My One Question, Mitt Romney, and the Values Voter Summit

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  October 6, 2011 — 46 Comments

On September 28th the Get Religion blog, which critiques religion coverage in the mainstream media, asked its readership a question: “Let’s pretend for a minute that you get to spend 30 minutes with any presidential candidate. What questions would you ask? How would you shape those questions that makes sense for your readership?” The author of that post, Sarah Pulliam Bailey, then narrowed that down to “you get one question to ask a candidate: Go.”

Here’s my response:

“Do you think this is a Christian nation? If so (or if not) what roles and rights should adherents to minority faith groups expect in the United States? Do you feel a follower of Wicca should have the same rights and expectations in this country as an evangelical Christian, mainline Protestant, or Catholic?”

Stretching my question into rules-bending multi-part territory, I would follow up and ask if they agreed with the notion that the Religion Clauses of the First Amendment only applied to Christians and Jews, a theory advanced by Christian pseudo-historian David Barton and American Family Association spokesman Bryan Fischer. Of course Barton’s and Fischer’s opinions regarding the First Amendment aren’t even remotely accurate or historically valid, but that hasn’t stopped them from becoming heavyweights within the politically-minded Christian conservative network.

It’s no great secret that it is vital to get the support of conservative Christians if you want to win the Republican nomination for president of the United States. They are the lifeblood of the Republican grass-roots, the ones who ultimately set the agenda, and tomorrow the Values Voter Summit, perhaps the ultimate symbol of that power, begins. The speakers list is a who’s who of the confluence between the Republican party and conservative Christianity, and all the Republican hopefuls will be there to try and garner more support going into the primaries. Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney will be speaking at this event just before Bryan Fischer, and People For the American Way have called on him to publicly denounce his views.

Mitt Romney

Mitt Romney

“At next week’s Values Voter Summit, Mitt Romney is scheduled to take the stage immediately before Bryan Fischer, an American Family Association (AFA) spokesman with a long and shocking record of bigotry against gays and lesbians, American Muslims, Native Americans and other minority groups. Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann, Newt Gingrich, Herman Cain and Rick Santorum are also scheduled to speak at the event, which is sponsored by the anti-gay Family Research Council, the AFA, and other Religious Right groups. PFAW is urging these candidates for our nation’s highest office to condemn bigotry.

What makes this even harder to ignore for Romney is the fact that Fischer has also publicly stated that Mormons aren’t entitled to First Amendment protection either, and that Church of Latter Day Saints still supports polygamy.

“On a recent episode of his television show Focal Point, Fischer said that the First Amendmentdoes not apply to Mormons and that the Church of Latter Day Saints still supports polygamy. But next week, Fischer will be sharing a stage with America’s most famous Mormon, presidential hopeful Mitt Romney, TPM reports in a story headlined “Awkward: Mitt Romney Set to Share Stage with Anti-Mormon Shock Jock.” Despite the “inflammatory, hateful and occasionally just plain bizarre remarks” Fischer has made on his show, Republicans vying for the presidency, including Tim Pawlenty, Mike Huckabee, Haley Barbour, Herman Cain and Newt Gingrich all made appearances on Fischer’s show earlier this year, TPM reports.”

It really all comes down to my one question, do minority religions have the same rights and expectations as the politically and culturally dominant (Christian) faiths? I see this as a Rubicon moment, will Romney, who many believe will become the Republican nominee, actually say anything to repudiate the notion that his faith isn’t equal in standing to other Christian faiths? Does he have the courage of character to strike a blow for American pluralism, or will he make nice with Fischer, a man whose record of utterances are so vile even his own organization distanced itself from him.

“The American Family Association celebrates Religious Freedom for all people and for all beliefs as one of the foundational values that make the United States of America a great nation […] under American law all religions enjoy freedom from government interference.  However Joseph Story’s view continues to have proponents, including Bryan Fischer, one of American Family Radio’s talk show hosts.  However, the American Family Association (“AFA”) officially sides with Jefferson on this question.   AFA is confident that the truth of Christianity will prevail whenever it is allowed to freely compete in the marketplace of ideas.”

Andrew Sullivan says that the “Christianists” have succeeded in taking over the Republican party, and that this is the reason Romney isn’t a shoo-in for the nomination.

“Well, a few years later, examine the candidacies of the two front-runners for the GOP. One [Rick Perry] launched his campaign in a revival meeting calling for God to solve our economic problems (having previously led mass prayers for the end of the Texas drought); the other [Michelle Bachmann] emerges entirely out of Dominionist theology and built her entire career in the Christianist world of home-schooling, and anti-gay demonization. One reason Mitt Romney is not a shoo-in? Sectarianism, and his own previous deviations from binding orthodoxy. And it is this fundamentalist mindset – in which nothing doctrinal can be questioned, and the real world must be bent to the shape of a rigid theo-ideology – that defines these two candidates.”

I can’t remember a candidate for either party who was both a front-runner, yet almost universally disliked by the party he’s trying to woo. Clinton and Obama’s long 2008 primary battle may have been exhausting and divisive, but both managed to emerge unscathed and willing to work together when it was done. I’m not sure if the same can be said of Romney once this is all said and done. In any case, this is the moment. Romney can say to the values voters: “I’m with you, but as a Mormon I recognize that all faiths need to be respected under the First Amendment.” This can also be an opportunity for the other candidates to stand behind Romney on this one thing, if nothing else. Sadly, Mormon-raised religion commentator Joanna Brooks doesn’t think it will happen.

“It’s a marvelous image:  a strong-jawed Mitt Romney acting all presidential, crossing the stage and quietly holding Bryan Fischer accountable for his rancid bigotry, not only against Mormons, but against all of Americans who are non-white, non-straight, or non-Christian (as Fischer defines it). But it will never happen. […]  Saturday morning, Mitt Romney is going to look Bryan Fischer in the eyes and give him a handshake and a smile. If he’s feeling really passive-aggressive, maybe he’ll have Ann Romney come onstage and pass Fischer a plate of home-baked cookies. And if things get really heated, maybe Romney will love-bomb Fischer by sending a thousand free copies of the Book of Mormon to his radio studio.”

There’s little chance that I’m going to vote Republican in this, or any, election, but the seeming impossibility of Mitt Romney standing up for religious minorities saddens me.  If the eventual Republican party nominee can’t say “this is a nation where all faiths are allowed to the table, and protected by our Constitution” then something is fundamentally broken.  I’m not expecting any Republican to suddenly embrace Wiccans, or to showcase Dan Halloran at a campaign stop, but I am expecting a basic adherence to the notion that people of all religions are included and protected in our great democratic experiment.

Jason Pitzl-Waters

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