Mitt Romney is doing remarkably well given the handicap of being Mormon in an evangelical party
WALTER KIRN’S column in GQ on Mitt Romney and Mormonism is to my mind far and away the most interesting meditation on the subject this campaign season. Unlike most commentators, Mr Kirn, who was an observant Mormon for a few years after his family converted to Mormonism when he was a teen, understands that the chipper public face of Mormonism reflects this country’s history of hostility to its most successful native religion, and that Mr Romney’s Mormonism therefore acts as a sort of guarantee of his ideological moderation:
“They can’t win for losing, the Mormons. Or win for winning. When Romney prevailed in Michigan, the hydra-headed pundit beast that has devoured cable news was quick to pronounce the accomplishment underwhelming, a tiny step forward that followed some big steps back and preceded, it was predicted, some future steps sideways (i.e., yet another Gingrich comeback). In the language of EZ literary criticism that the beast now favours when explaining stuff, the win was interpreted as another episode in a larger ongoing ‘narrative’ about Romney’s failure to ‘fire up the base’ and ‘inspire passion among evangelicals.’ That leaving such a base unfired up amounts to a great public service went unremarked upon. The biggest story of the campaign so far the simple miracle of Romney’s survival as an exotic spiritual outsider in a party of mega-church populist orthodoxy was missed again. No, the fellow may not inspire Big Love, but he’s gotten along on Big Like, and that’s surprising.”
“The irony is that Romney’s fringy Mormonism, much like JFK’s Catholicism, insures against him going too far out. Santorum, for one, may be able to delude himself that his beliefs are normal and widely shared and that policies based on them are moral givens. Romney can’t afford to think that way… It’s only when Mormonism’s teachings accord with those of the broader religious right, as they do in the case of homosexuality, that a public figure from the faith can hazard writing them into law. That’s scary enough for some folks, and it should be, but Romney the centrist won’t go there, I suspect not if he’s actually elected president. As the bearer of Mormonism’s long-standing yearning for mainstream modern acceptance, he’d be well advised to sit out the Culture Wars and leave them to more established bands of bigots.”
I think Mr Kirn’s right that Mr Romney’s mere survival, despite the “mega-church populist orthodoxy” of today’s Republican Party, is remarkable in itself and deserves greater recognition. And there’s a great deal of merit to Mr Kirn’s insight that Mr Romney has to be careful not to appear motivated by anything other than the most hazily generic religious conviction. Mr Santorum obviously does not hesitate to argue for his favoured policies on narrowly sectarian grounds. In contrast, America’s present wariness of Mormonism, which is indeed analogous to mid-century wariness of Catholicism, requires that Mr Romney argue his case on grounds acceptable to a relatively wide range of right-leaning types.
Because Mr Romney cannot deploy straight-up Christian rhetoric without drawing unwanted attention to his faith, he compensates with a combination of twee sentimentality about family and a forced, almost hysterical American exceptionalism, both of which I think contribute to the widespread perception of Mr Romney’s phoniness. Mr Kirn brings to our attention the possibility that it is a mistake to think that Mr Romney has struggled because of his perceived in authenticity. Rather, Mr Romney has survived despite his Mormonism for many of the same reasons he seems a bit fake. A fully authentic Mitt Romney would be a frankly Mormon Mitt Romney, and that guy wouldn’t stand a chance in a Republican primary.
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