in to ecumenicalism was akin to giving in to one-world government. Nowadays, the divide is between secularists and religionists or believers. The specific faith is less important than the fact that you are "religious" (with the possible exception of being a Muslim in today's climate). It seems to me that's what Romney is signaling in the above quote, though it's a message that will likely cause some confusion coming from a Mormon rather than an adherent to a more mainstream creed.

Some bits from South Park's very accurate "All About Mormons" episode.

Reason's interview with South Park creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker here.

Reason columnist Cathy Young poured some holy water on the religious-secularist divide here.

Bonus Mormon link here.