Mitt Romney and The Atlantic: Has The Legacy Media Learned Anything about Covering Religion in Politics?
The Washington, D.C., Temple of the Church of
Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
This is not a religious blog, although I am a religious person. Full disclosure: I am a life-long, fully-committed, fifth-generation member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, often called the "LDS" or "Mormon" Church. So I cannot resist commenting on the recent Atlantic Monthly article on Mitt Romney by Sridhar Pappu. The below-the-title teaser paragraph tells you a lot about where the article is going:
Mitt Romney, the governor of Massachusetts, loves data, hates waste, and reveres Dwight Eisenhower. He's also the Next Big Thing in the Republican Party. But can anyone so clean-cut, so pure of character, and (by gosh!) so square overcome the "two Ms"—Mormonism and Massachusetts—to be our next president?Leave aside, for now, the sophomoric nature of that question. Almost the entire article is about politics and policy, Romney's history, and other non-religious matters. Then, on the last page, Pappu gets to the Religion Question:
But all this will be for naught if Romney can't answer one of the biggest questions that would dog his candidacy. As it happens, it's a question that had slipped my mind as I was discussing the prospect of a national Romney candidacy with Ted Kennedy on the phone . . . . (Once Romney's nemesis and conqueror, Kennedy now speaks respectfully of him . . . .) I was winding down our conversation when Senator Kennedy interrupted me. "The one question you didn't ask," he said, "was about Mormonism—whether it would hurt him in a national campaign."
"I was about to," I said.
"The answer is no," Kennedy said. "We've moved on. That died with my brother Jack." Romney himself says he serves the people, not the Book of Mormon. But though the matter should have died with the election of Jack Kennedy (who himself spoke on religious freedom at the Mormon Tabernacle in 1960), Romney's religion remains—as a prominent Republican strategist who worked on both George W. Bush campaigns told me—"the other M."
Pappu makes the odd comment that in "speaking to Romney's family members and colleagues and fellow politicians over the course of several months, I felt awkward asking [religious] questions." The he says he "finally asked Romney, '"How Mormon are you?'"Romney gives a perfectly fine answer to that question. Then Pappu, apparently over his awkwardness, asks Romney about . . . his underwear:
This exchange gives one pause. Now, we all know that Bill Clinton, who lowered so many standards of presidential behavior, famously opened the door to presidential candidates being asked about their underwear. (Remember? "Boxers or briefs?" was the question. Clinton could not restrain himself from answering on national television.) But this is something different, because the question is about private religious observance of the most sensitive and personal kind.
"Do you wear the temple garments?" I asked uncomfortably, referring to the special undergarments worn by members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. (The underwear has markings denoting the covenants of the Mormon faith, and is meant to serve as a reminder of the high standards Mormons are expected to uphold. The rules governing its wear and disposal seem as complex as those pertaining to, say, the American flag.)
He answered, "I'll just say those sorts of things I'll keep private."
First off, let's deal with this whole temple garment question. Mormon temples are central to my faith. Temples are not simply meeting houses, and in fact are closed on Sundays, when all Mormons are in regular church meetings, which are held in our neighborhood chapels. Only fully worthy members of the church may enter our temples, and they must meet relatively high standards of behavior to qualify. As Mormons raise our children we teach them to set as a major life goal to be worthy to enter the temple when they become adults. It is in temples where Mormons are married and where we make profound promises and commitments to God about our families and about living our lives as disciples of Jesus Christ. We consider the ceremonies in our temples deeply sacred (not secret) and so we do not discuss them in detail outside the temple.
So what about the garments? They are special clothing that we wear next to the skin, and which serve as reminders of the promises and commitments we made to God in the temple. We like to refer to them as the outward reminder of an inward commitment. Because the garments are the only thing we take with us out of the temple, they, and what they symbolize, are deeply sacred to us as well.
Now, several aspects of Pappu's question, which Hugh Hewitt rightly calls "extraordinarily inappropriate," cry out for comment. Would Pappu ask Joseph Lieberman if he wears the Jewish tallit katan, which is a similar garment worn by many observant Jews under their clothes? According to Ralph Kostant, who writes often for this blog and who is an Orthodox Jew, the tallit katan is "similar to the purpose of the Mormon temple garments . . . the tzitzit or fringes tied to the four corners of the tallit katan . . . are intended to remind us of our obligations to observe the mitzvot (commandments) of God."
Let's go a little farther. Would Pappu ask a Jewish man if he is circumcised? Would he ask a Catholic (as Hugh wonders) when he last went to confession? Regarding any of those sacred subjects, would Pappu make a similar snide and deeply uninformed comment about the "rules governing [the garment's] wear and disposal," claiming those rules "seem as complex as those pertaining to, say, the American flag?" (There are no rules, only guidelines, and they are not complex. But I digress.) Would he ask anyone, "How Catholic are you?" or "How Jewish are you?"
Most important, would Pappu get a pass for asking such stupid questions?
As my commenter BlueBuffoon notes regarding a post below, Harry Reid, the Democrat Senate Majority Leader, is reputed to be a devout Mormon. Why is no one asking about his underwear?
For me, the lesson here is not about Mormons or Jews or Catholics or sacred symbols. It is about the deeply ingrained disdain certain journalistic elites in our country have toward anything that smacks of deep religious commitment, or of the aspirations many religious people have toward higher values and standards of personal behavior. (You'll notice in Pappu's article, for example, that he can't seem to get over Romney's regular use of mild expletives like "Holy Cow," an expression that made it into the article's title. So Romney uses clean language. Why is that undeniably admirable habit so worthy of ridicule? Does it make the writer uncomfortable because he's used to hearing or using foul or coarse language?)
This will be a story to watch unfold throughout the 2008 election. And it isn't just about Mitt Romney. I like Romney a lot, but I'm also attracted to Senator Allen of Virginia. I'm not sure which candidate I'll support yet. Yes, Mitt will get religous junk thrown at him throughout the campaign, and Allen's evangelical Christianity will get intense scrutiny. There will be the usual hand-wringing by the MSM about -- shudder!-- the candidates' religiousity.
On the other hand, I'll bet no one will be asking John Kerry, "How Catholic are you?" Nor do I doubt that Hillary Clinton's effort to paint herself as an "aw, shucks" sensible Midwestern Methodist will get anything but approving commentary from the MSM. That commentary will probably focus on how Senator Clinton's newly emphasized religious commitment is such a clever political ploy.
And no one will be asking her about her underwear.
UPDATE: Good old InstaPundit has something interesting to say about the general issue of religion in politics. Also, there's a rollicking discussion of this entire subject at MillenialStar.org.