Talking About Religion Will Not Help Romney

With the Newt Gingrich surge still in its rosy dawning hours, and in the wake of a debate made most memorable by an aggressively wooden one-liner involving a $10,000 bet and Rick Perry, people who are kind of rooting for Mitt Romney (and kind of rooting is as good as he’s polling these days) are suggesting that candidate Romney should start talking about his Mormonism as a means of seeming, well, more human.

All along, the conventional wisdom has been that Romney should avoid Mormonism, given the uncertainty it engenders in American voters, more than half of whom (according to Pew Center data) profess knowing nothing or next to nothing about our innovative branch of American Protestantism.

But avoiding talk about Mormonism is not easy for multigenerational Mormons like Romney, because faith is also family, ancestry, ethnicity, and culture. Romney hails from a storied family at the core of Mormon culture. He is a man who probably donated about 20 hours per week of his time to Church affairs during his service as a lay congregational and regional church leader. It has been one of the prime definers of his personal identity.

But what happens when a risk-minimizing candidate recoils from talking about a major dimension of his life for fear of public misunderstanding or ridicule?

He ends up not talking about his core. And he ends up being charged with corelessness.

Read Romney’s book No Apology. My Mo-dar (sort of like gay-dar, but for Mormons) flatlined through about 314 of its 315 pages. There’s a mention on page 19 of his father’s Mormon grandparents. And the rest of it sounds like it was written by a policy robot. Which it was.

And now he’s supposed to flip the switch and start talking about Mormonism again?

Romney tried, gamely, over the weekend, using his mission experience in working-class neighborhoods of Paris as a point of experiential empathy with Americans on the down and out. Not the greatest of comparisons, perhaps, but a step in the right direction, say some.

Still, just raising the question of religion means that  someone (this time, political consultant Garry South over at the Politico Arena) is going to start bloviating about “bizarre” elements of Mormon belief, such as “planets”—a cartoonish mockery of what is actually a rather innovative and elegant Mormon belief about the soul’s capacity for eternal progress. 

Facing down ridicule is the cost of trying to use religion as an advantage in electoral politics. But given how comfortable he seems to be in pivoting on strategy and dealing with sticky issues, Mitt should just hold steady to his muted approach to the religion issue and hope that the Gingrich surge peaks soon.

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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.