Repeat after Meacham

Jon MeachamNewsweek editor Jon Meacham's cover story on what the magazine calls "A New American Holy War" reads less like a news report than a sometimes exasperated prep-school instructor's departmental memo about a pair of bickering students named Mike Huckabee and Mitt Romney. A quick aside about Newsweek's headline: Calling a lively religious debate in primary season "A New American Holy War" is like referring to door-to-door evangelism -- whether by Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses or Southern Baptists -- as "Spiritual Waterboarding." "So it has come to this: the 2008 Republican Iowa caucuses have descended into a kind of holy war," Meacham sighs. "The skirmish pits Huckabee against Romney in a story of hardball politics and high-minded history, of shadowy slurs and noble principles."

Meacham lectures both men throughout the piece, but he takes Romney to the woodshed until Meacham hears what he all but demands:

In a telephone interview with Romney on Friday evening, I asked him why he had, to many ears, seemed to fail to reach out to those of no religious belief: "I was struck that you did not explicitly extend the definition of religious liberty to those who believe nothing at all ..."

"I don't think I defined religious liberty," Romney replied. "I think it spoke for itself ... but of course it includes all, all forms of personal conviction."

"Or the lack thereof?"

"Yeah, the lack ..." He paused. "But -- well, the people who don't have a particular faith have a personal conviction. ..."

So, in the end, there it was, but it took a while.

This segment of Meacham's report is especially disturbing. Ponder, for a moment, the thin-skinned argument from silence. Romney did not mention the satirical Flying Spaghetti Monster, either. Should Pastafarians, as they call themselves, now fear harassment? Let's also ponder the nonsensical question "Or the lack thereof?" How would a president defend people's right to hold no "forms of personal conviction"? Does the First Amendment enshrine the worth of philosophical apathy? Is anyone capable of holding no forms of personal conviction?

This, I think, is the most pressing question: Why must Romney go through this interrogation? Isn't a journalist's task to report on what Romney says he believes, rather than to coax him along, thought by thought, to an answer that satisfies the journalist?

Regarding Huckabee, there is this bit of rhetorical ping-pong:

In a telephone interview with Newsweek's Holly Bailey, Huckabee, an ordained Southern Baptist minister, declined to say whether he agreed with evangelical Christians who believe Mormonism is a heretical cult. "First of all, I don't think it's appropriate for me to start evaluating other religions," Huckabee said. "The more I answer these questions, the more people want to say, 'Ah, you describe yourself as a theologian,' or 'Oh, you're the one who is setting yourself up as a judge of religions.' I am damned if I do; I am damned if I don't."

Then he did. Asked if he thought Scriptural revelations from God ended when the Bible was completed, Huckabee said: "I don't have any evidence or indication that he's handed us a new book to add to the ones, the 66, that were canonized in 325 A.D."

"Then he did" is a cheap shot of a transitional sentence. It confuses Holly Bailey's persistence as an interviewer with an implication that Huckabee was eager to debate the canonical status of Mormon Scriptures (which he avoided mentioning, nota bene). Does Newsweek seriously expect an ordained minister to say "No comment" about the notion of continuing revelation?

In "The Editor's Desk" for this issue, Meacham's desk closes with this benediction:

It is not too much to say that the clash between Romney and Huckabee in Iowa touches on the most fundamental things about America. Whoever wins, let us hope that Lincoln's "better angels of our nature" will prevail.

The persistent suggestion in this cover package is that the Republican nominee ought not express a religious conviction that differs markedly from the broad-minded and winsome faith of the Episcopal layman Jon Meacham -- or the First Amendment is somehow imperiled. Surely Meacham knows his religious history well enough to realize that one can express deeply held theological beliefs and care about the freedom of those who disagree. Roger Williams taught us that much.

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