It is not surprising to hear adherents to a faith make a strong case for it, but it does highlight how far Mitt Romney has positioned himself from those with whom he shares this fundamental bond. Though these men think Romney’s faith should be discussed, Romney does not want to discuss it. That is certainly the politically wise choice. Romney wants the conversation to be about President Obama’s failures. Fascinating details about Romney’s life and religion distract from that.
A conversation about religion would almost certainly go horribly wrong: Romney would get stuck defending Mormon doctrine in a way a Catholic would never have to defend the worship of relics. When a New York Times columnist jokes about tenets of the Mormon faith in a way the paper would not likely tolerate were it about another religion, Romney is wise to decide the deck is stacked against him in the mainstream press.
Even if Romney could find a sympathetic forum, he isn’t a good storyteller. He lacks the narrative talents to tell the kinds of stories that Christensen would like him to tell about his time as a bishop. Those stories are complex and not all of them are favorable to Romney, who battled with feminists in Massachusetts and whose role as a church voice on issues of homosexuality, out of wedlock births, and a host of other social issues would put him in a thicket of nettlesome debates he doesn’t want to have.
A discussion of Mormonism would certainly be intellectually interesting and theologically useful. David Mason, a professor at Rhodes College and devout Mormon, argues that Mormonism is not the same as Christianity, which raises fascinating religious questions. But in politics, fascinating is usually synonymous with deadly. Christensen argues, for example, that the LDS church provides the best template for Christian living that exists. Discuss! No thanks, says Mitt Romney, who does not want to offend evangelical voters he’ll need in battleground states like Iowa, Virginia, and North Carolina.
But there’s more to Romney’s religion than the theological side. As Joanna Brooks, who writes frequently on Mormonism, argues so persuasively, “It is important for readers to know that Romney developed his leadership style in a non-democratic, patriarchal, hierarchical church culture where he rarely encountered open challenge.” Romney has been a leader in several different arenas: in government, in business, in helping organize the Olympic Games, and in his church. The campaign asks us to examine and approve of three of those four areas—and then walls off discussion of Romney’s religious leadership.
Mitt Romney has no interest in being an ambassador for the Mormon church any more than Barack Obama wanted to have a protracted conversation about race in 2008. In that way, both men are alike. They have both designed their political lives in ways that hide core parts of their identity. Unlike with his vice presidential pick, Romney will not be getting more specific about his other running mate any time soon.