Will Mitt Help Make the General Election Godless?

I’d say it’s a pretty solid–and by that I mean not only widely shared, but logical–part of the political CW that once Mitt Romney’s gets out of the primary season, he’ll want to leave any discussion of the intersection of politics and religion far, far behind. After all, that seems to be his basic inclination, as reflected in his I’ll-address-this-once-and-for-all speech on the subject in 2007. He’s had to tightrope his way through a religion-laden primary season in which Christian Right poohbahs conspired against him endlessly (but could never really got behind one rival until it was too late). He knows conservative evangelicals–and not only conservative evangelicals–are less than happy about his own LDS faith, and he certainly doesn’t want to go down the rabbit hole of a public discussion of Mormon doctrine or history. So he’ll encourage a relatively Godless general election, right?

Maybe, but maybe not at all. It didn’t get a great deal of distinct attention outside conservative circles, but when other Republicans linked arms with the Catholic bishops back in February to accuse the Obama administration of waging a “war on religion” via its contraception coverage mandate, Romney was bellowing with the best of them, authoring an op-ed in the Washington Examiner that made this inflammatory charge:

Liberals and conservatives have made common cause to defend the rights of religious minorities in the past. But somehow, today, when it comes to the agenda of the left-wing of the Democratic Party—those who brought us abortion on demand and who fight against the teaching of abstinence education in our children’s schools—their devotion to religious freedom goes out the window. They would force Catholics and others who have beliefs rooted in their faith to sacrifice the teachings of their faith to the mandate of federal bureaucrats.

Romney’s line on the subject goes well beyond selective pandering to conservative Catholics and other culture-warriors, and goes right to the heart of the Christian Nationalist belief that separating church and state actually means a First-Amendment-violating Religious Establishment of “secularism,” as he made plain in a recent speech in Wisconsin:

At an event in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, a supporter asked the candidate what the Obama administration’s motive was for mandating that the health insurance provided by all religious institutions cover contraceptives for women.

“I think there is in this country a war on religion,” Romney replied. “I think there is a desire to establish a religion in America known as secularism.”

“They gave it a lot of thought and they decided to say that in this country that a church — in this case, the Catholic Church — would be required to violate its principles and its conscience and be required to provide contraceptives, sterilization and morning after pills to the employees of the church. … We are now all Catholics. Those of us who are people of faith recognize this is — an attack on one religion is an attack on all religion.”

It’s reasonably clear from this pattern of rhetoric that Romney’s way of dealing with conservative evangelical mistrust of his LDS faith is to talk more, not less, about religion and cultural issues, which is exactly what Christian Right leaders expect and demand of him. It’s significant that the best-known and most aggressive evangelical critic of Romney’s religious outlook, Bryan Fischer of the American Family Association, has repeatedly followed the line that Mitt is “not Mormon enough” in his commitment to the culture wars, and can only bury concerns about LDS doctrine by doubling-down on political points of agreement with the Christian Right.

Contrary to the CW, the very people most likely to have questions about Romney’s religion will keep pressure on him to talk the godly talk in the general election–or at least support others who do.

As the intrepid Christian-Right-watcher Sarah Posner suggested just yesterday at Religion Dispatches: “[I]t looks like Romney will try to bury questions his own base has about his religion by questioning and letting his surrogates attack Obama’s.”

But there’s another reason Romney may surprise those who expect him to conspire with Obama to keep the general election relatively godless: his apparent affection for the classic Rovian tactic of going on the offensive to hit opponents at his own weakest points. We saw this just last week in his speech to the association of newspaper editors, when this serial prevaricator criticized journalists for insufficient “sourcing” and “quality control,” and this champion flip-flopper attacked Obama for flip-flopping and hiding his future policy plans. Even more recently, Romney, who holds two degrees from Harvard and famously struggles with perceptions that he’s a deeply out-of-touch rich guy, went after Obama for “spending too much time at Harvard” and not understanding the real world.

So it would be perfectly in character for Mitt to practice this same sort of Rovian jiu jitsu on issues relating to faith and politics. Those expecting a general election free of religio-cultural venom had better get ready for some supernatural fireworks.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.