Joe Lieberman: Romney Surrogate?

Yesterday, here at RD, I speculated that the Romney campaign would need to find surrogates who could speak broadly to the issue of religion in the 2012 campaign. After all, Romney told voters in Iowa late last week that he would not answer “misinformation” about Mormonism, nor would he deliver a follow-up to his 2007 address on faith. And candidate Romney is not especially suited to speaking in unscripted ways about sticky personal issues, let alone about the myriad sensationalized aspects of Mormonism. That much is clear.

The first of those surrogates may have now appeared. Yesterday, Senator Joseph Lieberman spoke at Brigham Young University, touching upon the role of religion in the 2012 race.

“The second religious controversy in the 2012 campaign is of course close to BYU,” said Lieberman. “And it is that two members of the Church are running for president. One of them, Governor Romney, a distinguished graduate of this university, may well end up as the Republican nominee. And if Governor Romney is nominated Americans will be challenged again to be true to our founding principles of equality of opportunity and the clear prohibition in the Constitution, Article 6, of a religious test being applied for public office.”

Lieberman continued, quoting Kennedy, “If this election will be decided on the basis that 40 million Americans who happen to be Catholic lost their chance of being president on the day they were baptized then it is the whole nation that will be the loser, in the eyes of Catholics and non-Catholics around the world, in the eyes of history, and in the eyes of our own people.”

“So too must Governor Romney be judged not on the basis of his faith which may be different to many”—big hand gestures from Lieberman on the word different, a nice surrogate for “weird”—but on his personal qualities, his leadership, his experience, and his ideas for America’s future.

Lieberman likened Romney’s experience to his own as vice-presidential candidate in 2000, praising the “instinctive fairness” of Americans and their “steadfast belief in the ideals of the Declaration and the Constitution.”

Lieberman’s speech received only regional coverage. But could it be a preview of coming attractions in 2012? Deploying Lieberman and other surrogates to quote Kennedy and the Constitution and appeal to “instinctive fairness” is just about the safest route Romney could take on religion. And it’s a sort of high road non-response to the button-pushing we saw last week from high-profile writers Christopher Hitchens and Maureen Dowd, who turned her New York Times column over to Bill Maher, perhaps the most visceral opponent of religion (and especially Mormonism) in the American media today.

All of this presages a year ahead in which there will be two parallel channels of national conversation about Mormonism: one will swerve from particulars and appeal to general principles of religious freedom in defense of Romney, while the other takes pleasure sensationalizing and even ridiculing the most unusual or controversial aspects of the faith and its history. It’s the same bifurcation we often see in the broader Mormon community between total defensive avoidance of and doomsaying fixation on issues like the historical facticity of the Book of Mormon, or the reputation of Joseph Smith, or the now-terminated African-American priesthood ban, or baptism for the dead, or the Church’s involvement in anti-marriage equality politics, or the continuing tensions generated by the doctrinal survival of polygamy in mainstream Mormonism. Somewhere between abstraction and sensationalism, there must be a coming to terms with the humanity of Mormonism. Whether that can happen in the heat of a presidential campaign remains to be seen.

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