Voting for pastor in chief?

TimeCoverFor days, one of the top stories on CNN.com was "Romney's faith pitch recorded behind closed doors." The story, by Peter Hamby, was about how CNN had obtained a secret recording of Romney discussing his faith with alumni of Bob Jones University. The recording was made by a disgruntled alumnus. What earth-shattering things did he say behind closed doors that we haven't heard in the mainstream media? Let's see:

"I get good support from evangelical Christian leadership around the country, you know, despite a difference in religion," Romney told the audience of evangelicals at the Greenville Hilton.

"I think it was Dr. Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention who said we're not electing a pastor in chief, and so I appreciate that support and just you remember that when you go to vote," he said with a laugh.

Oh no he didn't! Oh wait . . . that's completely straightforward. What's more, it sounds exactly like what Romney has been saying since he got in the race. Why the drama? Why make a big fuss about the secret recording? I have no idea. Anyway, Bob Jones University's former president, Bob Jones III, and Robert Taylor, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, both personally endorsed Romney. Let's check back with Hamby:

Jones and Taylor endorsed Romney in mid-October -- a surprise since Jones had once called Mormonism and Catholicism "cults which call themselves Christian." The endorsements were seen as a boost to Romney's efforts to sway conservative Christians skeptical about his faith.

I get what Hamby is saying -- it is something of a surprise that leaders at BJU would endorse Romney. But on the other hand, there is nothing surprising at all about people endorsing candidates with whom they have religious disagreements. As a Lutheran, I am pretty darn sure I've never voted for someone with whom I'm in complete religious agreement and sometimes it's not even close. A few weeks ago I read a column in USA TODAY about Romney that ended thusly:

What bothers me are not the allegations of his shifting positions on issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage, but his acceptance of a political endorsement from someone who trashes his religion.

Okay, so I doubt that many people begrudge Romney for accepting political endorsements from people who are not Mormon or, gasp!, people who actually disagree with Mormonism. But I think a lot of people seem confused that voters might have one set of views about Mormonism and a completely separate set of views about Romney. Let me spell this out. A voter could be Mormon but support, say, Dennis Kucinich for President. A voter could think Mormonism was the most false religion ever and be the chair of the Alabama Republicans for Romney campaign. A Methodist voter could generally like Mormons and Mormonism but not like Romney. I could go on but the point seems so obvious.

This failure to understand the extremely common situation of a voter opposing a candidate's religion while supporting a candidate plagues much coverage of the Romney campaign. Now don't get me wrong: many voters have indicated they'd be less likely to vote for a candidate who is Mormon. But it's nowhere near a majority. Even among white evangelicals, only about one-third express problems with voting for a Mormon candidate.

The Associated Press' Philip Elliott had a report on a related issue that was well-written and interesting. At a recent New Hampshire house party, Romney said his advisers have recommended against his giving a speech about his religious views and how they might affect his presidency. And yet . . .:

During the house party, Romney returned to a familiar speech about his family to talk about his faith's broad beliefs.

"The values of my faith flow from the Judeo-Christian heritage that we probably all share in this room, which are values of believing in God, in the case of those that follow the Christian line of that philosophy, I believe Jesus Christ is my savior. I believe in the Bible. I believe that liberty is a gift of God and not of government. I believe in serving other people, that it's part of a religious heritage."

Interesting. Well, we haven't seen the end of this story but let's hope we'll see improved coverage. Particularly as it relates to the ability of voters to support candidates whose religious views they disagree with.

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