We look at media coverage of Mitt Romney so much because, unlike most other candidates, the media are obsessed with his religion. My wonderful Mormon in-laws are following Romney, and the number one thing they can't stand is the focus on Romney's religion instead of his politics. The Washington Post's media critic, Howard Kurtz, weighed in on that matter in his latest column. He says the media seem downright excited at the prospect of the first female or black president, but aren't so giddy about a Mormon president:
The skeptical tone toward Mitt Romney's announcement has been impossible to miss. And the major reason is his religion.
"Will Mormon faith hurt bid for White House?" said USA Today's front-page headline on the day that the former Massachusetts governor announced.
Try to imagine a headline that said, "Will Jewish faith hurt bid for White House?"
Obviously, reporters are raising the issue because of polls showing that a chunk of the public wouldn't vote for a Mormon commander-in-chief -- 24 percent in a USA Today poll yesterday. But I believe the passive acceptance of this political "fact" -- as opposed to, say, questioning opposition to gay marriage or civil unions -- reflects a mindset that Mormonism is kind of weird and therefore okay to treat as a fringe movement.
It's true that the polls mean Romney's religion is a legitimate news angle for political and religion reporters, but I think there might be something to Kurtz's criticism. Sure, Romney faces some hurdles because of his religion. But at this point in the race, most of those polls are meaningless -- imagine what a similar poll would have indicated about John Kennedy's prospects in 1959.
Romney is trailing behind frontrunners John McCain (Episcopalian) and Rudy Guiliani (devout Roman Catholic*) in straw polls. But he's keeping very competitive with fundraising and he's lured a number of significant Republicans to his team.
I'm sure we'll continue to analyze the copious media coverage of Romney's religion, but it's worth considering Kurtz's comment. How should the media handle Romney's religion? How should they cover other candidates' religious views? What do you think?
*UPDATE: I thought, given what everybody knows about Rudy Guiliani, that this was an obvious joke. Judging from the myriad earnest/shocked comments from people noting "he's not devout," I will concede defeat on my attempts at sarcasm.