In a New York Times op-ed, veteran religion writer Kenneth Woodward says Mitt Romney should use a May speech at Pat Robertson's Regent University to dispel the challenges he faces in convincing evangelical Christians to vote for him. Now before you race to the end of this post to comment on what a terrible person I am for even suggesting that there are some Americans out there who wouldn't vote for a candidate because of his religious beliefs, read the rest of the post knowing that I am commenting on the media's coverage, not the issue itself. Comments that do not relate to the media's coverage will be zapped.
I raise this now because my previous post on Romney seemed to have touched a nerve among some Romney supporters who believe the former Massachusetts governor is not getting a fair shake from the media (and by me). Let's make another thing clear: anyone who attempts to become the leader of the free world deserves a thorough vetting. That means asking difficult questions and exploring tough subjects that are not always directly related to the job of leading the free world, but matter because those making the selection (the voters) have deemed them relevant. Reporters who fail to ask those questions are falling down on the job.
As a Mormon, Mr. Romney faces ignorance as well as fear of his church and its political influence. More Americans, polls show, are willing to accept a woman or an African-American as president than a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
It isn't just evangelical Christians in the Republican base who find Mr. Romney's religion a stumbling block. Among those who identify themselves as liberal, almost half say they would not support a Mormon for president. Although with 5.6 million adherents Mormonism is the nation's fourth-largest denomination, 57 percent of respondents to a recent CBS poll said they know little or nothing about Mormon beliefs and practices. Mr. Romney needs to be their teacher, whether he likes that role or not.
Do reporters bear responsibility in changing American's impressions of Mormons? No, a reporter's job is to report the news. If the news of the day happens to involve hunting histories or previous policy positions, then reporters are obliged to cover those issue. If Romney wants people's impressions of his faith to change, then he should get out in front of the issue and make reporters write about it by talking about it.
Reporters should keep from fueling ignorance and fear of Mormons in covering Romney. An example of crossing the "fear" line is The Washington Post's Alec MacGillis using a description of Mormons as "dry kindling" when they're politically mobilized. Since MacGillis didn't cite any specific instances of this characteristic, its inclusion in the article was unnecessarily inflammatory.
This is why Woodward's call for Romney to educate Americans on the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is so compelling:
But Mr. Romney must be sure to express himself in a way that will be properly understood. Any journalist who has covered the church knows that Mormons speak one way among themselves, another among outsiders. This is not duplicity but a consequence of the very different meanings Mormon doctrine attaches to words it shares with historic Christianity.
For example, Mormons speak of God, but they refer to a being who was once a man of "flesh and bone," like us. They speak of salvation, but to them that means admittance to a "celestial kingdom" where a worthy couple can eventually become "gods" themselves. The Heavenly Father of whom they speak is married to a Heavenly Mother. And when they emphasize the importance of the family, they may be referring to their belief that marriage in a Mormon temple binds families together for all eternity.
Thus, when Mr. Romney told South Carolina Republicans a few months ago that Jesus was his "personal savior," he used Southern Baptist language to affirm a relationship to Christ that is quite different in Mormon belief. (For Southern Baptists, "personal savior" implies a specific born-again experience that is not required or expected of Mormons.) This is not a winning strategy for Mr. Romney, whose handlers should be aware that Christian fundamentalists and evangelicals know Mormon doctrine better than most other Americans do -- if only because they study Mormonism in order to rebut its claims.
Especially at Regent University, Mr. Romney should avoid using language that blurs fundamental differences among religious traditions. Rather, he should acknowledge those differences and insist that no candidate for public office should have to apologize for his or her religious faith.
Should reporters attempt to call Romney out for translating Mormon religious lingo into evangelical lingo for the purpose of winning votes? Yes, of course. If there is a legitimate case to be made that Romney's language -- saying he is born again, for example -- fails to line up with Mormon theology, reporters should report on it. The big question is whether reporters covering Romney know Mormon and evangelical doctrine well enough to come up with educated questions for him and for those potential voters.