Maybe I veer too far in my own secularism, but I believe that Romney’s religious convictions should remain off limits in the presidential campaign unless the candidate himself wants to inject them into the public debate. There are things in politics, as in life, that are unknowable to journalists. And high on that list are a candidate’s dark-night-of-the-soul religious beliefs, or lack of them. Romney’s Mormonism may be at the center of his worldview or it may be a religion that he clings to out of habit and homage to his father. I have no idea. And, on a certain level, I don’t care.
Obviously, journalistic biographers and profile writers cannot ignore Romney’s activities in the Mormon church any more than they could have airbrushed away Obama’s search for his elusive father. But what is hard to find in most of these stories (even those written with nuance, such as this Jason Horowitz account in The Washington Post of Romney grappling with feminism as a Boston-area bishop) is the distinction between Romney’s personal views and Romney’s interpretation of what was expected of him by his church. Mormonism is a hierarchical faith, and Romney, as he performed his religious duties, was never entirely a free agent.
Writing in CJR in March, Erika Fry rightly faulted commentators like Frank Rich for going too far in using Mormonism as a one-size-fits-all explanation for all aspects of Romney’s character and personality. As Rich put it in New York magazine, “That faith is the key to the Romney mystery.” These Eureka Moments, which tend to seize armchair pundits with increasingly frequency as an election nears, are akin to Freudian analysis without ever talking to the patient. To conjure up my favorite extreme example: in the heat of the 1964 campaign, Fact magazine ballyhooed its own survey in which 1,846 psychiatrists found Barry Goldwater mentally unfit for the presidency.
Fry also urged reporters to take pains to interview leading experts on the Mormon church to help readers better understand this easily pilloried religion. I certainly have no problems with the media using the Romney nomination as a pretext for religious understanding, adding nuance to stereotypes and a dose of National Brotherhood Week. What concerns me, however, is the temptation among reporters and readers alike to jump from reading in-depth stories about Mormonism, to the certainty that religion is the Rosetta Stone for deciphering the unusual political figure named Mitt Romney.
In the end, delving into the branch of journalism called Romney Studies, I have found that most reportage about the Republican’s Mormon background merely echoes what we already know about him from his business career and public life. Maybe Romney has integrated his religion into his life to create a seamless garment of personality. Or maybe the religious component is deeply and intensely held. In any case, political reporters should not try to get between a presidential candidate and his God.