Religion and Political Discourse

A campaign news items du jour is Mike Huckabee’s apology to Mitt Romney for his alleged slur about the Mormon religion.

This, of course, is about Huckabee’s now-famous question, posed to a New York Times journalist: “Don’t Mormons believe that Jesus and the devil are brothers?”

But this apology says more about the graciousness of Huckabee than any alleged transgression.

This was red meat for the Huckabee hunters, anxious to find some way to burst the former Arkansas governor’s growing bubble of popularity in Iowa and around the country.

Even my friend, conservative talk-show host Hugh Hewitt, jumped in, calling this part of a campaign to “vote against the Mormon.”

But can’t folks read?

Zev Chafets, who interviewed the Republican for this New York Times Magazine feature, asked him if he considers “Mormonism a cult or a religion.”

Huckabee’s response: “I think it’s a religion … I don’t really know much about it.”

He then continued with the now-famous question, “Don’t Mormons believe that Jesus and the devil are brothers?”

Apparently, in our politically charged and politically correct culture, honesty itself is now out of bounds. Huckabee responded honestly to a journalist, asking about what some associate with the very arcane theology of the Mormon religion.

Frankly, if I were sitting there and asked the same question, my response would have been, “Didn’t Mormons believe, until a supposed change of view in 1978, that blacks are inferior, cursed by God and ineligible for the Mormon priesthood?”

As far as everything I can find on the subject, it’s true. Am I joining the “vote against the Mormon” campaign by noting this and saying it bothers me?

How about a recent front-page story in The Washington Post discussing “rumors” that Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., might be a closet Muslim? Now this is sleaze, associated by some with the campaign slime machine of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y.

But suppose, indeed, Obama were a Muslim. Would we be bigots to discuss this? Of course, the discussion would take place.

Why, then, is it illegitimate to have some kind of airing about a religion that is less than 200 years old, understood by few outsiders and, certainly for blacks, gives potential reasons for concern? Trying to understand is not bigotry.

But politically motivated suppression of reasonable discussion is not exactly my idea of the American idea of free and open discourse.

Clearly, the Mormon religion is an issue, and not one invented by Huckabee or any other candidate.

In a Pew Research Public Opinion poll released last week, 25 percent responded that they are less likely to vote for a Mormon, 51 percent said they know “not very much” or nothing about the Mormon religion and only 52 percent agreed that Mormons are Christians.

Let’s get real here.

Romney, the Republican former governor of Massachusetts, is spending a ton of money in Iowa and around the country. Despite outspending everyone, he’s gotten nowhere in the national polls. He’s behind Huckabee in Iowa, although he’s outspent him 10 to one.

This is not driven by any “don’t vote for the Mormon” campaign. It’s being driven by Romney’s failure to sell himself to Republican voters.

As I have written previously, it’s a question of credibility rather than Mormonism.

Flip-flops on important social issues aside, David Kusnet defines the problem well in this week’s New Republic. He calls it “managerialism,” rather than Mormonism.

This came through loud and clear in Romney’s recent appearance on Fox News’ “Hannity & Colmes” program.

Responding to co-host Alan Colmes’ question about who he expected to be the Democratic nominee, Romney began his response by saying, “…I’m not sure who the Democratic nominee will be. But in this regard, they’re pretty much all the same …”

I leaned forward in anticipation of hearing that they’re all liberals.

But, no. “…. you have in Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama and John Edwards three people who really haven’t run anything, who don’t have executive experience, who don’t really understand how the economy works.”

I guess if they had been CEOs or governors, then it would be OK that they all want to tax, spend and regulate us into oblivion and that each one condemned the Supreme Court’s decision banning partial-birth abortions.

The best way for Romney to get Mormonism out of the discussion, to the extent it is in it, is to capture hearts and minds with values and views that resonate with voters.

Meanwhile, regarding the discussion of Mormonism, or any other religion, let’s recall that the same First Amendment that prohibits government establishment of religion also guarantees free speech.