As the election campaign moves closer to November, President Obama and his media allies will be seeking subjects other than Mitt Romney's business credentials to use against him. It is virtually certain one of those subjects will be Romney's Mormon religion. To that end, the New York Times has devoted several articles to the subject, even as -- once again -- the president's 20 year association with Rev. Jeremiah Wright remains largely below the radar.
"Just as Ronald Reagan deployed acting skills on the trail and Barack Obama relied on the language of community organizing, Mitt Romney bears the marks of the theology and culture of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints," writes Times columnist Jodi Kantor before noting that Mr. Romney declined to be interviewed for the piece. Kantor then proceeds to establish the idea that Romney is extremely dogmatic, attempting to emphasize criticisms that undoubtedly resonate with the Times' liberal readers. "Mr. Romney’s penchant for rules mirrors that of his church, where he once excommunicated adulterers and sometimes discouraged mothers from working outside the home," writes Kantor. "He may have many reasons for abhorring debt, wanting to limit federal power, promoting self-reliance and stressing the unique destiny of the United States, but those are all traditionally Mormon traits as well."
Those so-called Mormon traits sound remarkably like traditional American values, but Kantor manages to frame them in an entirely different light. "Every presidential candidate highlights patriotism, but Mr. Romney’s is backed by the Mormon belief that the United States was chosen by God to play a special role in history, its Constitution divinely inspired," she writes. She then quotes Philip Barlow, a professor of Mormon history at Utah State to deride Romney's "squeaky-clean persona" as “too plastic, the Ken side of a Ken and Barbie doll,” according to the professor.
Kantor also lays the groundwork for future attacks on Romney if he decides to go on the offensive against Barack Obama in the religious arena. After noting that Romney "frequently spoke about obeying authority, the danger of rationalizing misbehavior and God’s fixed standards," she cautioned that "many also see a gap between his religious ideals...and his political tactics." Tony Kimball who served as Romney's executive Church secretary serves up the "obvious" explanation. “I have absolutely no idea how he rationalizes it,” said Kimball. “It almost seems to be the ends justifying the means.”
Another Times piece by David Leonhardt takes a not-so-subtle swipe at Mormonism as well. First, he notes that a study by the Brookings Institute indicates that Romney's religion isn't likely to hurt him at the polls in November. Yet Leonhardt also notes that a Gallup poll cited by the Brookings authors reveals that "[O]nly a hypothetical gay candidate (32 percent) and a hypothetical atheist candidate (49 percent) fared worse than the Mormon candidate."
The Times' Jim Rutenberg illuminates Mormonism's "first families," whose historical descendants "have formed a financial bulwark and support network for Mr. Romney at every important point in his political career," and who "are tied to businesses with robust agendas in Washington...and have something to gain by having a friend in the White House." The implication is clear: Romney is little more than a crony capitalist hiding behind a patina of religious legitimacy.
The Times brings a racial element to the mix as well. First the obligatory swipe. Black Mormons have joined the Church, despite its "turbulent history of excluding people of black African descent," writes Susan Saulny, who then proceeds to reveal that, despite being Mormons, black Church members prefer Barack Obama for president. Yet the breadth of Saulny's survey regarding that preference is laughable. Included in the piece is a boilerplate Democratic talking point as well. “My problem with Romney, politically, is that he cannot relate to the common man,” said professor Jerri Harwell. “I’m afraid of what would happen to the economy given his frame of reference.” She also contends that Romney "hasn’t even worked in years.”
In "Gentle Dissent in Mormon Church on Gay Marriage," times columnist Jack Healy touts the "vanguards of a new movement of Mormons challenging their church’s staunch opposition to homosexuality," adding that "the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints played a pivotal role in financing and supporting a ballot measure that outlawed same-sex marriage in California," and that "gay and straight Mormons are making increasingly vocal calls for church leaders to reconsider their stance on gay marriage and welcome openly gay congregants back into the church." Conveniently omitted was the fact that Californians of all stripes approved Prop 8 banning gay marriage by a 52-48 margin--meaning the issue transcends Mormonism.
