Is the Ryan VP Pick Good for Mormonism?

How does the Ryan pick change the Romney campaign storyline, especially about religion? Throughout the campaign, political advisors and commentators—as recently as Ross Douthat on Sunday—urged Romney to talk more about his faith as a way of humanizing his campaign. But the Ryan pick shifts the spotlight away from faith. I spoke yesterday with Russell Arben Fox, who is an associate professor of political science at Friends University and a Mormon politico.

RD: The election in the last six weeks especially has been about character. It’s been about Romney’s tax returns and Obama’s attacks on Romney. And Romney was actually losing that, compounding his longstanding problem connecting to voters. And now, there’s Paul Ryan. The focus has shifted.

RAF: All of the character stuff was of a piece—Romney at Bain. Romney and his tax returns. Romney, the businessman. Romney, the Mormon priesthood leader. Romney, this out-of-touch, elite, hard-to-connect with figure who belongs to this “odd” hard-to-connect-with Church—which, by the way is really rich, as the coverage in Businessweek and elsewhere has highlighted. All of this stuff about his business past, his financial dealings, and his Church experience position him as a rich, white, awkward, secretive, paranoid candidate. It all fits. But Ryan doesn’t fit that at all. He’s a game-changer, an ideological figure out of a particular moment in the evolution of American conservatism. He has no connection with the Mormon Church or high finance. No one’s gonna bother with his character. They have wonky details and ideology instead. He touches all of these third rails, like Medicare, giving people a lot to talk about that has nothing to do with the big rich awkward titular character in the campaign.

Exactly. Mormonism is a winner in the Ryan pick in terms of moving off center stage. Because most Mormons—even enthusiastic Romney supporters—have been ambivalent about the spotlight. Would you agree?

They’ve been ambivalent about the sort of details the spotlight has focused on. Mormons love attention as long as it’s the sort of attention they prefer. The Romney campaign attention has been half-minded. We like the fact that he’s successful, but we don’t appreciate talking so much about how he is who he is. He is so obviously the product of LDS priesthood leadership culture that comments about his inability to connect with minorities and his awkwardness reminds us of stuff we don’t like to think about in connection with our own culture.

Do you think it was purposeful of Romney to make this about ideology rather than personality, including religion?

Yes. It made sense proving his bona fides to diehard tea party types who will now turn out enthusiastically. It adds pizzazz to the ticket. An ideological firebrand is the one thing Romney has never been accused of being, and now he can borrow that heat. I believe that Romney or the people close to him pushed Romney for some of these reasons—including getting past the Mormon moment and the focus on Romney’s character. The persistent question about Romney has been: who is this man? What made him who he is? He’s never wanted to talk about any of those things. That’s just not who he is. Who cares if Romney has money in an offshore account if Ryan has a 50 point plan for getting rid of social security?

What role do you think Mormonism will play if any in the Romney biopic they’ll screen at the RNC in Tampa? I’m seeing Mormon pioneer covered wagons turning into Nash Ramblers.

I’m seeing a young hardworking man who volunteered to serve amidst a strange and troublesome anti-American people—the French. Wasn’t he earnest? Wasn’t that difficult? And the important leadership lessons he learned helped him guide a struggling startup called Bain. I think his experience as a leader in the Church for the last 40 years will be totally ignored. Mormonism drops out of his official bio around age 21.

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Joanna Brooks is the author of The Book of Mormon Girl: A Memoir of an American Faith (Free Press / Simon & Schuster, 2012) and a senior correspondent for Religion Dispatches.