Mitt Romney, Mormon

Did you know they wear magical underwear?

Earlier this week, Marc Ambinder predicted in the Atlantic that one of the “cons” of Mitt Romney’s “Faith in America” speech (delivered this morning and erroneously hyped by many outlets as an address of voter concerns with Romney’s religion) would be “a week of in-depth, public debate about the specific practices of Mormonism.”

Ambinder’s prediction underestimated Romney and overestimated the press. For his part, Romney made no mention of the more contentious aspects of his religion—those same aspects which caused the press to clamor for the speech in the first place—and the few press accounts that examined the actual theology of Mormonism struck the tone of a European explorer in Africa exclaiming on the “curious” customs he encounters.

Setting aside the question of whether “in-depth public debate” of a candidate’s religious beliefs is justified, the Romney speech was not used as an occasion for serious discourse anyway. Rather, it was an excuse for the press to gawk at Mormonism’s “quirks” without really explaining their ideological significance—all under the guise of theological discussion. Take this example from the AP story:

Mormons, for example, believe in a Heavenly Mother—God’s female partner—a pre-existence in heaven before birth, a hereafter that includes a three-level heavenly kingdom. They wear religious undergarments that some say possess protective powers; they bar non-Mormons from entering their temples; practice posthumous baptism and believe that man can progress to a God-like state in Heaven.

This typified the handling of the Romney religion story by much of the press. The very invocation of religion gives it enough weight to seem substantial, but the cataloguing of divine underwear is what’s really in play here.

The AP article does at least begin to explain some of the concerns evangelicals may have with a Mormon candidate. Of course, this comes just as a new Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll shows that those concerns have been greatly exaggerated. For instance, although 24 percent of “religiously conservative” voters would be less likely to vote for a Mormon, the much larger concern among the religious right, according to the poll, has to do with Romney’s record on abortion, homosexual rights, and other bread and butter causes of the movement.

The question is whether such a policy-driven clash is juicy enough to get the media’s attention?

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Michael Meyer is a CJR staff writer. Follow him on Twitter at @mcm_nm.