I'm waiting for the moment Bill Clinton's MTV moment is repeated during the Romney campaign. Remember the townhall type Q&A Clinton had with a young MTV audience. One young pothead finally asked: boxers or briefs? It was a watershed moment in U.S. politics, primarily because Clinton took the opportunity not to be a self-important twat, and in enjoying the moment, he endeared himself to millions of young people around the country.
I suspect Romney's moment will be a bit different, and you just know the subject of magical underwear has to come up; it just has to. Writing for Martin Marty's Sightings column, Terryl Givens, a lit and religion professor at Richmond, observed:
In the century since the Chicago fair, Mormons have been lauded for their choirs and their football. They are largely respected as good, decent, family-centered people, who are welcome to sing for presidents and dance with the stars—and everyone agrees to avoid theological questions.
The theological questions will come up, though, right? I recently did a story for the Oklahoma Gazette wherein I asked some Oklahomans about the issue. Congressman James Lankford did a soft shoe around the question, as is wise for a U.S. Congressman of the same party as the candidates. Lankford is also Southern Baptist. I asked the Reverend to respond to the same questions I put to Lankford. He was more forthcoming when I asked if Romney's faith would have an impact.
Normally, I would knee-jerk and offer a hearty, “Yes!” But, Former Representative Istook, a Mormon, seemed to avoid the potential polarizations that Romney seems to be generating among religiously Christian voters around the Country. This leads me to wonder if Romney’s politics will take center stage in Oklahoma or will it be his chosen religious identification? I may lean to the former in light of our past with Istook. Conservatism really seems to be the central issue for Oklahoma voters.
Excursus: I'm forced to agree. Santorum will win in Oklahoma on Tuesday. Mark it down. Independents can't vote in an Oklahoma primary, so someone like me who would normally choose Romney over Santorum's relentless pandering to the far right is precluded from having an impact. That means Santorum wins in this the most conservative state.
As to the question of a nationwide response to Mormonism's more esoteric elements, the Reverend replied:
Some will be distracted. There is little doubt some of the elements more familiar to initiates will draw a range of responses from laughter to scorn. I think this has already happened on a small scale. Others may not find the peculiarities any more problematic than any other religious expressions. It is hard to say. Likely one’s personal experience and interactions with Mormons will play a large role in national public discourse.
Again, I suspect he is correct. I would have no problem voting for a moderate Mormon, irrespective of the beliefs in sacred underwear and an unknown planet called Kolob. Every faith believes weird shit. Talking snake, anyone? Sun standing still? Angels? Demons? And on and on. Givens is right that the LDS leadership has brought some of this confusion upon themselves by refusing to have a public discussion. He writes:
But this is only true because in acquiescing to the compromise, Mormons have largely left others to frame the theological discussion. In opting to emphasize Mormon culture over Mormon theology, Mormons have too often left the media and ministers free to select the most esoteric and idiosyncratic for ridicule.
It's an odd time for a Mormon moment. At the end of January, Reuters reported that Mormons are leaving the church at a brisk rate, especially in the U.S. (As with Christianity, LDS growth is solid in the Southern Hemisphere, which is to say in barely industrialized nations.) Elder Marlin Jensen told Reuters that the rate of defection has increased in the last 5 to 10 years, but declined to provide actual numbers. This is partly due to the ability of young (and old) Mormons to get online and read for themselves what critics and scholars say about some of the church's more dubious claims.
Excursus: This is the same movement that Santorum criticizes without understanding the historical context. In a bizarre move, he accuses Obama of attempting to have more students enrolled in college so that the numbers of the "indoctrinated" will increase. He even cited a figure (without attribution) of 62 percent of students with faith commitments losing those commitments in college. That doesn't make college an "indoctrination mill." College is often the first time students are challenged to think beyond the stock answers provided by overprotective parents and youth pastors. High school teachers are not free to deconstruct faith claims—college professors are, inasmuch as the deconstruction serves the purpose of critical thinking. Access to the Internet and college courses will always provide an opportunity for members of a faith community to defect. Faith communities that practice honesty about the difficult questions instead of protectionism or strawman arguments will likely see less defections. Those that can't contextualize their theology will always find a revolving back door spinning with redline efficiency. And Santorum seemed unaware of recent studies that show religious belief is stable across decades in this country. Those kids that leave the faith in college return when they have kids of their own, almost every time.
Charles Kimball is the director of the religious studies program at the University of Oklahoma. In discussing how conservative Christians will respond to Romney in particular and Mormons in general, he too cited the differentiating factor of actually knowing a Mormon. People who know them, tend to respect them, especially when their ethics are the focus. He does see trouble ahead with the theological claims, though.
Generally speaking, it's much easier to process different or odd beliefs when the tradition is very distant from one's own. If the traditions both incorporate the teachings of Jesus, then different becomes harder to accept.
Since Mormons and Christians draw on the same lexicon to describe messiah, salvation, savior, etc., differences are parsed as heresies, not exotic beliefs in "fake" gods. Kimball said he expects Romney to continue to do what he's been doing, which is respond with some variation of "I'm not running for the bishop of an LDS ward; I'm running for POTUS." Realistically, I think Christians with some notable exceptions are able to put aside theological squabbling for the sake of their poorly defined "conservative values." Romney could have benefited from that compromise, but he's taken a more moderate approach on some issues (immigration not being one of them). That will hurt him among conservative evangelicals and fundamentalists, but likely not among Republicans overall and Independents who lean conservative. If he loses the nomination, it won't be because he's a Mormon, just as Santorum won't lose because he's a Catholic. As Mormon moments go, this is a good one for the LDS church, but I suspect no one is going to question Romney about his faith, not in any formal setting, and if there are Romney/Obama debates, President Obama is unlikely to say, "Kolob? Really?"