Monday, February 27, 2006

The Mormon factor

I wrote today at length about President Bush and the White House bubble syndrome, here.

But let's look ahead this morning to the post-Bush Republican presidential race of 2008. A very interesting dynamic is developing, with respect to the prospective candidacy of Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. He is a Mormon, and that could be a problem for a lot of the evangelican Christian conservatives who vote heavily in the early primaries (especially make-or-break South Carolina). This issue came up yesterday when Romney was interviewed on Fox News, and he may not have said enough to defuse it.
Romney could be an important player, first of all. The GOP polls right now favor the better-known John McCain (who is not quite trusted by religious right), Condoleezza Rice (who says she's not running), and Rudy Guiliani (who probably doesn't have a chance because he supports gay rights and abortion rights). Romney is lesser known, but he is a governor (voters like governors, because they have executive experience), he's telegenic, and he's rich enough to keep a primary season candidacy alive. He can also present himself as a guy with crossover appeal to moderates and independents, because he has won in arguably America's bluest state.
But he is a lifelong member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, and it's a fact that a lot of evangelical Christians - and particularly southern Baptists in the GOP's strongest region - view Mormonism as a cult that follows extra-biblical works of scripture. So Romney might find his religion to be the greatest challenge for any candidate since John F. Kennedy had to defend his Catholicism in 1960.
This all came up yesterday when Romney was interviewed by Fox's Chris Wallace. Romney at first recited his standard answer, which is that "people in this country want a person of faith to lead them," regardless of "what brand of faith" the leader has. But when Wallace noted the evangelicals' big concern - that Mormons "believe in books of scripture that are outside the Bible" - and asked whether Romney followed those tenets, Romney stonewalled:
"You know, I'm never going to get into a discussion about my personal beliefs and about particular doctrines of my church," because what matters most is the oath of office to "abide by a nation of laws and the Constitution."
Wallace dropped the subject after that. What he could have done, however, was to point out that, in the Bush era, Republican candidates have been openly parading their religiosity; it was Bush, after all, who told an Iowa audience that his greatest hero was Jesus. Wallace could then have asked how Romney expects to successfully navigate the Republican primary season by claiming that the details of his religious faith are essentially nobody's business.
I'll also make a prediction, based on my own belief that popular culture influences our politics and vice versa: A new HBO series, "Big Love," which debuts on March 12 right after "The Sopranos," won't do Romney any favors, fairly or not. The series is about a Mormon fundamentalist sect that practices polygamy; the lead character has three frisky wives. HBO is high on the series, and thinks it will be around for a few years. Wait until the grassroots evangelical conservatives get wind of that.