Romney and Religion

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 28, 2007; 8:49 AM

As a political matter, Mitt Romney's Mormonism is not insignificant, considering that polls show that a sizeable chunk of the population is concerned about it.

As a journalistic matter, though, I had thought it was settled. Romney's religion shouldn't be any more or less an issue than any other's candidate's beliefs.

It was important to Joe Lieberman's life that he is an Orthodox Jew, but the media didn't obsess on it. Mike Huckabee, a Baptist minister, just made an ad talking about his faith. George W. Bush, at an early Iowa debate, named Jesus as his favorite philosopher. Rudy Giuliani, like John Kerry before him, occasionally gets asked about Catholic bishops who threaten to withhold communion because they support abortion rights.

But in none of these cases is there a press presumption that a presidential candidate has to defend his faith. Nor, in my view, should there be.

Now comes a leading contrarian, Christopher Hitchens, to argue in Slate that Romney needs to 'fess up about his strange religion, and that wussy reporters are giving him a pass:

"It ought to be borne in mind that Romney is not a mere rank-and-file Mormon. His family is, and has been for generations, part of the dynastic leadership of the mad cult invented by the convicted fraud Joseph Smith. It is not just legitimate that he be asked about the beliefs that he has not just held, but has caused to be spread and caused to be inculcated into children. It is essential.

"Here is the most salient reason: Until 1978, the so-called Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was an officially racist organization. Mitt Romney was an adult in 1978. We need to know how he justified this to himself, and we need to hear his self-criticism, if he should chance to have one . . .

"Until 1978, no black American was permitted to hold even the lowly position of deacon in the Mormon Church, and nor were any (not that there were many applicants) admitted to the sacred rites of the temple. The Mormon elders then had a 'revelation' and changed the rules, thus more or less belatedly coming into compliance with the dominant civil rights statutes. The timing (as with the revelation abandoning polygamy, which occurred just in time to prevent Utah from being denied membership of the Union) permits one to be cynical about its sincerity. . . .

"There is also the question--this one more nearly resembles the one that John F. Kennedy agreed to answer so straightforwardly in 1960--of authority. The Mormons claim that their leadership is prophetic and inspired and that its rulings take precedence over any human law. The constitutional implications of this are too obvious to need spelling out, but it would be good to see Romney spell them out all the same.

"So phooey, say I, to the false reticence of the press and to the bogus sensitivities that underlie it. This extends even to the less important matters. If candidates can be asked to declare their preference as between briefs and boxers, then we already have a precedent, and Romney can be asked whether, as a true believer should, he wears Mormon underwear. What's un-American about that?"

I would agree it's fair game to ask Romney about the church's past racial practices. But the danger is that we in the media won't stop there, or even with said underwear, in making Mormonism an issue.

National Review's Kathryn Jean Lopez is not in Hitchens's camp:

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