Mitt Romney steps into the lion's den

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If there's one Republican presidential hopeful who could eventually rival the current occupant of the White House in the annals of boobology (as H.L. Mencken might have put it), Mitt Romney is that guy.

Typically oozing enough smarminess and insincerity to stand out at a convention of used-car dealers, Mitt Romney nonetheless managed to deliver a good speech yesterday about religious belief in the American political arena.

"Each religion has its own unique doctrines and history," the sometimes conservative, sometimes moderate Republican said, breaking new ground in obviousness.

"These are not bases for criticism but rather a test of our tolerance. Religious tolerance would be a shallow principle indeed if it were reserved only for faiths with which we agree."

Amen. Still, Mr. Romney didn't shed any light on the particulars of his Mormon faith. In general, Americans pride themselves in knowing as little about their own religion as they can get away with and even less about someone else's faith.

Realizing this about his fellow citizens, Mr. Romney knew better than to deliver a "Joseph Smith for Dummies" lecture to a public still divided over whether the world is older than 6,000 years or not.

Think I'm exaggerating? Sherri Shepherd, a comedian and actress who is a regular on ABC's "The View," got into a debate recently with her fellow panelists about how Christianity fit into the chronology of world history.

"The Greeks had Christians 'cause they threw them to the lions," said Ms. Shepherd, who makes no secret of her Christian fundamentalist beliefs. Her colleagues tried in vain to explain the concept of "B.C." to her, but she was unimpressed with their mania for facts about Romans and other civilizations.

"I don't think anything predated Christians," Ms. Shepherd said confidently. Earlier this year, Ms. Shepherd refused to say whether she believed the Earth was flat because she insisted it had no bearing on her ability to feed her kid.

Ms. Shepherd has managed to stay consistently dumb while drawing a seven-figure paycheck, a trick most of us couldn't pull off if our lives depended on it.

Imagine that you're Mitt Romney. You're going to explain to the Sherri Shepherds of the world that Native Americans are the lost tribe of Israel and that Jesus wandered around the American southwest turning cactus juice into wine after ascending at Pentecost? I don't think so.

The irony of belonging to a sect in America is that religious minorities are usually more adept at navigating the Bible along with their auxiliary literature than so-called mainstream Christians are, yet they're always on the defensive.

One of the most mind-blowing and amusing things I'd ever seen in my life was a "friendly" debate between two Mormon missionaries and two Jehovah's Witnesses in my Grand Rapids, Mich., neighborhood 25 years ago.

Scripture verses were thrown around with the rapidity of machine-gun fire as the competing neighborhood missionary pests jockeyed for ideological advantage.

As a Christian of Kuyperian persuasion at the time, I just "knew" that Mormons and Jehovah Witnesses both lacked a "coherent" grasp of their religion's roots in 19th century Christian heterodoxy.

They weren't like me -- a Calvinist with a mania to integrate all areas of life, blessed with an impeccable spiritual pedigree that went back to the heterodoxy of the Reformation a few centuries earlier.

I was so smug in my belief that I was already among the spiritual elite. I assumed that when the Kingdom of God revealed itself, in all of its glory on some inconvenient Saturday night, I'd be sitting at Jesus' right hand.

Still, there was no doubt that even the least sophisticated of those door-knocking missionaries could have mopped the floor with me in a battle of biblical proof texts. I was content with simply being right. I didn't have to actually know anything, as far as I was concerned.

So, I understand Mitt Romney's reluctance to get into the doctrinal specifics of Mormonism. The details of any religion are going to sound "weird" to folks adhering to another set of metaphysics and oddball dogma, so what's the point?

Millions of fundamentalist Christians, including the current president, subscribe to a variant of apocalyptic Christianity that has been around only since the 19th century, so there's very little room for looking down one's nose at the sect across the street. It's both unseemly and un-American.

That's why there's no religious test for becoming president. On that point, I'm in full agreement with Mitt Romney. It's probably the only thing we agree on.


Tony Norman can be reached at tnorman@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1631.


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