When influential Christian conservative figures disparaged his Mormon church, Mitt Romney said virtually nothing.
When Al Sharpton shot off his mouth last week by saying that “those who really believe in God” would defeat Mr. Romney in 2008, the former Massachusetts governor hit back strongly, calling it “a bigoted comment.”
The difference between the reactions is revealing—and deliberate.
Mr. Romney’s bid for the G.O.P. nomination rests on convincing social conservatives, to whom Rudy Giuliani and John McCain are supposedly anathema, that he is the one true believer—that he may worship in a different church, but that he’s just as committed as any conservative Christian to eradicating legal abortion and scaling back advances in gay rights.
This is a very delicate task, and not simply because Mr. Romney forcefully advocated a much more liberal social agenda as recently as three years ago. Most of the social conservatives he’s targeting now are devout Christians, many of whom view Mormonism as a sham religion, even a cult.
To make inroads, Mr. Romney, a former bishop in his church, has no wiggle room. He must, in addition to numerous other indignities, bite his tongue when Bill Keller, a televangelist who runs the LivePrayer.com Web site, brands Joseph Smith Jr., the founder of the Latter Day Saint movement, as “a murdering polygamist pedophile.” To confront Christian leaders about this type of rhetoric, by his apparent calculation, would carry too high a political price.
Which explains why Mr. Sharpton’s blathering was a gift from the heavens for Mr. Romney. With his calculated outrage, Mr. Romney persuaded the media to portray him on his terms: as an innocent man of faith who’d been unjustifiably maligned.
But by opting to respond to an attack from the left—and not the right—he also spared himself any discomfort with the G.O.P. primary voters who are his obsession. And certainly the right was gleeful at the spectacle of Mr. Sharpton, days after he forced Don Imus off the air for questionable comments of his own, being tagged by Mr. Romney with the “bigoted” label.
The Sharpton flare-up is only the latest example of how, in his relatively brief political career, Mr. Romney has selectively embraced his faith, turning what is supposedly a political liability into an unexpected strength.
As he seeks the Republican nomination, Mr. Romney now invites Christian conservatives to examine the Mormon Church’s social agenda—which is wholly consistent with theirs—just as he shies away from the history and belief system of the faith itself, which they don’t trust. Conservative Catholics and Christians have put aside their differences over the Pope to form a political alliance against abortion and homosexuality—so why can’t a conservative Mormon join them?
But Mr. Romney’s take on his religion used to be quite different.
Back in his Massachusetts days, he played the opposite game, stressing to that state’s socially liberal electorate—often by resorting to highly personal anecdotes—that he didn’t share Mormonism’s views on abortion and homosexuality, even though he deeply loved the church itself.
The approach was tailor-made for a state with an enormous population (50 percent of the electorate) of Roman Catholics, many of whom feel a similar tension between their own progressive social attitudes and the conservative teachings of the church into which they had been born and raised.
In both of his Massachusetts campaigns, Mr. Romney leaned on that very analogy for insulation whenever he was grilled about his social views.
In 1994, for instance, a panicked Senator Ted Kennedy, trailing for the first time ever in a general election, dispatched his nephew, then-Congressman Joseph P. Kennedy II, to hold a press conference in which he tied Mr. Romney to all of Mormonism’s sins against social policy—including the church’s exclusion, until 1978, of blacks.
Mr. Romney acted as the victim of a bigoted religious attack, and the media savaged Mr. Kennedy for resorting to the same guilt by association that his brother had faced as a Catholic Presidential candidate in 1960.
Eight years later, as a candidate for governor, Mr. Romney was confronted with questions about his $1 million donation to Brigham Young University, his alma mater and a school that actively seeks to expel gay students.
He responded by passionately affirming his dedication to a host of initiatives aimed at advancing gay rights—again shaming his Catholic opponent for holding him responsible for his church’s views.
Today, Mitt Romney embraces those views—which is fine. It’s just hard to tell if means it.
Steve Kornacki works as an organizer for Unity08, a group that advocates a bipartisan Presidential ticket in 2008.
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