The X Factor

Q&A: Tim Townsend on Romney and religion

Tim Townsend has been the St. Louis Post-Dispatch’s religion reporter since June 2004, and his religion coverage has also been featured in The New York Times, The Boston Globe Sunday Magazine, The Chicago Tribune Sunday Magazine, and The Village Voice. He holds Masters degrees from both the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the Yale Divinity School. In 2005, the Religion Newswriters Association named him its Reporter of the Year.

Townsend discussed with CJR Romney’s “Faith in America” speech, the coverage his Mormonism has been getting, and the role religion has been playing in a charged presidential campaign.

In the buildup to the speech, many reporters heralded it as the make-or-break moment of his campaign—and, after he gave it, the speech pretty much dominated the news cycle. Did it deserve such fanfare?

Yeah, it did. The speech had been rumored for a long time, and I think it will be seen as important in American history. Or at least Mormon-American history. Romney is a serious contender for the presidency, and that’s a big deal for a real American religion.

In your recent article, “Huckabee vs. Romney is a matter of faith for some,” you mention the political threat that Huckabee poses to Romney’s campaign, given the Baptist minister’s appeal to conservative Christian voters. Was the speech a political tactic?

Well, strategically it was important for Romney’s campaign because Huckabee was coming out of nowhere in the Iowa and South Carolina polls, and there are only a few weeks left until the Iowa caucuses kick off the primary season. Romney had to pull the trigger on deflating the Mormonism issue, and by doing it at the Bush library in Texas—introduced by the former president, no less—the setting was very presidential. And the speech was well written.

But Romney’s Mormon faith seems to be an issue mostly with conservative evangelical Christian voters. The Southern Baptist Convention, which is the largest Protestant denomination in the U.S., calls the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints a cult. All the conservative evangelical pastors I talked to in Missouri and southern Illinois told me that they don’t believe Mormons are Christian.

There are some Mormon theological and doctrinal issues that mainstream Christians feel are weird, too; a good example is Huckabee’s question to a New York Times Magazine reporter this week: “Don’t Mormons believe that Jesus and the devil are brothers?” And most evangelicals have an issue with the Book of Mormon, which Mormons consider to be in the canon alongside the Old and New Testament. That’s a major problem for conservative Protestants who believe the Bible—the word of God—is without error and complete.

Did he do anything to win them over?

Romney needed to play on conservative evangelical Christians’ patriotic sensibilities, and he did so by stressing the religious tolerance that Americans are very proud of. He also needed to remind them that his values—family man, abortion is wrong, marriage should be between a man and a woman—are their values and that his Mormon faith is built on those values, what he called “a common creed of moral convictions.” Most importantly, he said that his faith makes him who he is, and that he would not turn his back on it. That sense of having a deep faith is critical to conservative Christians. Some Baptist pastors told me that the depth of Romney’s faith overrides concerns they have about the faith itself.

He also took on the “Are Mormons Christian?” question so many evangelicals have. He said he believes that Jesus Christ is the son of God and the savior of mankind. But he also said that his church’s beliefs about Christ “may not all be the same as those of other faiths.” The use of the word “faiths,” as opposed to “denominations,” is interesting. If he’d used “denominations,” it would have suggested he believed Mormons were another Christian group alongside Methodists, Presbyterians, Lutherans, etc. Instead he used the word “faiths,” which suggests that Mormonism can be set alongside other religions like Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, etc.

What about the people who don’t subscribe to any religion?

Interestingly, while the intended audience was conservative Christians, Romney seems to have angered another group of Americans. Romney threw a lot of red meat into the speech for evangelicals—he said nativity scenes should be allowed in public places, judges should respect “the foundation of faith upon which our constitution rests,” etc. In doing so, he stepped on the toes of those Americans who don’t have a strong faith. He said there were forces at work in the country intent on establishing a religion of secularism, and declared that they “are wrong.” Atheist and agnostic Americans I’ve talked to say they felt Romney was calling them un-American. Romney said, “Freedom requires religion just as religion requires freedom.” A lot of people were scratching their heads at the concept of freedom relying on religion.

On the December 9 edition of The McLaughlin Group, Lawrence O’Donnell went on a tirade decrying what he called the institutional evils of the Mormon Church. Christopher Hitchens took an even more vitriolic stance against the religion on Slate. But much of their anger was directed at the press, which they argued is being lenient on Romney and his religion by not reporting more extensively on Mormonism’s history and specific tenets.

Do their arguments have any traction—should reporters be tougher on Romney, and other candidates, about their specific religious beliefs?

I’m not sure how relevant a president’s faith is, but Americans seem to be obsessed with it right now. Maybe that’s because our current president is a conservative evangelical Christian who sees the hand of God in his actions as commander-in-chief.

Romney may have hoped the speech would stop the constant questioning he gets from the press about his faith. But I’m skeptical about that. I also don’t know of any faith that doesn’t have something in its past that it should be embarrassed about. Much is made of the fact that African Americans could not be priests in the Mormon Church until the late 1970s, and that’s something the church is rightly embarrassed about. But I don’t know that Romney should have to defend his faith’s history of polygamy, for instance, or really why that’s important for what kind of leader he would be. To me it’s more interesting to look at how Romney’s run for the presidency—and all the religious issues his run brings up—has an effect on voters.

Most people look to religion as an indicator of a politician’s “values”—hence the nickname given to those conservative religious Americans in recent presidential elections—“values voters.” Obviously, the Constitution prohibits the government from establishing religion and, therefore, caring too much about getting someone of a particular faith into the most powerful office in the world—in the hopes that the tenets of that faith direct public discourse—could be seen as at odds with the Constitution. Obviously some people don’t see it that way, and millions of evangelical Christians celebrated George W. Bush’s election in 2000. Those same people are the ones who are nervous today about the prospect of a Mormon sitting in the Oval Office.

Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.