The EFM Feature

An article in the new issue of Newsweek begins thusly:

For Mitt Romney, it all started in a two-story, wood-framed house on a busy street in Pontiac, Mich. Painted beige, encircled by an asphalt lot that would hardly hold a dozen cars, the building manages to look both decrepit and picturesque, like a million other urban churches across the country. Today it houses the Unity Church of Practical Christianity, but until Romney was 10, it was the Mormon church he attended with his family—at least twice a day on Sunday, and one night a week for youth group.
Another presidential candidate, upon learning of a reporter’s visit there, might jump on the opportunity to reminisce about the faith of his childhood, to trot out fond stories about his pastor and the inspirational lessons learned at his knee. But not Romney. Seated in a plane between campaign stops near the olive groves of northern California.
Romney hears of such a visit and the wattage seeps out of his smile.
“In Pontiac?” he asks.
Yes, the reporter answers.
“Oh, yeah. Wow. I don’t know where that is,” Romney says.
It’s still a church, the reporter says.
“Oh, it is. Oh, interesting.”
Full stop. Never has a man so polished looked so uncomfortable.
Nothing is more politically vexing or personally crucial for Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney than the story of his faith. Raised in a devout Mormon family by parents who were both principled and powerful, Romney has downplayed both his religion and his own family history. Instead, he has talked up his résumé as a private-sector “turnaround artist” who reversed the fortunes of troubled companies and the faltering Salt Lake City Olympics and now can come to his party’s—and country’s—rescue. Mindful of the sway of evangelical Christians over the GOP base, he has positioned himself as the candidate with conservative principles and strong faith, even adopting evangelical language in calling Jesus Christ his “personal savior” (vernacular not generally used by members of the Mormon Church). But when he’s pressed on the particulars of his own religious practice, his answers grow terse and he is quick to repeat that his values are rooted in “the Judeo-Christian tradition.”

LDS reader Russell alerted us to this piece. Here’s what he has to say on the “personal savior” point:

One of the more outrageous claims is that we recoil from using the language that calls Jesus Christ “our personal savior.” That’s utter and complete nonsense–an irresponsible distortion or an embarassing betrayal of ignorance. I attended Brigham Young University, the heartland of LDS life, and I heard individuals consistently declare that Jesus Christ was their savior. The concept is taught time and time again in Sunday School and Priesthood classes.

As I’ve said before, I’m no theologian–and even if I were, I would obviously not be a Mormon theologian. However, I am a champion Google user, and searching lds.org for “personal savior” seems to indicate that Russell, not Newsweek, is in the right here. So does my own (limited) experience; I have heard Mormons use this terminology many times.
In fairness to Newsweek, I’m willing to admit that this may be a new thing in the LDS world. Quite frankly, I don’t think that should be surprising–religions that rely on personal revelation have a tendency to change over time, and Mormonism has done that during its relatively short existence.
But this “personal savior” business isn’t the only issue with this Newsweek piece. The larger thrust of it is that Governor Romney “doesn’t like talking about his faith,” and it’s not new–many MSM reporters have produced similar whining. I have disagreed with this notion previously, and I don’t think Newsweek‘s experience with Governor Romney disproves my point. What that awkward discussion with the MSM reporters tells me is not that Governor Romney hates talking about his faith–it’s that he hates talking about his faith with snarky MSM reporters. And if you’re an evangelical Christian, I don’t think you should blame him.
Think about it. The man ran for Senate in 1994, and all the stories were about how scary and awful Mormonism is. Ted Kennedy tried to use Governor Romney’s faith to show he’s a racist, and the media jumped all over that. Fast forward to now, and he has to deal with reporters asking what kind of underwear he wears and whether he and Mrs. Romney had sex before they were married. Point being: Most of these reporters simply don’t understand devout religion, much less do they understand his, and it results in sloppy reporting and invasive questions.
Since I first read this story, I tried a little thought experiment: putting myself in Governor Romney’s shoes. My wife and I are members of a congregation of the Presbyterian Church in America, which split off from the mainstream Presbyterian Church USA in the 1970s. Our church believes, and so do we, that the Bible is the infallible word of God and that it says various politically-incorrect things: Jesus was born of a virgin, Jesus is the son of God, Jesus is the only way to heaven, all human beings are sinful and depraved, churches must be led by men, no sexual activity may take place outside of marriage, homosexual activity is sinful, and so forth. Were I ever crazy enough to run for president, I would really not enjoy taking endless queries from MSM reporters who (a) have very little understanding of any of this and (b) think it’s all crazy. Perhaps this makes me a poor witness, but I just would not relish questions along the lines of, “Your church believes X. That conflicts with liberal dogma. Do you really believe that? Are you nuts?”
But those are precisely the questions Governor Romney gets from reporters like these Newsweek folks. We’ve seen it in numerous media accounts, and here it is again. Small wonder that he isn’t exactly thrilled when it happens.
I would also note that this is not always Governor Romney’s attitude. I have seen him speak about his faith in a roomful of evangelicals–a place where everyone in the room knows what it is like to have a serious faith that guides one’s everyday life and results in making politically-incorrect decisions. He talks about his faith in that atmosphere quite willingly and well. He doesn’t get into specific doctrine, which we’ve already said is the right approach, but he definitely talks about it. And he often points to his family as a concrete example of the way he lives out his faith. I don’t blame him for using these differential approaches–I’m not sure there is much to be gained, and there is certainly much to be potentially lost, by engaging with hostile, secular reporters on this very complicated topic. He’s seen them play this game now for almost 15 years. They’re looking for rope to hang him with, and he doesn’t want to give it to them.
One final point. You might think that my example above about the questions I might face as a member of a conservative Presbyterian church is a bit overblown. For instance, my church isn’t any more conservative than many Southern Baptist churches, and Presidents Carter and Clinton didn’t face questioning like that. Fair enough–I don’t think that proves the example wrong, but it might. But let’s add another dimension to the hypothetical. Let’s imagine not just that it’s me running for president in 20 years–but that it’s me running for president in 20 years after Governor Romney’s candidacy is torpedoed on the basis of his faith. Think about the precedent that would set. It’d be a scalp for people like Michael Kinsley, who doesn’t want to see political candidates who believe in “patriarchal” and “offensive” ideas like God being the father and clergy members necessarily being male, and Jacob Weisberg, who’s made similar points–and it would embolden them to go after not just Mormons, but everyday evangelical Christians like me (and you, dear reader). Obviously, we don’t think it’s a fait accompli that that will happen, but it might–especially since there are evangelicals out there who, mistakenly, would like to help.
My advice: Let’s keep this bad situation (and the one Steve mentions) a hypothetical by supporting the right man for president.

About Charles Mitchell

EFM's resident Yankee, Charles Mitchell, works in the non-profit arena in his native Pennsylvania. He and his wife, Charissa, live near the state capital of Harrisburg with their daughter, Adeline, and are members of a congregation of the Presbyterian Church in America.

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