“It’s interesting there seems to be an assumption that Romney’s political beliefs are a function of, or conditioned by his religious beliefs where that assumption is not made with any of the other candidates,” says Terryl Givens, a professor of literature and religion at the University of Richmond who has written a number of books on Mormonism. Of course, Santorum wears his faith on his sleeve, and Gingrich makes no effort to underplay his Catholicism, but whatever influence their religion has on their makeup does not get cast as threatening.
This assumption has resulted in the fear-baiting commentaries like those mentioned above, but also perhaps contributed to reporting on Romney’s faith, that while more fair, is disproportionate to that of other candidates.
According to Pew, in 2011, Romney’s Mormonism accounted for more than half of all religion-related campaign stories. (And in a sign that voters pick up on frequent media associations, a Pew/Washington Post poll from late last year found the one word people most frequently associated with Romney was “Mormon.” It was ‘Texas’ for Rick Perry and ‘9-9-9’ with Herman Cain.)
Givens argues the press should cover Romney’s religion less, and also that journalists should really reflect on the substance of the John F. Kennedy speech they frequently invoke when discussing the candidate’s faith:
Kennedy was quite adamant on the impropriety of examining a candidate’s religions beliefs as a prelude to an election. He said he deplored what he saw as a backdoor attempt to impose a religious test.
And yet, we’re right back where we were before that speech asking questions about Romney’s Mormonism as if they were relevant to his qualifications for office.
Indeed, in the speech, Kennedy calls out the press for deeming him the “Catholic candidate” and asks his audience to judge him not on the publications “that carefully select quotations out of context from the statements of Catholic church leaders, usually in other countries, frequently in other centuries, and always omitting, of course, the statement of the American Bishops in 1948, which strongly endorsed church-state separation.”
Now Romney did not exactly say this in his 2007 speech to address Mormonism—he echoed Kennedy’s sentiment, but then proclaimed “Freedom requires religion, just as religion requires freedom”—but Kennedy’s message, given that today’s coverage of Mormonism often touches on polygamy, Joseph Smith’s tablets, and the odder bits of the faith’s distant past, is apt. (The argument that Mormonism is odder because its past is more recent than other religions’ odd pasts is weak.)
Givens says public (and journalistic) interest in Mormonism too often stalls at the “superficial and sensationalist”—on subjects like polygamy and undergarments.
The American public has become fixated on the practice of polygamy that ended more than a century ago. There is little genuine inquiry into the core of Mormon belief and theology.
Givens suggests a better approach would be to report on Romney’s Mormonism and Romney’s candidacy as two distinct issues.
But of course, it’s not always such an easy distinction. The Pew report notes that one particular incident dominated the media coverage of Romney’s Mormonism: provocative comments made by Robert Jeffress, a prominent evangelical pastor and a Rick Perry supporter, to reporters after his speech at the Values Voters summit, calling Mormonism “a cult” and claiming that Mormons were not Christian. (Jeffress has since, and to less media attention, stated he would “hold his nose” and vote for Romney).
The comments were widely reported—and repeated in headlines like this—as evidence that Romney’s faith could be electorally problematic for him in the Republican race. While such a story is of course fair and necessary to understand the dynamics of the race, the way the story was reported by many outlets gave considerable power and prominence to comments of a single Evangelical pastor who was effectively allowed to define Mormonism in his terms.