We never really got to the Mormon thing, did we?
In the twilight hours of the 2012 campaign, an old video clip “leaked” onto YouTube—actually, it had been there for more than a year, but few noticed it—that moved a number of people, including your humble servant, to reconsider their view of one Willard Mitt Romney.
I speak not of the infamous “47 percent” video that gave Romney so much grief, but rather of a radio interview from sometime in 2007, in which the conversation turns to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a subject that garnered far more airplay four years ago than in the election just past.
Romney’s passion in this exchange is remarkable, and wholly at odds with the persona he so carefully cultivated in his long, ultimately failed quest for the White House. The radio host begins a line of questioning about the Mormon Church that Romney considers rude and misinformed, and he holds nothing back in saying so.
Long dogged by accusations—even in the “47 percent” case—of lacking any core convictions and always only saying what he thinks his audience wants to hear, Romney here is completely unfiltered and, dare I say, genuine.
We already knew Romney’s church, along with his family, is the one aspect of his life to which his devotion is real. His experience as a missionary in France in the 1960s was a formative experience in his life, and he has served decades as a lay clergyman and donated a significant portion of his income to the LDS Church and related causes.
Precisely because of Romney’s unquestioned adherence to his faith—and the enormity of its influence in his life—it was always a bit strange how much he avoided talking about it on the campaign trail. It illustrates how the image of him as a hardhearted plutocrat was partially self-inflicted.
In December 2007, he was compelled to address the elephant in the room with a speech, “Faith in America,” in which he made the disgusting and false claim that “freedom requires religion,” but did not explain, except in extreme vagaries, what his own religion meant to him. Why not?
Well, we know why not. Americans think Mormonism is weird, and the more Romney became tied to his church in the popular mind, the worse he would fare at the polls.
It is a real shame that, in 2012, Romney made no effort whatever to test or challenge this unfortunate assumption. We can agree, as the Constitution stipulates, that there should be no “religious test” for public office and no candidacy should rise or fall on the basis thereof.
But Romney’s was always a special case, and he could have used it to his advantage, both morally and electorally. Whatever misgivings the public might have about a particular religious sect, it tends to respect those who hold it close to their heart, as Barack Obama demonstrated in defending his own church during the brouhaha about Reverend Jeremiah Wright.
The point isn’t the religion itself, but rather the values one derives from it.
I once spent a bit of time with my college’s Mormon club as part of an assignment for an anthropology class, and I can attest that this most mysterious of (relatively) new faiths stands for a trifle bit more than magical undergarments and not drinking coffee.
The tragedy of candidate Mitt Romney—if there is one—is precisely what we griped about all along: His failure to sell himself as himself, of which his Mormonism is a significant piece. One can rationalize all one wants about the influence of the “far right” and the Tea Party in forcing Romney’s hand to assume policy positions in which he does not truly believe, but he was the captain and his party was the crew.
But then, so far as we know, Romney steered his campaign precisely as he intended, admirably assuming full responsibility for it and expressing no regrets other than the result.
If we take him at his word—when has his sincerity ever been in doubt?—we are left with a man of strong passions and fierce intellect who ran for president doing all he could to suppress those instincts. We can be thankful that such an approach proved unsuccessful, in the hope that it will encourage the next candidate for the nation’s top job to show a little more respect for his fellow Americans.