As a Romney supporter and blogger I have very seldom written about faith and religion, whether in the general sense or as it applies to Mitt Romney as a presidential candidate. I’ve always known Romney’s religion to be a stigma to some. I’m sure it is even a boon to others, especially those who share his faith. Today, in remembrance of the 2nd anniversary of Romney’s speech “Faith in America”, I’m going to take a rare moment to share my thoughts on subject.
Full disclosure: I am a life-long member of the LDS (Mormon) church. Now let’s proceed.
I consider myself a strong social conservative. My social views aren’t limited to just abortion and same-sex marriage, but I also place strong emphasis on the morality of a politician or a candidate. How a leader comports him or herself in office and in their private life has a huge effect on our lives, whether they like it or not. Political leaders, sports heroes, and pop culture icons all set the trend as to what is acceptable behavior in our society. My religious belief that the family is of vital importance and is the basic building block of society causes me to decry behavioral impropriety, particularly marital infidelity, amongst those in the spotlight because of its lasting affect on many, many people. Behavior that becomes commonplace among celebrities is all too easily emulated by fans and constituents.
Back in the year 2000, when I was 9 years younger and more naive than I am now, I recall watching the GOP primary debates and being delighted with George W. Bush and some of the religious rhetoric he employed. It was refreshing to hear such talk, especially in the wake of a Clinton presidency and the scandals that had ensued. At the time I thought mostly of the character of the candidate and much less of what their actual knowledge and experience was. In retrospect, and being a little wiser now, I realize that probably wasn’t the best approach to choosing a candidate. Don’t get me wrong, I admire Bush greatly still, but there were many things that he could have done better, especially in terms of the economy. Even so, he was the best candidate available at the time.
In mid 2006, I began to look for a potential candidate to support for the 2008 GOP nomination. I knew I didn’t like McCain, mostly because of bad memories of the 2000 campaign. And I wasn’t keen on Giuliani either because of his highly publicized affairs. I recall thinking about rumors I had heard that Mitt Romney might run for president. Even though I’m from Utah, I knew absolutely nothing about him besides that fact that he was highly involved in the Olympics. In fact, I was away serving an LDS mission when the Olympics scandals happened, so I knew nothing about them.
My first thoughts upon hearing that Romney might run for president were, “Great, he’s probably going to embarrass us (Mormons) on the national stage, and just give people more reason to publicly ridicule us.” A couple weeks later, after reading everything I could about him, it didn’t matter to me anymore whether he was Mormon or not, or whether he would “embarrass” us on the national stage. I knew that he was qualified, and had the business and economic resume I wanted to see in a candidate, and that he had a fabulous record of turning large entities around, whether it be a business, a state, or the Olympics. And I could feel confident that he would not get involved the extracurricular antics Clinton tangled with while in office. Basically, I felt he was qualified AND would be a good role model, and this was/is very important to me.
Of course there were obstacles to Romney’s path to the presidency. A USA Today poll in February of 2007 showed that of Republicans a full 30% would not support a qualified Mormon candidate. An additional 12% would do so with some hesitancy. Those combined make 42% at least that had a problem with Romney’s faith. I would consider that a substantial obstacle. I recall being somewhat dispirited from that bit of news, but was sure that once people got to know Romney better, and they certainly would, we might see those percentages fall. Fortunately many came to find that they could support a Mormon, especially one as qualified as Romney. Unfortunately, I believe it required from Romney a lot of money and campaigning to slowly break those shackles. That process won’t be nearly as staggering next time around in 2012. It certainly won’t be a cake-walk either.
My own experience as an LDS missionary in Southern Jersey taught me that folks can have wild misconceptions of what a Mormon really is. Then there were others that were well informed of our beliefs and remained strongly opposed to them. In both cases I was often the first Mormon they had ever talked to and they were surprised to find that I was a normal person, as opposed to being a socially degenerative schmoe stuck in the 1800’s. I share my experience because it coincides with a study on religious tolerance that was also revisited this last week in a USA Today column:
The study was an online survey experiment with a nationally representative sample of 3,000 respondents. We provided randomly selected respondents with different statements about Romney and then asked whether they would vote for him.
