It’s obvious now that in the first major Republican presidential debate Mitt Romney put in a very strong performance. He was good on his own merits, but it certainly helps that he was on the receiving end of the most asinine question of the night about whether or not the government should interfere when Catholic churches deny Communion to pro-abortion politicians.
“I wouldn’t say anything to Roman Catholic bishops. They can do whatever the heck they want,” he said. “I can’t imagine a government telling a church who can have communion in their church … This is a nation after all that wants a leader that’s a person of faith but we don’t choose our leader based on what church they go to.” In answering, Romney pulled off the neat trick of radiating conviction in his answer while being astonished by the shortsightedness of the question.
You’d think that the separation of church and state is enough of a cherished American value that no one, let alone a candidate for president of the United States would have to seriously answer that question.
Unfortunately, Romney is seen by many not foremost as a presidential contender, but as a Mormon and therefore odd and suspect. It can’t be a coincidence that that particular inquiry was directed at him. While Romney coolly shut the door on the question, he had every reason to be upset.
I know I was. I converted to Lutheranism some years ago much to my parents chagrin, but I was raised Mormon. However much I disagree with the theology of my former religion, the core values of my Latter-day Saints family and friends are not to be called into question and they certainly don’t disqualify Mormons from holding elected office.
Unfortunately, the questions won’t abate. The normally insightful and delightfully irascible Bob Novak published a column Thursday in advance of the debate titled “Will ignoring film mean curtains for Romney?” It’s about how Romney’s candidacy will be hurt by the fact that he won’t comment on a new film about the Mountain Meadows Massacre.
For those of you who don’t know, the Mountain Meadows Massacre is arguably the darkest moment in Mormon history. Fueled by suspicion and facing hostilities from the U.S. government over the issue of polygamy, in 1857 a rogue band of Mormons and Paiute Indians slaughtered 120 settlers passing through Utah and stole their cattle. It was an atrocious crime, no question. Speculation has run rampant since the event that the slaughter was personally ordered by the Mormon prophet Brigham Young himself. Though suggestions of Young’s involvement are not beyond the pale, there is no proof he was involved in the killing.
The film Novak speaks of, September Dawn, takes the historically debatable position that Young ordered the killing personally (In fact, Young is portrayed in the movie by Terence Stamp, who’s made a career out of playing villains and criminals — he was General Zod in Superman II.) All Novak’s column really revealed was that the Mormon Church is downplaying the film’s more controversial claims.
But whether or not the Church feels compelled to answer questions, why should Romney? He’s not running for president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, he’s running for president of the country.
Focusing on this one event also ignores the fact that the tensions surrounding the founding of the Mormon Church cut both ways. Novak could have just as easily watched Legacy, a film financed by the Mormon Church about the Haun’s Mill Massacre. In 1838, the governor of Missouri issued an “Extermination Order” against Mormons. A few days later, a band of Missouri militia rode into a Mormon settlement and killed 18 Mormons, including a defenseless ten-year-old boy. A militia man said of the boy’s killing, “Nits will make lice, and if he had lived he would have become a Mormon.”
Not only does the suggestion that a film about the Mountain Meadows Massacre will hurt Romney’s chances lack historical perspective, it seems to ignore the fact that the event is well, history. It happened 150 years ago. The Mormon Church and its leadership are very different now then they were then.
Let’s put it this way: In 2000, the Vatican essentially issued an apology for having persecuted Galileo as part of the inquisition and contributing to his death under house arrest. What if in 1959 a film about Galileo had come out starring Peter Lorre as Pope Urban VIII and Walter Winchell had written a column suggesting that Catholic presidential hopeful John F. Kennedy had better comment on the film and clarify his views on heliocentricity? It would be absurd. Every Catholic in 1959 believed the world revolved around the sun, just as every Mormon now believes that murdering women and children in the name of their church is reprehensible.
The remnants of my Mormon cultural heritage find this questioning of Romney’s faith unnecessary. And my Lutheran beliefs aren’t any less forgiving of these unfair aspersions.
Though the quote is apocryphal, Luther himself is alleged to have said it is better to be ruled by a wise Turk than a foolish Christian. It’s high time that people stop asking how worthy Romney’s religion is and start evaluating the former Massachusetts governor on the political merits. Given Romney’s performance in the debate Thursday night, they might like what they find.