A Mormon First?

Posted: May 14, 2007 10:09 AM

For once, the media aren't so thrilled by a "first." Usually being the first African-American, woman, Latino or anything else to run for a major office gives a campaign a frisson of excitement in the press. Such pioneering campaigns are said to hold important lessons about the tolerance of the American public.

But former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney represents the first "first" that has elicited a lukewarm reaction from the media. Journalists constantly run stories about whether Romney can become the first Mormon president -- with an undercurrent suggesting that they'd be just fine if he can't.

Romney is not only a Republican, diminishing his "first" appeal, he represents a Mormon community with strict conservative mores. Among Mormons, stereotypical 1950s family life -- a mom, a dad and lots of kids -- never went away. So, this "first" has to strike many reporters as a bizarre step back. "Ozzie and Harriet" is not what they usually have in mind when they write about "making history."

A trope in Romney-as-Mormon stories is that evangelical Christians won't be able to vote for a Mormon. There is a whiff of wishfulness to this, as if reporters hope evangelicals prove as bigoted as reporters have always suspected they were. There is certainly resistance to a Mormon candidate among some evangelicals, but the harshest anti-Mormon condemnations have come from the left.

Al Sharpton -- fresh from his star turn as an arbiter of good taste and tolerance in the Imus affair -- has suggested that Mormons don't believe in God and that Romney will be stopped by those who do. Jacob Weisberg of the online magazine Slate has said Romney's Mormonism casts doubt on whether he has "the skepticism and intellectual seriousness to take on this job." A screed in the liberal New Republic argued that "under a President Romney, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints would truly be in charge of the country," with all sorts of dire consequences potentially to follow.

But Romney makes a very unlikely dangerous fanatic. One doesn't usually make a couple of hundred million dollars as a venture capitalist on the basis of blinkered irrationality. The more telling rap on Romney is that he is too calculating for his own good as he has repositioned himself to thrive in the conservative-dominated Republican primaries.

If Romney is the Mormon church's intended instrument as president, it must be because the church has hatched a sinister plot to bring better management techniques to the federal government and cut wasteful spending, Romney's rather unthreatening campaign pledges. There is zero evidence of the church having ever "controlled" Sens. Harry Reid, Orrin Hatch or Gordon Smith -- all Mormons -- let alone Romney while he served four years as governor of Massachusetts.

The past of the Mormon church -- in the 19th century, it sanctioned polygamy -- and its current tenets will strike many people as passing strange. As the Catholic writer Richard Neuhaus has put it, "the founding stories and doctrines of Mormonism appear to the outsider as a bizarre phantasmagoria of fevered imagination not untouched by perverse genius."

But Mormon theology isn't standing for election. A candidate's religious beliefs could be so noxious that they'd be disqualifying, but Mormonism -- with its generally thriving 6 million members in the U.S. -- falls far short of that line. No less a figure than Martin Luther said, "I'd rather be governed by a wise Turk than a stupid Christian." Romney deserves to be judged as an individual, on his own merits for higher office.

Those are considerable. He is so unlike George W. Bush in his articulate, well-groomed polish that he probably should be hailed as the first-ever metrosexual candidate for president. Indeed, rather than recoiling at his Mormonism, Republican primary voters may conclude that the handsome, "golly"-exclaiming, (newly) down-the-line conservative is simply too good to be true.

That wouldn't necessarily be a "first," but it would certainly be a fairer way to judge Romney than on his religious faith.