Some were given a boilerplate biography that did not mention religion; others were told that he has been a local leader in his church; others were told he has been a leader in the Mormon church. Still others were told, “Some people say Mormons are not Christians.” By comparing reactions to these various statements, we could see how each one affected a person’s willingness to vote for Romney, and also how different kinds of people responded to the statements.
The claim that Mormons are not Christians was particularly potent. […] the results of our study — conducted not long after Romney’s [Faith in America] speech — suggest that his religion was a liability. When respondents were told about the claim that Mormons are not Christians, nearly one-third said they were less likely to vote for him.
Interestingly, the claim that Mormons are not Christians had virtually no effect on those people who reported a close personal relationship with a Mormon.
People who objectively know a lot about Mormons — that is, those who scored 100% on a short quiz on facts about Mormonism — were much less likely to be bothered by the claim that Mormons are not Christians. In contrast, respondents who claimed they knew a lot about Mormons, but who actually did not, were bothered most of all by claims about Mormonism.
Bottom line: those who were well acquainted with Mormons, whether personally or informatively, were not affected by the debate of whether Mormons were Christians or not. Yes, ignorance is the greatest inhibitor of tolerance. The study shows that this is unfortunately true for other less-known religions as well. This really ought not to be, but misinformation will always abound, and until the public becomes generally educated on these minority religions we’ll continue to see similar results.
I believe these findings to also be consistent with the results from the GOP primary elections. There is and undeniable pattern that Romney is well-liked western states, but he is not so well received in parts of the south. Nevada is a state that has an LDS population of about 10%. It’s not a large percentage but it’s enough that most people are at least acquainted with Mormons. I’ve often heard people say that Romney only won Nevada because of the large number of Mormons in Nevada (I wouldn’t call 10% a dominant slice of the pie). But the fact remains that if every vote from a Mormon were discounted from the tally, Romney still won the state handily. The point again: in situations where people were familiar with Mormons, they were much less hesitant to vote for one.
One can see why Romney ultimately decided to give his speech on faith in December of 2007, a speech that he hoped he would never have to give. I believe the decision to give the speech was driven by the fact that Huckabee had emerged on the national stage and portrayed himself as the “Christian Leader”, coupled with the fact that the once strong Romney state of Iowa was slipping away from him.
So what was the purpose of the speech? Merely for people to get acquainted with him on a large scale. Perhaps many wanted Romney to explain certain tenets of his faith to assuage their concerns. Romney wisely did not fall into that trap. In matters regarding doctrine he referred people to the LDS Church itself, which is the proper manner to handle this situation because as a political leader it is not his duty to educate people on all the points of his beliefs. Perhaps also the buzz around the speech would draw folks to see it and realize “Hey, that Mitt is not a crazy Mormon like I thought him to be.” Many people got to hear from his own mouth that he was a Christian in the sense that he believed that Jesus is the savior of all mankind. But that wasn’t even the main point. The main point to get across was that Americans by and large want a person of faith to lead the country, and that he fit in those parameters. Was it effective? I think so. But it obviously didn’t yield the desired results of turning Iowa back in his favor.
I have embedded Romney’s full speech below so you can revisit it. I recall vividly watching this speech live on TV. I rarely get emotional, especially in the realm of politics, but this speech hit home with me. Regardless of Romney’s future, I believe this speech will hold it’s place in history as one of the most regarded speeches of the 2008 campaign cycle, and will be held by many as an inflection point their lives.
Here is a permanent link to the videos and transcript.
So did Romney lose the ’08 GOP primary because of religious intolerance? Who knows? I think there are valid arguments for both cases. I DO know that no one likes a sore loser and Romney has lead well by his example. Never has he tried to claim that he was discriminated against because of his religion. He lost because in the end he didn’t get the most votes, and it all happened fair and square. I think his supporters would be wise to follow suit. I recommend removing the word “bigotry” from your vocabulary. Even if you do see true cases of religious bias against Romney I would ask you to consider your reaction. By yelling “bigot” at every corner you do much more harm to your cause than good. Be an adult and just let it go.
For those interested in following the topic of religion and how it pertains to political office (especially in regards to Romney) I recommend reading the Article 6 blog run jointly by a Mormon and an Evangelical Christian.