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The Chutzpah of Mitt Romney

June 19, 2012

Earlier this month, Team Romney spokesperson Andrea Saul explained her candidate's rule for determining the fairness of press coverage of his Mormon faith. "Our test to see if a similar story would be written about others' religion," Saul declared, "is to substitute 'Jew' or 'Jewish.'" That revelation prompted Jeffrey Goldberg to ask, "What If Mitt Romney Were Jewish?"
But whether he believes in Joseph Smith's golden plates or Rabbi Hillel's golden rule, the answer is the same: Mitt Romney has a lot of chutzpah. (Note: not pronounced "choot spa.") After all, as Goldberg points out, the Orthodox Judaism of 2000 Democratic vice presidential nominee Joe Lieberman got no shortage of scrutiny from the American media. More importantly, for years Mitt Romney's own rhetoric on religious diversity in America suggests he believes some faiths are more equal than others.

Writing in Bloomberg News, Goldberg takes exception to Romney's not-so-kosher rule on modern day press coverage of the Latter Day Saints. Taking Saul up on her standard ("Would you write this sentence in describing the Jewish faith? "'Jews believe their prophet Moses was delivered tablets on a mountain top directly from G-d after he appeared to him in a burning bush.' Of course not, yet you reference a similar story in Mormonism"), Goldberg responded that "There's nothing wrong with Saul's compressed description of the moment Jews received God's law, nor is there anything wrong with the Post's description of Mormonism's founding in upstate New York":

Here's one sentence: "Outside the spotlight, Mr. Romney can be demonstrative about his faith: belting out hymns ('What a Friend We Have in Jesus') while horseback riding, fasting on designated days and finding a Mormon congregation to slip into on Sundays, no matter where he is."
And here's a Mad Libs version: "Outside the spotlight, Mr. Romney can be demonstrative about his faith: belting out hymns ('The Lubavitcher Rebbe, Such a Friend!') while playing mahjong, fasting on Yom Kippur (except for possibly some nuts around 4 p.m.) and finding a shul to slip into on Saturdays."

In 2000, that's precisely the kind of coverage Lieberman received:

A New York Times reporter, Laurie Goodstein, detailed Lieberman's exotic rites at length, in the manner of an anthropologist explaining a previously unknown Amazon tribe: "Many of Mr. Lieberman's most basic religious rituals are intimate acts," the article said. At morning prayer, "the senator lays on tefillin, the small leather boxes that contain four biblical passages written on parchment, binding the boxes to one arm and his forehead with leather straps."

Noting that all faiths have elements which appear strange and mysterious to non-adherents, Goldberg asks, "So what does the Romney camp find so frightening?" But beyond the question of why Mitt Romney refuses to speak about the doctrines of his church is why he seems so willing to define some other Americans' beliefs as being beyond the pale.
As for Romney himself, the line against inquiries into Mormon doctrine is more like a brick wall.
When Piers Morgan of CNN asked him last year, "What is the Mormon position on homosexuality being a sin?" Governor Romney responded:

"I'm not a spokesman for my church. And one thing I'm not going to do in running for president is become a spokesman for my church or apply a religious test that is simply forbidden by the constitution, I'm not going there. If you want to learn about my church, talk to my church."

Four and a half years ago during his much-hyped "Faith in America" speech, Romney similarly explained that "No candidate should become the spokesman for his faith" and warned:

"There are some who would have a presidential candidate describe and explain his church's distinctive doctrines. To do so would enable the very religious test the founders prohibited in the Constitution."

Sadly, Romney during his last presidential bid endorsed precisely that very religious test for followers of Islam or no faith at all.
In November 2007, the former Massachusetts Governor said as much to Mansoor Ijaz at a fundraiser in Las Vegas. As Ijaz recounted:

I asked Mr. Romney whether he would consider including qualified Americans of the Islamic faith in his cabinet as advisers on national security matters, given his position that "jihadism" is the principal foreign policy threat facing America today. He answered, "...based on the numbers of American Muslims [as a percentage] in our population, I cannot see that a cabinet position would be justified. But of course, I would imagine that Muslims could serve at lower levels of my administration."

Despite Romney's subsequent denials, Greg Sargent and Steve Benen documented other witnesses and other occasions during which Mitt repeated his No Muslims Need Apply policy.

Given his own membership in a small religious minority, one might expect more openness and tolerance from the Mormon Romney. But in 2006, Romney declared "People in this country want a person of faith to lead them as their president." In December 2007, Governor Romney upped the ante by insisting "Freedom requires religion just as religion requires freedom." And in his "Faith in America" speech that month, Mitt seemingly added atheists to his list of those to be excluded from the American community (around the 7:30 mark):

"I believe that every faith I have encountered draws its adherents closer to God. And in every faith I have come to know, there are features I wish were in my own: I love the profound ceremony of the Catholic Mass, the approachability of God in the prayers of the Evangelicals, the tenderness of spirit among the Pentecostals, the confident independence of the Lutherans, the ancient traditions of the Jews, unchanged through the ages, and the commitment to frequent prayer of the Muslims."

(Just as long as those frequent prayers weren't going to be heard in President Romney's Cabinet Room.)
That nonbelievers had no place in leading Mitt Romney's America was remarked upon by conservative commentators at the time. While Ramesh Ponnuru of the National Review asked "what about atheists and agnostics?" David Brooks of the New York Times concluded that Romney "asked people to submerge their religious convictions for the sake of solidarity in a culture war without end." former Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan wondered:

"Why did Mr. Romney not do the obvious thing and include them? My guess: It would have been reported, and some idiots would have seen it and been offended that this Romney character likes to laud atheists. And he would have lost the idiot vote."

And in 2012, that was a voting bloc Mitt Romney was determined not to lose. Which is what brought him to Lynchburg, Virginia last month to address the graduates of the late Jerry Falwell's Liberty University.
During a speech in which he never mentioned the word "Mormon" (he used it once in his Faith in America address in 2007), Romney tried to explain to his evangelical audience "where we can meet in common purpose." Surely, Romney suggested to applause, they could agree on this (around the 9:00 minute mark):

It strikes me as odd that the free exercise of religious faith is sometimes treated as a problem, something America is stuck with instead of blessed with. Perhaps religious conscience upsets the designs of those who feel that the highest wisdom and authority comes from government.
But from the beginning, this nation trusted in God, not man. Religious liberty is the first freedom in our Constitution. And whether the cause is justice for the persecuted, compassion for the needy and the sick, or mercy for the child waiting to be born, there is no greater force for good in the nation than Christian conscience in action.

Romney's message may come as a surprise to the millions of non-Christians in the United States of America. Before uttering that last sentence, Mitt Romney should have substituted atheist, agnostic, Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist or, yes, Jewish. Apparently, the Romney campaign's Jewish test exists only to benefit its own candidate.
For his part, Jeffrey Goldberg praises the "ineffable niceness" of Mormons even in the face of "their religion [being] held up for mockery each night on Broadway":

Mormons' equanimity in the face of derision is refreshing, and speaks to the confidence they have in their religion. The Romney camp should also have confidence, and understand that not every reporter asking questions about their man's religious practices is trying to subvert Romney's candidacy or his church.

Or as Rabbi Hillel put it in his golden rule formulated before the birth of Jesus, "What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor."


Jon Perr
Jon Perr is a technology marketing consultant and product strategist who writes about American politics and public policy.

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