Mormonism


Mitt Romney’s Mormonism is one of this campaign season’s biggest wild cards.  It could affect evangelical turnout and even might discourage those others for whom the Mormon church and the state of Utah retain a certain cultish stigma.

From an L.A. Times Op/Ed by author Sally Denton:

“MITT ROMNEY’S Mormonism threatens his presidential candidacy in the same way that John F. Kennedy’s Catholicism did when he ran for president in 1960. Overt and covert references to Romney’s religion — subtle whispering as well as unabashed inquiries about the controversial sect he belongs to — plague his campaign. None of his responses so far have silenced the skeptics.

Recent polls indicate that from 25% to 35% of registered voters have said they would not consider voting for a Mormon for president, and conventional wisdom from the pundits suggests that Romney’s biggest hurdle is his faith. Everyone seems eager to make his Mormonism an issue, from blue state secularists to red state evangelicals who view the religion as a non-Christian cult.”

Mitt Romney has been at pains to demonstrate that his religion is in line with the American mainstream, though last month he raised eyebrows by citing Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard’s Battlefield Earth as his favorite novel.  The title is better known, of course, as the infamous 2001 John Travolta movie adaptation that bombed at the box office and is currently ranked 64th in the Internet Movie Database’s “Bottom 100” films category.

Still, Romney has persisted in efforts to reach out to evangelicals and more mainline protestant denominations without distancing themselves from Mormonism.  The question is whether respondents are willing to admit politically incorrect beliefs to those administering polls.  Romney is in a fairly healthy position in the race right now, which could change if Fred Thompson formally enters the election.  But if people who reject his Mormonism are unwilling to admit it publicly, Romney’s poll numbers may show a variant of the “Bradley Effect” — the phenomenon which often gives black candidates a phantom several points in opinion polls that do not translate into votes on election day.

To most outsiders, Romney seems unwavering and fully dedicated to to his faith.  But some Mormons are suggesting that the former governor is showing insufficient fealty to his religion’s history and scripture.

From The New York Times:

‘Some Mormons have watched with concern how Mr. Romney has responded to grilling by interviewers about his church’s distinctive doctrines. […]

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battlefield-earth.jpg

Joshua Glenn has an interesting post over at Brainiac regarding Mitt Romney’s much-discussed remark that his favorite novel is Battlefield Earth, a critically-suspect science-fiction tome by Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard that was widely criticized for including indoctrination and themes similarly to the creation story of the Church of Scientology and Dianetics.  It was later made into a notorious flop of a feature film starring John Travolta that was universally panned.  The Providence Journal, the hometown paper of Reality Check HQ, had this to say about the film’s aesthetic:

“Battlefield Earth’s primary colors are blue and gray, adding to the misery. Whenever we glimpse sunlight, the screen goes all stale yellow, as though someone had urinated on the print. This, by the way, is not such a bad idea.” [“Earth To John Travolta”, Providence Journal, May 20 2000]

To be fair, Romney didn’t mention the movie and explicitly stated that he disapproved of L. Ron Hubbard’s “religion”:

“Actually, the one by L. Ron Hubbard,” Romney said when asked to name his favorite novel.  “I’m not in favor of his religion by any means but he wrote a book called “Battlefield Earth” that was a very fun science fiction book.”‘

So what does all this have to do with flip-flopping?  Joshua Glenn aptly quotes a few commentators who note the contrast between Romney’s naming such an unusual and stigmatized work and his usual attempts to distance himself from much of the nation’s suspicion of Mormonism:

‘”Yikes, that doesn’t strike me as the way to go for a candidate who’s trying to convince Middle America that Mormonism is not exotic,” commented Congressional reporter Lyndsey Layton… At TNR’s website The Plank, Michael Crowley said: “Isn’t naming a novel by the hilariously nutty founder of Scientology more than a little loaded?”‘

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Mitt Romney spoke today at the Commencement for evangelist Pat Robertson’s Regent University. The speech was relatively apolitical but the act of giving it certainly wasn’t. The Romney campaign has realized what analysts see as his primary vulnerability, his Mormon religion. Most Americans don’t know anything about Mormonism and those that do often only know that it promotes polygamy (Though polygamy has been illegal since the late 19th century). This, of course, does not bode well for Romney who needs Christian conservatives to win the primary, or at this point, really just can’t afford to alienate any group before the primary.

The speech does not represent a flip-flop or even an evolving opinion, but it does signify a shift in the rhetoric of the Romney campaign. In the early days of his candidacy Romney relied on his Mormonism to garner support and funding. He spoke of religious tolerance in the election on Jay Leno just a few weeks ago, saying:

Americans don’t choose leaders based on what church they go to. They look to people who share the same values as them. I think America is ready for people of almost any faith to lead the country

While this may be true, Romney isn’t taking any chances. His campaign has set up a nationwide network of Mormon volunteers and donor, according to the Boston Globe;

Over the past two months, Romney’s political operatives and church leaders have discussed building a grass-roots political organization using alumni chapters of Brigham Young University’s business school around the country. More recently, representatives of BYU, which is run by the church, and Romney’s political action committee have begun soliciting help from prominent Mormons, including a well-known author suggested by the governor, to build the program, which Romney advisers dubbed Mutual Values and Priorities, or MVP.

This grassroots Mormon outreach effort may have been enough to keep Romney in the race through the first quarter, and help him to be the Republican candidate with the most raised funds, but a solely Mormon base of support wont sustain him through to the primary and certainly not in the general election. This is where Pat Robertson’s invitation to speak fits nicely into the Romney roadmap. Romney needs to lessen his ties with the Mormon base and begin to build support among other conservative groups, namely Evangelicals.

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