Ross Douthat's Times column, "Playing the Mormon Card," notes that attempts by the Obama campaign to present Romney as an outsider due to his religion could prompt charges of bigotry, and that reality presents a "dilemma" for the White House. Douthat, one of the few conservatives writing for the so-called paper of record, reveals where the administration's media allies are likely to go, noting that "the White House probably needs the media to play the Mormon card for them," and that "there’s no way to tell the Mormon story comprehensively without bringing up issues (polygamy, race, the Book of Mormon’s alternative pre-history of the Americas) that highlight the distance between the Latter Day Saints and other forms of American Christianity." Douthat points out the most likely way exploiting anti-Mormon bigotry will unfold:
[T]he Obama campaign’s best-case scenario involves a wave of theoretically evenhanded coverage come August and September--newsmagazine cover stories on Mormon theology, 60 Minutes specials on L.D.S. history, pieces about Romney’s own family tree--that end up reminding undecided voters of the things that they find strange and alien about the Republican nominee’s faith.
Yet the overall problem with the New York Times' seeming obsession with Mitt Romney's religion isn't the discussion of religion in general, or Mormonism in particular. A candidate's religion is certainly fair game. Rather it is the grossly disproportional coverage of Mormonism relative to the coverage of Mr. Obama's religious background, and the way any discussion of both is framed.
The same newspaper that has no apparent problem plumbing the depths of Mormonism is apparently aghast that Obama's relationship with racial arsonist Jeremiah Wright might be re-visited. A piece titled "G.O.P. ‘Super PAC’ Weighs Hard-Line Attack on Obama" characterizes the attempt to draw attention to Wright as "one of the most provocative campaigns of the 'super PAC' era," further noting that they obtained a copy of the plan "through a person not connected to the proposal who was alarmed by its tone," and that the plan itself "serves as a rare, detailed look at the birth of the sort of political sneak attack that has traditionally been hatched in the shadows and has become a staple of presidential politics."
In another column, the Times reverts to a motif employed in 2008. First, despite the fact that Barack Obama was a member of Wright's church for 20 years, was married by Wright, and had his children baptized by the Reverend, the Times assures readers that "Mr. Obama’s campaign advisers said the American people had largely dismissed the questions about his birth and about links to his former pastor." This is a transparent attempt to conflate any questions about Wright with an attempt, as columnist Michael D. Shear puts it, "to revive the long-discredited assertion that Mr. Obama was not born in the United States." Shear claims the "Romney campaign has kept a considerable distance from the anti-Obama fringe," implying that questions about Wright's racism and Obama's birthplace are equally off the wall.
A Times column by Charles M. Blow starts out relatively innocuously, speaking about the recent controversies surrounding the president's stance on gay marriage, and his administration's attempt to force Catholics to violate their beliefs and provide contraception to Church employees. But by the end, Mr. Blow's intentions are clear. After citing all of two anti-gay pastors from North Carolina for their homophobic remarks, Blow contends that that this "level of hate keeps religious extremism fresh in the minds of voters even if it’s not on the lips of candidates. In the end, it is likely to drag down the Republican brand more than lift it." Rev. Wright's well-documented racism, bigotry and anti-Semitism and its effect on the "Democrat brand"? Nowhere to be found. Extremism is a one-sided affair.
Through this series of articles (and others as well), the overall strategy of the New York Times becomes as subtle as a sledgehammer. Virtually any aspect of Mormonism and Mr. Romney's relation to it are fair game, while any discussion of Mr. Obama's religious background becomes the stuff of conspiracy theorists, crackpots, and racists on the "fringe" of the American political landscape. No doubt this is only the beginning of an effort by the Times to do its part in presenting the "theoretically evenhanded coverage" of Mormonism described Douthat, even as president Obama's religious associations remain above similar examination and coverage.
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