Review: Craig L. Foster, "A Different God?: Mitt Romney, the Religious Right, and the Mormon Question"
Author: Craig L. Foster
Publisher: Kofford Books
[The following is the rough draft of a review/response essay I was asked to write. As with my other book reviews, the only compensation I received is a review copy of the book.]
The old story about America’s pilgrim forefathers setting sail to find religious freedom in a new world simply doesn’t bear the weight of historical scrutiny. Freedom they sought, but not necessarily for all, and "they" weren't the only ones around, of course. Things are seldom so simple. Of course, religion has often played a leading role in shaping the political and social values of Americans, but the relationship between faith and politics has been rocky overall. Throughout 2007 as Mitt Romney campaigned to become president of the United States, various polls showed that anywhere between 30 and 43 percent of Americans “would not vote for a Mormon” (121). What was it about his Mormon religion that made Americans wary of Romney? Or did wariness of Romney contribute to their reluctance to vote for a Mormon? Craig L. Foster’s A Different God? Mitt Romney, the Religious Right, and the Mormon Question explores the interplay of faith and politics in the United States through Romney’s failed presidential run.1
Foster must have completed the book relatively quickly to make it available before the 2008 general election. It was published shortly after Romney ended his campaign. Romney has not yet announced an intention to run for president in 2012. If he does run (as expected) I hope to see a second edition of Foster’s book—an important contribution to national discussion about religion and politics. A second edition would give Foster the chance to jettison a few now-irrelevant points.2 After a brief overview of the book I will examine two larger subjects I believe require better elucidation: Foster’s analysis of “the media,” and his definition of “the Mormon question.”
Ten “Mormons, ex-Mormons, or about-to-be-Mormons” have campaigned to become president of the United States in the past, but none have come closer to succeeding than Romney (233).3 Foster, a self-proclaimed “conservative Republican Mormon who actively supported Mitt Romney" and “political junkie” lists several reasons for Romney’s comparative success. Unlike his predecessors, Romney was running for the Republican nomination rather than as a third party candidate. He began campaigning earlier, ran longer, and spent more money than any previous Mormon. He also won several state primaries. Finally, the “increasing public presence, power, and influence of the Latter-day Saints” was crucial to his campaign (xi-xii). Foster argues this final strength—the Mormonism which inspired Romney’s patriotism and strong work ethic—ultimately became a crucial weakness for his campaign.
The “Mormon Question,” Foster writes, was one of the “major reasons” Romney’s first quest for the presidency failed (xiii). Foster states the question as follows: “Because Mormons believe in what most Americans see as alien, even non-Christian, doctrines and strange practices, can a Mormon be trusted to preserve, protect, and promote the common good of the United States as president?” (xiii).
Before analyzing Romney’s campaign, Foster spends the first three chapters providing a little historical context. Chapter one briefly explores the “rise of the religious right,” an “awkward coalition of different groups” of Christians rather than “a unified monolith” (1).
In chapter two, “the power of the religious right” is described, as are internal divisions and political differences between evangelicals and fundamentalists. By outlining perceived similarities in “social characteristics, lifestyle, and attitudes,” Foster underscores the “closer kinship” between Mormons, evangelicals and fundamentalists (28). Significant doctrinal differences have nevertheless helped prevent an alliance between Latter-day Saints and the religious right. He quickly traces the shift to Republican party affiliation among Utahans. The chapter closes by noting the frequent disappointment the religious right has faced due to failed political promises from Republican candidates.
“A political history of the Latter-day Saints” is given in chapter three. In contrast to the popular “Legacy” depiction of early Mormon difficulties, with over-simplified mobs driving Mormons from state to state without much explanation, Foster accounts for political and social conflicts which caused the tensions. In such a brief overview he presents something like a unified LDS view of politics and religion although early Mormons did not completely agree among themselves on all political matters, despite their notorious and often problematic bloc voting habits.
A biographical chapter on Mitt Romney describes his childhood, mission, Olympic and political involvement. Foster then moves to the main event, cleverly framing the political conflicts as a boxing match. The “Left Hook” chapter describes the punches delivered by democrats. The “Right Cross” addresses attacks from conservatives and the religious right. The “Low Blow” chapter includes some of the more pointedly anti-Mormon accusations, some of them downright bizarre. The combined swipes led Romney to deliver his “Faith in
speech on December 6, 2007. America
Foster describes Romney’s strategy of discussing his religion as shifting over time. Romney initially said “most Americans couldn’t care less what religion I am” (121). At first, he refused to even discuss it. He became much more guarded as it became clear his assumption was wrong. He finally attempted to “translate it into terms acceptable to evangelicals.” Overall, Foster believes Romney’s loss was largely on his own shoulders. He “did not present himself well and thus came across as smug, artificial, and calculating.” He tried to pose as a “Reagan conservative” despite actually being a “moderate with a dash of Reagan conservatism.” But Foster says Romney was not totally to blame for his reputation because “the media obviously had its own discomfort issues with Romney,” resulting in many poor public portrayals. After losing key primary elections, Romney dropped from the race and campaigned for John McCain, who eventually won the Republican nomination and lost the general election (219).
