Saturday, March 10, 2012

Voting For A Mormon

A poster in a recent thread linked to a video from the 2008 presidential campaign, in which Mitt Romney discussed his Mormonism and some other issues. Here’s what I wrote in response:

I saw it when it first circulated during the 2008 campaign. If I remember correctly, I came across it through a link at National Review. I think National Review, at least the author there whose comments I read, thought Romney came off well in the video overall. I suspect it would help him more than it would hurt him with most voters. In the video, he generally comes across as sincere, likeable, self-deprecating, and knowledgeable, for example. His willingness to participate in such a lengthy discussion with the radio host, despite being challenged and being expected to discuss issues that usually don’t come up in political contexts, probably would be something commendable in the eyes of most voters. I suspect most people would think the radio host was overly critical. Romney’s Mormonism would come off as unusual and not credible to most Americans, but he framed his comments on Mormonism in the context of a popular view of separation of church and state. The radio host, not Romney, initiated the exchanges on Mormonism, and Romney’s responses were mostly along the lines of what you’d hear from other American politicians talking about religious matters. Romney was more involved in Mormonism than the average politician is in his religion. That comes across in the video. But I don’t think that would hurt Romney significantly with most voters.

The context in which the video would be most damaging to Romney is among people for whom Mormonism is an unusually significant problem. Those people are a minority of the voting population. Most of them fall into one of two categories. They’re either so liberal that they wouldn’t vote for Romney anyway or they’re conservatives who will vote for Romney anyway if he’s the Republican nominee.

It’s an old video, already discussed prominently during the 2008 campaign, and it does little damage to Romney beyond reinforcing some negatives about his Mormonism that have been widely known for years. Overall, the video is a mixed bag for Romney that would help him with most voters, but hurt him with some.

As far as the larger issue of his Mormonism in general is concerned, I’ll summarize my view here without repeating all of the details I’ve laid out on other occasions.

Romney’s Mormonism is a significant problem. A person’s religious beliefs influence his thinking on matters that aren’t commonly thought of as religious. Romney’s Mormonism can’t be separated from everything else in his life. Presidents even have overt religious influence, not just subtle or insignificant influence, such as when they attend religious events and make religious references in their speeches and in other contexts. The election of a Mormon president would improve the reputation of Mormonism. And so on.

On the other hand, we’ve already had a lot of Mormon governors, senators, etc. Romney’s election to the presidency would be more of an evolution than a revolution. At the presidential level, we’ve had a theist who opposed Christianity as it’s traditionally been defined (Jefferson) and others who were far from Evangelical. More recently, we’ve had a Catholic (Kennedy), a theologically moderate Methodist who was highly ecumenical toward non-Christian religions (the younger Bush), and somebody who attended a church as problematic as Jeremiah Wright’s for about two decades before becoming president (Obama). Did those presidents do much to move people toward their religion? No. But their religion did have some influence on and through their presidency, and their religion should be considered as one factor among others in evaluating those presidents.

However, there are some factors specific to Romney and Mormonism that we should keep in mind. Mormonism already has a lot of credibility problems. The American people already find the religion largely unappealing and problematic. They’ve already been inoculated against Mormonism to some extent. Romney seems to have relatively little interest in using the presidency to promote Mormonism. And we live in a highly secularized and trivialized culture. People will be apathetic about Romney’s religion to a large extent. Factors like these limit the damage he can do.

Overall, my sense is that Romney’s Mormonism is a significant problem that will do some damage, but not as much damage as some people have suggested. The notion that we should never vote for a Mormon doesn’t make sense. In Romney’s case, there are many reasons to vote for him that outweigh the reasons to not vote for him. His Mormonism is a significant reason to not vote for him, but it’s outweighed by other considerations.

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