“Mitt Romney Style”—A Virtually Religion Free 2012 Contest?

I recently beheld what I believe to be confirming evidence that the 2012 general election has delivered far less religion drama than many of us expected:

The CollegeHumor video “Mitt Romney Style,” a political parody of South Korean PSY’s global mega K-pop hit “Gangnam Style,” which is itself a send up of the lifestyles of Seoul’s rich and famous.

“Mitt Romney Style” features a Romney impersonator obnoxiously flaunting his wealth.  There are horses, golf, and dinner parties—complete with jokes at the expense of the 47%.

But in what is perhaps the most fully realized parody of Mitt Romney this season there is not even a glimpse of Romney’s Mormonism.  No gratuitous references to polygamous wives, the Book of Mormon, dancing missionaries, LDS garments.  For heavens sakes, the Romney impersonator curses and smokes a cigar—the latter especially being a major no-no for Mormons.

The video is a perfect capper to a general election campaign in which the role of religion was decidedly understated—despite the fact that Romney belongs to a faith that is widely misperceived and somewhat disliked and despite the fact that many Mormons have been bracing for his candidacy to turn unwelcome attention to sensitive aspects of the faith.

There were, of course, heated moments in the primaries, as evangelical Christian voters and their favored candidates stepped around the issue of whether or not a member of a faith considered a heretical sect could hold the nation’s highest office.  A few Democratic politicians poked at Mormonism early in the contest—remember Senator Max Baucus’s strained line about Mexican polygamy?—as did Lawrence O’Donnell. But as soon as Romney landed the nomination, conservative Christian leaders rallied around him, urging their followers to vote on policy, not theology. Obama campaign headquarters has shown little interest in making use of Romney’s religion, and Democratic operatives have fallen in line as well.

Perhaps it’s because Romney’s policy positions bear virtually no imprints of his faith.  Perhaps it’s because Romney himself has taken pains to avoid discussing his religion.  Or perhaps it’s because Obama would be ill-served by bringing religion into the campaign, given what happened in 2008 when he was obliged to defend himself against critics of the Reverend Jeremiah Wright.

Hard-right bloggers and tweeters continue to use Wright (and charges that Obama is a Muslim), while hard-left bloggers, tweeters, and media figures fixate on Romney’s Mormonism as a secret and nefarious force in his politics. 

But in the mainstream media, the candidate’s religion has just not gotten much play.  (In my book, the best Romney-connected religion reporting of the year happened in February at the Washington Post, when Jason Horowitz in the course of reporting on how the LDS Church’s history of racism impacted Romney managed to disclose how entrenched racist teachings remain in LDS institutional culture, eliciting a significant official response from the Church itself.)

And there certainly has not been the kind of prying coverage many Mormon feared.  There have not been, for example, mainstream media features on temple ceremonies held private by the Mormon community.  When Senator-elect Reed Smoot underwent a multi-year show trial to determine his fitness to serve in Congress after his 1903 election, temple rituals came in for public scrutiny and were broadly sensationalized.  The closest we got this time around was surreptitiously shot live footage of temple ceremonies produced for YouTube (complete with spooky “Carmina Burana” soundtrack) by a disgruntled former Mormon, and a low class Los Angeles Times advertisement feature for a website selling faux LDS temple garments.

Could it be that as fewer Americans report religious affiliation and Protestants lose their American majority, the idea that an elected official may believe and practice differently than you matters less?  Indeed, the Hartford Courant / Religion News Service reports that the “God gap” between religious and non-religious voters has shrunk this election year.  In fact, it’s smaller than the gender gap for the first time since 1960.  That means, voters are more likely to split according to their gender (women strongly prefer Obama) than they are according to whether they attend church.

Or could it be as well that the late twentieth century LDS effort to push past nineteenth-century stereotypes of Mormons as seditious, duplicitous, and polygamous by constructing ourselves as hyper-patriotic, family-centered, and perfectly conservative have worked?  That’s the approach Mitt Romney has taken this year:  he’s remade himself into the image of whatever he believed his party wanted.

Call it “Mitt Romney Style.” 

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