I was in class this week when the news broke. I laughed. Shook my head. Laughed again. Announced to the class the folly of the GOP-friendly super PAC that intended to run "attack ads" about Jeremiah Wright and Obama's connection to him. They just stared at me. They didn't get it. Romney did, though.
On Thursday, the NYT ran a story about Republican strategists and financiers concocting a plan to run a series of ads—no doubt using Wright's "God damn America" sermon—to discredit Obama due to his relationship with a "radical" preacher. (If you've ever seen the "god damn America" lines in context, I suspect many of you would agree with Wright's assessment, but don't actually watch them; just believe the edited sound bites you see...) This, of course, made me slightly giddy. As a religion watcher, reporter, nerd, I find all these developments fascinating. I mean, we have a black Baptist running against a Mormon for the position of POTUS. At the risk of exciting the anger of Inigo Montoya, it's inconceivable.
Mormons in politics have been rightly reluctant to discuss theology, or "beliefs" as Romney characterized them during the GOP debates. They want to focus on actions, not beliefs. Once beliefs are on the table, it starts to get wacky. The very possibility that some GOP strategists would toss Obama's religious beliefs or relationships into the ring had me a little dizzy. I was running through all the possible angles that Democratic strategists could then use against Romney. There are thousands, and that's not even including the huge ones like the LDS's track record with race, Romney's responsibility to embrace all Mormon doctrine when serving as a ward bishop, and the dubious historicity of nearly everything Joseph Smith "saw" in his revelations. The Democratic strategists must have been high-fiving in the war rooms around the country.
Romney helped the GOP get their heads out of their asses, though. Mere hours after the initial announcement, Romney "repudiated" the idea. In a Thursday press conference, Romney told reporters: "I want to make it very clear: I repudiate that effort. I think it's the wrong course for a PAC or a campaign. I hope that our campaigns can be respectively about the future and about issues and about vision for America." Joe Ricketts, the billionaire who funds the super PAC and founder of TD Ameritrade, said the "plan" was never more than a proposal. Of course. I'm sure that's the case.
This isn't over. As November gets closer, if the GOP is trailing, they'll try it. They sort of have to. If things keep improving, the GOP will be desperate to find some angle to discredit Obama, but surely they can do better than Breitbart.com and DRUDGE Report's "discovery" of a 30-year old, inaccurate biographical blurb of Obama that described him as born in Kenya. If that's what constitutes breaking news, the GOP is in deep trouble. As for the Wright stuff, I sincerely hope they try it. We desperately need a full and open discussion about the theological underpinnings of Mormonism in terms of the roles of congressman, senator, and president. We need to hear the "chosen nation" rhetoric and the "divinely inspired Constitution" doctrine fleshed out, and we need an opportunity to ask pointed questions that will actually be answered. This is not to say Mormons shouldn't be in office, but it is to say that their faith should be just as open to scrutiny as any other candidate for office. If a UFO conspiracy theorist from Roswell, NM, was running for the U.S. Senate, his beliefs about aliens might come up in a press conference. Shouldn't belief in an unknown planet, magic goggles, and a non-existent language also come up?
I supect that America, left and right, lacks the stomach for this. It would require too much reflection as to the similarities of theistic systems. Once you introduce the idea that a particular doctrine of another faith is nonsense, the same critical gaze must be directed at your own. I suspect that even if the GOP does go with a Wright ad, the issue will be race relations, not religion. The LDS church will continue to insist that this be about behavior, not beliefs, and while I agree with that idea almost every time I hear it, I do want answers to some specific questions about how particular beliefs shape behaviors. If journalists push the point, the LDS church and the GOP will cry "religious persecution" or litmus test or bigotry. Anyone who takes the time to listen to Wright's sermon will understand that it is firmly within the prophetic tradition of the historical Black Baptist churches. I'm happy to see it brought to the table and efficiently parsed. I think the Book of Mormon, Pearl of Great Price, and Doctrine and Covenants should be open as well, including the amazing circumstances in 1978 wherein the LDS leadership received a "new revelation" that blacks could finally be admitted to the priesthood. A religious litmus test for office means that you can't be excluded from a political office based on your faith, but it doesn't mean voters shouldn't know how your faith plays out in practical terms, especially where more esoteric doctrines are in view.