Romney hides in the Mormon Moment
NEWSWEEK has labelled this the ‘Mormon Moment’, encapsulated by Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s The Book of Mormon taking home nine Tony Awards (the theatrical Oscar), including Best Musical. The show is a hit with the public too, currently grossing over $1 million a week (setting the record for a single seat at $487.25) and playing at 102.6pc capacity (we’re talking standing room only). The original cast recording has flown off the shelves, landing at third place on the Billboard 200; in doing so it became the first album of its type to enter the top 10 since Hair in 1969.
The Book of Mormon takes a succession of pot shots at the tenets of Mormonism, but ultimately the message of the show, so asserts David Brooks, is that “religion itself can do enormous good as long as people take religious teaching metaphorically and not literally”, a “warm theme infuses the play with humanity and compassion”. Parker has called the show “an atheist’s love letter to religion”.
All of this is fine in a Broadway musical: in fact, as Parker and Stone have pointed out, the show probably won’t work if they spent the whole time mocking Mormonism relentlessly. But this sickly, über-tolerant take on faith and spirituality – one which sustained Oprah for twenty-five long, vapid years – will be detrimental to America’s political culture if they fail to grill the two Mormon candidates currently running for the Republican nomination.
When Romney ran last time around, he made a speech on his Mormon faith billed as equivalent to JFK’s on his Catholicism, but to describe the former’s oratory as Kennedyesque would be to slander and defame the former President. Jack Kennedy confronted the fears the American people had in 1960 about Catholics openly. “I believe in an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant nor Jewish,” Kennedy said, “where no public official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the Pope”.
Kennedy used the word ‘Catholic’ twenty times in a smart and brilliant speech. Romney’s verbose 2007 address used the word ‘Mormon’ but once, skirting around the issue to instead orate at length on the traditional social conservative talking point of America as a Christian nation. When he did discuss Mormonism specifically, Romney said the following:
There is one fundamental question about which I often am asked. What do I believe about Jesus Christ? I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and the Saviour of mankind. My church’s beliefs about Christ may not all be the same as those of other faiths. Each religion has its own unique doctrines and history. These are not bases for criticism but rather a test of our tolerance.
Never has an assessment of schisms in Christian doctrine been so understated. Not only this but his defence of his faith, if you can call it that, was abject, weak and fuzzy. Instead of opening up about his philosophy, Romney elected to hide beneath the shelter of tolerance, as to demand that, merely because his ideas on Christ are different, Americans should blindly respect that by never questioning him about it again. Such an argument is intellectually dishonest, brazenly arrogant and un-American.
Rather, Romney and Jon Huntsman should be required to answer a number of very specific and direct questions about the nature of their faith. It should be called the “I Believe…” test, since all these enquiries demand sincere declarations of faith. So, do you believe that ancient Jews built boats and sailed to America? Do you believe that the current President of the LDS Church Thomas S. Monson speaks directly to God? Do you believe that in 1978 God did change his mind about black people? Do you believe that God lives on a planet called Kolob? and that Jesus has his own planet as well? Do you believe that the Garden of Eden was in Jackson County, Missouri?
Some of these questions are of course more important than others, to the extent that whether or not Huntsman or Romney consider there to be a planet Kolob does not have much of an impact on their ability to conduct relations with China. On the other hand, Romney in his Mormon speech made it clear that he sees God as inseparable from government:
In recent years, the notion of the separation of church and state has been taken by some well beyond its original meaning. They seek to remove from the public domain any acknowledgment of God. Religion is seen as merely a private affair with no place in public life. It is as if they are intent on establishing a new religion in America — the religion of secularism. They are wrong.
No: Romney is wrong. The First Amendment is a two-way street: it grants individuals the freedom to practice their faith absent of central influence; but it clearly separates church from state in order to keep religion out of the public sphere. Kennedy acknowledged this in his address: “I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute, where no minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote [and] where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference”.
Romney instead believes in a polar, odious conflation, where at once religion (read Christianity) should be permitted to creep back into the public sphere, completely free of criticism or objective analysis. The First Amendment protects religious observance, but Americans have a duty to uphold the Constitution and a right to query all those who seek elected office about their faith, be they Catholic, Baptist or indeed Mormon. This ‘Mormon Moment’ ought to be a chance for Huntsman, Romney and other notable practitioners to discuss their faith openly, for an America without an honest discourse on religion is no America at all.
From an idea originally published as “Romney, Huntsman and the Book of Mormon”, June 17, 2011.