Foster covers large swaths of press coverage about Romney’s campaign, including perspectives from all over the political and religious spectrum. However, one of the main problems with his account is the oversimplification of what he uncritically refers to as “the media.”4 For example: “The media not only ignores blatant examples of anti-evangelical bias but sometimes seems to encourage it” (34). Further, he asserts that the “almost-automatic liberal reflexes of the media” is a “given” (123). The very placement of the “Media Bias” section within the “Left Hook” chapter is symptomatic of the common conservative assumption that the “mainstream media” is out to get them (123-137). There are several problems with this usage of the term “the media.”
The first problem is that “the media” as Foster (and many others) describe it is supposed to be some sort of monolithic entity. This view has become increasingly inaccurate as media outlets continue to multiply. Undoubtedly there are reporters, editors, networks and news organizations who are more prone to appeal to certain political perspectives. Journalists do not just report happenings, they are always at the least indirectly involved in them. But consider this sentence: "The media is prejudiced against Mitt Romney." Taken literally, this sentence indicates that CNN, MSNBC, FOX News, the Huffington Post, 2News Utah, Newsweek, MormonTimes.com, The Washington Post, E!, the Drudge Report, Google News (an aggregator!)—and countless other outlets—are prejudiced against Romney. This claim is clearly false. (Also note I’m confining “media” to news organizations, although “media” includes much more.)
Trying to confine a bias problem to the so-called “mainstream media” does not resolve the problem, either. As Foster shows, conservatives were just as eager to poke fun at Romney’s Mormon underwear as liberals were, and they did so in any number of publications (125-126). But there were also journalists and editorialists who came to Romney’s defense. Such defenses sometimes included their own unfortunate biases. Perhaps one of the most ironic of these comes from columnist Jim Geraghty of the conservative National Review Online. After Geraghty chides journalists for “reinforcing the ‘Mormons are Creepy and Weird™’ message,” he closes with a cheap shot at Islam: “You know when I want to hear newspaper columnists lament the oddities of the Mormon faith? When they start violent riots over cartoons of Joseph Smith” (125). Although the writer included an unsympathetic treatment of Islam while calling for a more sympathetic treatment of Mormonism, Foster passes over this remark uncritically. Such commentary does a disservice to millions of Muslims who would not condone such violence, and overlooks the complexities of the incensed reactions of the offended.5
Recognizing that journalism includes bias is not a way to excuse journalists from aiming for fairness, responsibility, and ethical reporting. It’s not an attempt to discourage people from paying attention to the news. It’s an invitation to engage sources more fully, analyze arguments more rigorously, consult multiple sources, and remain humble in conclusions. It seems more fruitful to speak pointedly and specifically about particular writers, anchors, interviewers, and even individual reports, as opposed to indicting an entire "thing" called "the media." Foster includes many key news and editorial sources, but his overall treatment of them would profit from a stricter frame of analysis.
“The Mormon Question”
As Romney’s faith received frequent treatment among journalists, the role of the LDS Public Affairs department grew to help respond to questions about belief and practice. Foster mentions some of the issues that frequently arose, including polygamy, racism, and personal revelation. But this collection of concerns left me wondering what Foster thinks the most important “Mormon question” is—or whether it is a single question or a collection of several related concerns.6 Does the Mormon question revolve around the doctrinal differences between Mormons and evangelical Christianity? Fundamentalists like Bill Keller worry about electing the member of a “cult” to the presidency (155) while secularists like Timothy Garton Ash simply ask how an educated man like Romney could possibly believe “such a wacky collection of man-made Moronical codswallop” as found in Mormonism (132).
Ironically, it is the usually-boorish Christopher Hitchens who captures what I see as the most enduring aspect of the Mormon question, perhaps the main concern of the widest number of American voters:
“The Mormons claim that their leadership is prophetic and inspired and that its rulings take precedence over any human law. The constitutional implications of this are too obvious to need spelling out, but it would be good to see Romney spell them out anyway” (132).
Foster recognizes this as being same question Reed Smoot faced—and more recently, John F. Kennedy. Would Kennedy, as a Catholic, bow to the dictates of the Pope as president? “I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute,” Kennedy declared in his landmark speech on religion and politics “where no Catholic prelate would tell the President (should he be Catholic) how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishoners for whom to vote” (x).
In Romney’s similarly-themed speech “Faith in America” delivered in December 2007 he pointedly stated: “Let me assure you that no authorities of my church, or of any other church for that matter, will ever exert influence on presidential decisions. Their authority is theirs, within the province of church affairs, and it ends where the affairs of the nation begin” (226).7 There are at least two problems with Romney’s statement.
First, Romney elsewhere seemed more ambiguous about the question. Less than a week after the speech when he was asked directly about how he would handle personal revelation or prophetic guidance from his leaders regarding presidential decisions he fumbled: “I don’t recall God speaking to me. I don’t know if he’s spoken to anyone since Moses in the bush…or perhaps some others” (129-130). Romney had already been perceived as evasive and had been labeled a “flip-flopper” (a rather unfortunate label regardless. Should a politician ever change positions upon learning more about an issue?) (96, 102). Romney’s uncomfortable equivocations could not have helped overcome such concerns.
