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Romney's Religion Problem

This column was written by Michelle Cottle.

Is it possible that Al Sharpton has finally said something so politically stupid that even he realizes the need to shut the hell up?

During a debate on religion this week with professional grump Christopher Hitchens, Sharpton remarked of GOP presidential hopeful Mitt Romney, "As for the one Mormon running for office, those who really believe in God will defeat him anyways, so don't worry about that; that's a temporary situation." Al being Al, the remark was seen by many as a slam on Romney's Mormonism, prompting the governor's campaign to denounce Sharpton for religious bigotry. The good reverend, in turn, has been backtracking furiously as he struggles to explain what he really meant, who he was really talking about, and what he really thinks of Mormons. No one should expect an apology from Sharpton any time soon. Big Al doesn't do apologies. But at least the reverend is making an effort to avoid a theological pissing contest as he attempts to extract his wingtip from his fat, flapping pie hole.

Which is a good thing. Because if there's one way to help Mitt Romney win the hearts of the Republican base — and allow him to emerge as a formidable contender in the general election — it's by helping him paint himself a victim of religious persecution by Democrats. While many in the GOP find Romney's Mormonism objectionable and creepy, it's safe to assume they find Sharpton even more so. Besides, if the reverend wants Romney's faith to sink his candidacy, his best bet is still to sit back and let religious conservatives do the work for him. The doctrinal distinctions between Mormonism and, say, Methodism may not mean much to secular types inside the Beltway. But the folks praising Jesus around the rest of the country remain torn.

In the wake of last week's Republican debate, in fact, I started calling around to chat with social conservatives about the field of presidential wannabes. One prominent activist graciously took time out from burning an effigy of Rudy What's-the-Big-Deal-About-Roe? Giuliani to share this tidbit: "I asked a friend of mine who's a pastor in Middle America, 'You have a choice between two candidates: Hillary Clinton versus someone who is good on social issues and who is a Mormon.' And my friend said, 'I don't think I could vote for a Mormon.' "

Think about that: A social conservative is given the choice between a Mormon and Hillary Clinton — the modern personification of Evil for GOP wingers — and he can't make up his mind? This does not bode well for Mitt's fortunes in the Heartland.

Not that one anecdote an election makes. But this is representative of the kind of story that the conservatives I've been talking to say they're hearing from the conservatives they've been talking to. It is also the sort of sentiment contributing to poll numbers indicating that between one-quarter and one-third of Americans would not vote for a Mormon — a number that grows much bigger when you include less definitive options, such as those who say that they wouldn't be comfortable voting for a Mormon or those who believe the country isn't ready for a Mormon (two-thirds of America, if last September's Gallup poll is on target.) Not insignificantly for Romney, a February 2007 Gallup poll showed that, the more religious a person is, the more likely he is to have a negative view of Mormonism.

As of now, the candidate is largely ignoring the issue and hoping that it will fade. But it's tough to imagine that the widespread, if utterly irrational, unease over Mormonism is likely to get much better on its own any time soon. For starters, the second season of HBO's Mormon-themed "Big Love" starts June 11, once again spotlighting that whole unseemly polygamy stereotype that continues to plague the church, official policy notwithstanding. Then there's the September Dawn movie coming to theaters in late June, recounting the 1857 episode in which a group of Mormons slaughtered some 120 Arkansas settlers bound for California. As Bob Novak, who saw an advanced screening, described it, the movie depicts then-church president Brigham Young, "as a 19th-century Osama bin Laden. Calling himself a 'second Muhammad,' he insists on the 'shedding of blood' of 'gentiles.'" In a nation where most folks know vanishingly little about Mormonism, Team Romney had better start praying that the movie tanks.

Compounding the problem, Romney's Mormonism threatens to turn some of his electoral pluses into question marks. Most notably, his fund-raising prowess should serve as a show of his political potency. But with a huge chunk of it raised from Mormon-dominated Utah, the storyline has been more ambivalent, with various political watchers noting that it complicates Romney's attempts to reassure voters of his independence from the church. Then there's the candidate's smooth, too-perfect demeanor, which raises all sorts of mouth-watering questions: What is he hiding? Did he cut a deal with Satan for that hair? Is he a charismatic cultist looking to amass political power and then impose his version of God's will on the American people? These are the sort of gut-level intangibles on which a U.S. presidential election can turn.

Richard Land, head of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, the public-policy arm of the Southern Baptists, believes Romney must tackle the Mormon issue head on and says he has counseled Romney to give a speech à la JFK on Catholicism in the 1960 race. Message: I am not a creature of my church. But while Romney has reportedly studied Kennedy's speech, he has thus far declined to attempt something similar, instead sticking with his Americans-are-above-that-sort-of-bigotry line. As he told Sean Hannity just this week, "That's a great thing about this country. We don't — we don't decide who's going to be in office based on what church they go to."

That may be the great thing about We the People in general, Mitt. But that's a risky position to take with the Republican base. (For a fuller accounting of why, see Amy Sullivan's piece in the September 2005 Washington Monthly.)

Indeed, if Romney is really serious about becoming president, I'd like to propose an even more radical course of action than Land's: The governor should switch teams altogether and run as a Democrat. Admittedly, the polling on Dems' views of Mormonism is no more promising (and in some cases less so) than on Republicans'. But my guess is that this has to do less with theology than ideology, with most Democrats assuming that a generic Mormon candidate would be far too conservative for their tastes.

But we're not talking about a generic Mormon. We're talking about Mitt Romney, who once upon a time supported abortion rights and vowed to fight for gay rights more vigorously than liberal lion Ted Kennedy. His past support of government funding for stem-cell research should sit well with Dems, as should his past support of gun control. Admittedly, the governor would need to shift left on a range of issues including taxes and Iraq. But come on! What's another conversion or two for a guy who has already shown himself to be so ideologically flexible? At the very least, as a Democrat, Romney wouldn't have to shoulder the burden of guilt that must come from concocting patently absurd stories about his life-long love affair with varmint hunting.

So why not take a walk on the dark side, Mitt? Forget about trying to convince all those nervous evangelicals of your doctrinal acceptability and start thinking about ways to cut greenhouse gases, woo immigrants, and get us the hell out of Iraq. If you don't like it, you can always flip-flop back to the GOP in 2012. In the meantime, just think of how much fun you and Sharpton could have hanging out at next summer's Democratic convention.
By Michelle Cottle
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