The most popular item on The Washington Post’s website on Sunday was a very good article by Jason Horowitz headlined “Is Mitt Romney’s Mormonism fair game?” The answer, as far as I’m concerned, came from a different publication altogether, The Financial Times. In a recent feature, the novelist Richard Ford observed that “a quarter of our citizens are in a twist over Mitt Romney being a Mormon (rather than just a nitwit).” The smug parenthetical aside, I think Ford has it about right.
What matters is not Romney’s religion but his policies or his thoughts or, should anyone find them, his political beliefs. Just as his convictions have an evanescent quality, so too does the influence his religion may have on them. If there is an area in which Mormonism separates Romney from the rest of the Republican Party, I cannot find it. His true faith is political opportunism.
The Romney campaign has gone to DEFCON 2 when it comes to incoming Mormon slurs. It wonders why the discovery of the golden plates on a farm near Palmyra, N.Y., is greeted with greater cynicism than the burning bush of oh-so-long ago or, a personal favorite of mine, the very cinematic parting of the Red Sea.
Horowitz relates how Andrea Saul, the Romney campaign’s spokeswoman, combed a previous Washington Post story about Romney’s Mormonism and substituted the word Jew or Jewish for Mormon. This is a clever but problematic approach, since most Americans are familiar with the Old Testament but not with the Book of Mormon. Still, she produced this gem: “[Romney] was far from the only young and brilliant Jew on Harvard’s campus.” Fair enough.
Romney has been a public figure since he first entered politics, in 1994. He has run for governor of Massachusetts and won, he has run for the U.S. Senate and lost. He is making his second run for the presidency. He is hardly an unknown, a mystery figure. His religious convictions, which apparently run deep, do not in some obvious way seep into the political sphere. I am not aware of Romney defending or explaining any program or decision by citing his religion — whether he is pro-choice, as he once was, or anti-abortion, as he now is. He seems to have the thing contained.
In contrast, I offer George W. Bush. He is a mainstream Christian, but his faith played a much more obvious and proclaimed role in his personal and political life than does Romney’s. Bush’s religiosity was truly troubling because it sometimes substituted for thought. He looked upon the war in Iraq as some sort of religious calling, and it was, as we all now know, a hideous waste of lives and, of course, money.
America has given religions the space to spread out, but we are not — by the grace of God or anything else — immune from religious intolerance and hatred. All over the world, people murder in the name of God. Europe was once drenched in the blood of unbelievers, dissident believers, nonbelievers — believers who worship on the wrong day or in the wrong posture or in the wrong words. More bodies can be piled on the head of a pin than angels can dance on it.
Religion, like sex, cannot be parsed. People do all sorts of odd things with one another and little can be made of it. It says nothing about intelligence or ethics or business acumen or culinary talents. I agree with the renowned British actress Mrs. Patrick Campbell (the first Eliza Doolittle) on this: It doesn’t make any difference what you do in the bedroom as long as you don’t do it in the street and frighten the horses.
It is the same with religion. There’s no accounting for it. In the synagogue, I watch a congregation of very smart people thank God for all the good things in life but hold him harmless for the bad. An oncologist I know peers into the black heart of cancer cells all week and seeks respite in prayer on Saturday. He is a marvelous doctor and possesses a first-rate intellect. He goes where I cannot.
Is Mitt Romney’s Mormonism fair game? Only if it’s held to the same standards and undergoes the same scrutiny as any other religion. Otherwise, this is a very slippery slope. Put down those stones. When it comes to matters of faith, we all live in glass houses.
Richard Cohen’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org .