Second, leaders of the LDS Church does not seem to view their province as ending where affairs of the nation begin. While leaders do not advocate for any particular candidate, Foster acknowledges several “moral issues” Church leadership has publicly addressed. He notes LDS involvement in the Equal Rights Amendment, the legalization of same-sex marriage, and several other issues. Missing from the discussion is the MX missile incident and the Church’s more recent statements on illegal immigration, issues which could impact how Romney is received by certain constituencies in 2012 (32-33).
Speaking to different electorates, Romney and Kennedy seem to have different views on the role of religion in politics when it comes to such moral issues.8 Kennedy envisioned an America where “no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials” (195). Romney emphasized what he understands to be the religious underpinnings of American liberty in general. “We separate church and state affairs in this country, and for good reason. No religion should dictate to the state nor should the state interfere with the free practice of religion. But in recent years ,the notion of the separation of church and state has been taken by some well beyond its original meaning…The founders proscribed the establishment of a state religion, but they did not countenance the elimination of religion from the public square” (228).
That being the case, it seems that voters could rightfully consider how pronouncements on moral issues from LDS leaders might affect the decisions of a Latter-day Saint president, one who appears more devoted to his faith than Kennedy was to his. A second edition of this book could elaborate much more on this aspect of the Mormon question.
A second edition could allow for one more area of improvement. Foster minimizes the voices of non-Republican Latter-day Saints. In a few instances he recognizes when Romney ruffled some Latter-day Saint feathers—one blogger criticized Romney for saying he “can’t imagine anything more awful than polygamy” for instance (128, see also 188). But there are nearly no Mormon democrat, Independent, or strictly politically-disinterested LDS voices to be found. Certainly other such perspectives on how Romney's campaigns and their affect on the Church are needed. Especially if Romney decides to run for president again. He could also compare the treatment of current Senate majority leader Harry Reid's religious views, as well as other prominent LDS politicians. Such examination could shed further light on how the religious right and others view a conservative Mormon candidate in comparison to how other LDS politicians are viewed.
Overall, Foster encapsulates an impressive amount of Romney coverage, which makes the book worth reading for anyone interested in public and media perceptions of Mormonism during Romney’s run. His account also gives readers an idea of what they might expect from pundits, politicians and journalists in the coming election should Romney announce his candidacy. The last election certainly did not answer the Mormon questions. It may have simply multiplied them.
I approached this review with some trepidation. I consider Craig Foster a friend. Our friendship persists, despite some fundamental political disagreements between us. I hope he finds my review both fair and useful.
For example, Foster spends a few pages describing Romney’s campaigning for John McCain and speculates about McCain’s possible running mates. Sarah Palin is not listed among the several possibilities.
Biographical summaries of these ten candidates are listed in Appendix B, pp. 233-235.
Although it is beyond the purposes of this review, it should be noted that news coverage studies about newer religious movements suggest that such groups are often “subject to different treatment” than more established religions. Labels like “cult” are more likely to be used, for instance. See Harvey Hill, John Hickman, Joel McLendon, "Cults and Sects and Doomsday Groups, Oh My: Media Treatment of Religion on the Eve of the Millennium," Review of Religious Research, Vol. 43, No. 1 (Sept. 2001), pp. 24-38. Foster could draw on such studies to inform a second edition of the book to determine to what extent Mormonism is depicted as marginal in news reports.
For more on the Danish cartoon controversy, see John L. Esposito and Dalia Mogahed, Who Speaks for Islam?: What a Billion Muslims Really Think, (New York: Gallup, 2007), 142-152. At times Romney himself has made generalized statements about Islam which do not show sensitivity for Muslims generally. For instance, at the Republican National Convention he stated: “Did you hear any Democrats talk last week about the threat from radical, violent jihad? Republicans believe that there is good and evil in the world...And at Saddleback, after Barack Obama dodged and ducked every direct question, John McCain hit the nail on the head: radical violent Islam is evil, and he will defeat it!” He added, “Republicans prefer straight talk to politically correct talk!” (see "Transcript: Mitt Romney At The RNC," NPR.org, 3 September 2008, http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=94254989, accessed 14 May 2010.) Romney may believe that adding the adjectives “radical, violent” clarifies he is not speaking to all Muslims. However, he reinforces stereotypes about Islam when he addresses a general audience this way. In a second edition Foster could analyze Romney’s speeches and interviews regarding Islam. Romney’s new book No Apology: The Case for American Greatness (New York: St. Martin's Press, 2010) is another source Foster can examine.
The title of the book, “A Different God,” seems to place the concern about theological differences about God at the center, although it actually receives little treatment. A second edition could include a full chapter on doctrinal differences and similarities between Mormon thought and evangelical Christianity.
Foster includes the full text of the speech in Appendix A, pp. 225-331.
A fuller discussion about Romney’s and Kennedy’s respective audiences, political climates, voting records, and political positions could improve the discussion on how religion may have impacted candidate claims and voter decisions.