Friday, December 7, 2007

Willard's problems are of his own making

Andrew O'Hehir, in Salon:
As the most prominent Mormon presidential candidate since his father, George, 40 years ago, or since Smith himself ran on a platform of "Theodemocracy" in 1844, Romney must negotiate between two opposing forces. The theology and tangled history of Mormonism is at odds with the quasi-theocratic nature of the contemporary Republican Party, which seems to have decreed that only Bible-believing Christians or their close allies may run for high office. Neither of these two forces is of Romney's own making, but it was the candidate, and his decisions about how to run his campaign, who ensured that they would collide.

As Christopher Hitchens recently complained in Slate, political reporters have generally treated the details of Romney's faith as a no-go zone. If the question were simply whether his beliefs (or anyone else's) should qualify or disqualify him from public office, I would agree that there was nothing to discuss. Moreover, only Mitt Romney can know how much of Mormon doctrine he accepts without question and how much he takes with a grain of salt. Even in the most dogmatic of believers and the most dictatorial of denominations, faith is fundamentally a private process of negotiation.

But you don't have to descend to Hitchens' level of anti-Mormon vitriol to recognize that Romney's religion, and how he characterizes and explains it, has now become the central issue of his campaign. It may even be the issue that ends his candidacy -- and some of that is no one's fault but Mitt Romney's. In transforming himself from a moderate, pro-choice Republican into an avid pro-life conservative, and in pandering to the party's white Southern evangelical base -- essentially presenting himself as a Christian fellow traveler with a few eccentric updates -- Romney himself helped make an evangelical vetting of his faith inevitable.

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