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.