Resist the J.F.K. itch

JFKinHoustonWhat is most helpful about Nancy Gibbs' article on Mitt Romney in the latest issue of Time is her detailed explanation of why Romney faces doubts -- not just from some evangelicals, but also from the cultural left:

Many Evangelicals have been taught that Mormonism is a cult with a heretical understanding of Scripture and doctrine. Mormons reject the unified Trinity and teach that God has a body of flesh and blood. Though Mormons revere Christ as Saviour and certainly call themselves Christians, the church is rooted in a rebuke to traditional Christianity. Joseph Smith presented himself as a prophet whom God had instructed to restore his true church, since "all their creeds were an abomination in his sight."

... Twelve years later, Smith explained to a Chicago newspaper that "ignorant translators, careless transcribers or designing and corrupt priests have committed many errors" in the Bible, which he revised according to God's revelations.

... [Slate's Jacob] Weisberg observes that modern political discourse seems to permit the exploration of candidates' every secret except their most basic philosophical beliefs: "The crucial distinction is between someone's background and heritage, which they don't choose, and their views, which they do choose and which are central to the question of whether someone has the capacity to serve in the highest office in the country." He would raise the same concerns, he notes, about a Jew or a Methodist who believed the earth is less than 6,000 years old. Weisberg's characterization of Mormonism as "Scientology plus 125 years" did not stop Romney from naming L. Ron Hubbard's Battlefield Earth a favorite novel. "Someone who believes, seriously believes, in a modern hoax is someone we should think hard about," Weisberg argues, "whether they have the skepticism and intellectual seriousness to take on this job."

... The fact that Romney personally emphasizes family, service and sobriety and opposes abortion and gay marriage has led some evangelical leaders to adopt a kind of "Don't ask, don't tell" policy when it comes to details of his faith. Romney has held quiet meetings around the country, and they have come away, by and large, impressed. "Southern Baptists understand they are voting for a Commander in Chief, not a Theologian in Chief," says Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's public-policy arm. "But he's gotta close the deal. Only Romney can make voters comfortable with his Mormonism. Others cannot do it for him."

I have two quibbles with Gibbs' essay. It's worth noting that the remark about Utah being a "stronghold of Satan" came from one Southern Baptist, a pastor who is based in Salt Lake City. Here is the fuller context of what he said in 1997 as Southern Baptists prepared for holding their annual convention, which met in Salt Lake City for the first time the next year:

Summit speakers pointed out that the Salt Lake City area includes hundreds of thousands of unchurched non-Mormons.

They also said it is imperative that Southern Baptists act in a spirit of love toward Mormons and not come across to the public -- in Salt Lake City and the rest of the United States -- as angry or hurtful toward Mormon people.

"I'm concerned that we not have a bunch of Dennis Rodmans coming in," said Mike Gray, pastor of Southeast Baptist Church in Salt Lake City. He was referring to the controversial Chicago Bulls' basketball star who slurred Mormons publicly during championship games of the National Basketball Association this spring.

... "Mormon country is God's country. God is the same in Salt Lake City as he is in Dallas, Atlanta, Nashville and elsewhere. Even though that state (Utah) is a stronghold of Satan, remember that God is doing great things there, and we are expecting great things (of this convention)."

The other quibble is a matter for Time's copy desk: The meeting shown in a photograph is taking place inside the Tabernacle, not the Sale Lake City Temple.

Like other reporters before her, Gibbs asks whether Romney should attempt to defuse opposition to his candidacy with a 21st-century version of John Kennedy's speech to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association. It's a legitimate question, but I think J.F.K. in Houston is the wrong model. Because of lingering anti-Vatican fears among certain Protestants of the time, Kennedy ended up promising never to fulfill their worst expectations by taking political orders from the Pope. Taken as a whole, Kennedy's speech represents "the separation of faith and self," to use Stephen Carter's phrase.

That Kennedy felt forced to make such promises in 1960 did not speak well of his critics' understanding of the presidency, of the Vatican or of how a savvy politician strikes a balance between the demands of faith and the demands of guarding the Constitution.

Politically aware believers would not expect a president to find direct answers to questions of governance in the Scriptures and doctrines of a church. Likewise, spiritually aware political advisers would not expect a candidate to keep religious belief in deep freeze, as if a candidate's beliefs about God, sin and salvation should in no way affect a candidate's thinking about social issues.

Should anyone expect that Romney's stance on abortion would not be shaped by his understanding of when human life begins? (Granted, Romney's pro-life views seem to have emerged only in recent years, which Time's Karen Tumulty describes as "not the only place where he seems to have retrofitted his views to the tastes of the voters he is trying to win.")

Does anyone seriously expect, by contrast, that the LDS rite of proxy baptisms would affect any policy in a Mitt Romney administration?

What Romney may need more than another J.F.K speech is a Sister Souljah moment. Just as Bill Clinton once challenged the rap singer's combative remarks on race relations, perhaps Romney will take some unpredictable stands.

Here are three possibilities:

• Romney pledges federal prosecution of any polygamous sect that celebrates marriage between adult grooms and child brides. The point would not be to prove that Romney rejects polygamy -- the LDS repudiated polygamy in 1890 -- but to convict child abusers.

• Romney criticizes the Mormon-owned Marriott International Inc. for making pornography available in its hotels.

• Romney calls for respecting the rights of groups in Salt Lake City and Nauvoo, Illinois, to distribute literature critical (even tactlessly critical) of the LDS.

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