Republicans who are Evangelical Protestants (and make up a majority of likely voters in the key early Iowa and South Carolina primaries) are worried that candidate Mitt Romney is not a Christian and more specifically that he’s a Mormon. However, a broader group of voters, including The Weekender, increasingly focus on the distinct possibility that Romney is reptilian and specifically, as the Culture Club crooned, a “Karma Chameleon” who “comes and goes” depending upon which way the wind blows.
The Weekender’s last column (Sept. 1) focused on candidate Rick Perry, opining that most of what voters need to know about the Texas governor is revealed by Perry’s religious faith, which he frequently proclaims publicly, flanked by leaders of the New Apostolic Reformation.
There isn’t much that can be learned about Romney by examining the history or doctrine of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints or the candidate’s practice of the Mormon faith. That’s good! America has a constitutionally based tradition of separating religion and a candidate’s faith (or lack thereof) from our political judgments expressed at the polls. Yes, Al Smith lost the presidential election in 1928 because he was a Catholic and JFK almost lost in 1960 for that reason, as 77 percent of the Protestant vote was cast for Richard Nixon, and much of that across party lines (80 percent of Catholics and 83 percent of Jews voted for Kennedy, with many similarly crossing party lines). But an increasing proportion of statistics and anecdotes reflect a healthy trend toward minimizing the religious factor in the electoral equation.
Since the JFK/Nixon race in 1960, we have had many Catholic candidates who succeeded or failed for other reasons. These included 1984 Democratic V.P. nominee Geraldine Ferraro and 2004 Presidential candidate John Kerry. In 2000, Joe Lieberman, a Jew, was the V.P. candidate on a ticket which won the popular vote. In 2008, the Democrats prevailed with a ticket comprised of Joe Biden, a Catholic, and Barack Obama, then believed to be a Christian by only 51 percent of Americans (and now by even fewer).
Rick Perry has made his religion an issue and therefore is a disturbing exception deserving exceptionally harsh treatment. Romney, in contrast, has not and therefore should be taken at his word when he stated:
“Let me assure you that no authorities of my church, or any other church for that matter, will ever exert influence on presidential decisions. Their authority is theirs, within the province of church affairs, and it ends where the affairs of the nation begin.” In paraphrasing both Jesus (the Synoptic Gospels) and JFK (his Vatican speech), Mitt said it well and got it right in a nation whose constitution not only bans state religion and separates church from state, but specifically provides non-believers with an alternative to swearing before God to “faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States…” In 1853, Franklin Pierce exercised that right by affirming rather than swearing as he took office.
While we should disregard Romney’s religion in assessing his fitness for office, we would be foolish to accept at face value the glib and pandering way he has renounced many former positions on important matters and even played musical chairs with his residency.
Romney’s list of renouncements and epiphanies is long, but for now a voter could ponder just the reversals on climate change, gun control, gay rights, abortion and universal health insurance in ascending order of the degree of difficulty for Mitt to rationalize those conversions.
On the matter of climate change Mitt has gone from: “I believe that climate change is occurring — the reduction in the size of global ice caps is hard to ignore. I also believe that human activity is a contributing factor … and I think it’s important for us to reduce our emissions of pollutants and greenhouse gases …” to: “Do I think the world’s getting hotter? Yeah, I don’t know that but I think that it is.”
On gun control, Mitt has gone from the 1994 senatorial candidate who favored strong gun laws to the 2006 presidential aspirant who purchased a lifetime membership in the NRA. One might argue (as Mitt has) that these shifts are merely nuances, but as we come to gay rights, the degree of difficulty for willingly suspending disbelief escalates rapidly.
As a candidate to unseat Ted Kennedy in 1994, Romney said, “We must make equality for gays and lesbians a mainstream concern” and told Log Cabin Republicans that he would be a stronger advocate for gay rights than his opponent (Kennedy). Romney 2011 not only signed a pledge to support a constitutional amendment prohibiting same-sex marriage, but would establish a “presidential commission” to investigate harassment or threats against those who oppose same-sex marriage — obviously a huge problem meriting the highest priority of our nation’s chief executive. (Beware Mayor Mike Bloomberg; see The Weekender column of July 7.)
When we move to abortion, Mitt’s shifts become multiple and cynical, if not ugly. As Senate candidate in 1994, he not only was pro-choice but backed federally funded abortions in certain cases and the right of states to pay for abortions in any situation. In a debate with Ted Kennedy, Romney told the story of a family friend who died after a botched, illegal abortion. Then as Mitt moves forward from his failed 1994 Senate bid to his successful run for governor of Massachusetts in 2002 and his first presidential race in 2006-08, he publicly disputes the “pro-choice” label logically pinned on him by a Salt Lake newspaper, then says he disputed that because he just doesn’t like labels, then labels himself “pro-life,” opposing abortion in any situation, and adopts a new compelling personal anecdote to replace the one involving the dead family friend. The new one has Douglas Melton, a Harvard stem-cell scientist, cavalierly telling Romney that the research doesn’t involve “a moral issue because we kill the embryos after 14 days.” Though Melton denies saying it, the real question is not what the scientist said but what Romney said — to whom, when and for what reason?
Semi-finally we have Mitt as architect of “Romney-Care,” what his current Republican opponents call Massachusetts’ universal health insurance program (including an individual mandate), which was Romney’s greatest triumph as governor of Massachusetts. Now, as all obedient Republican candidates must, Romney regularly rails against “Obama-Care,” saying that by executive order he would suspend its enforcement on day one of his presidency — thereby suspending a national system closely modeled on his own handiwork as governor. As a colleague of mine in the New York governor’s office once said to me about the book I was writing about that office: “Lloyd, you’ve got to change the name of your book — it should be ‘You Can’t Make This S— Up.’”
Finally, Romney is a candidate from an American state, but it’s just not clear which one. He was born in Michigan and adopted that state for his presidential bid in 2008. He explored a run for governor of Utah, using his Park City address. Mitt’s wife has purportedly stated that the Romney home is their $12.5 million estate in La Jolla, California, despite the National Journal reporting that their actual residence is a $10 million estate in New Hampshire.
Mitt used his home in Belmont, Massachusetts as his residence when elected governor of that state, then switched his address to his son’s basement and finally bought a townhouse in Belmont after a complaint was filed alleging that he had committed voter fraud in 2010.
So voters of Chatham, in assessing candidate Romney, it would be well to ponder those Culture Club lyrics to Karma Chameleon: “I’m a man without conviction. I’m a man who doesn’t know how to sell a contradiction.” The former is clearly true about Romney and whether the latter is — well, that really is up to you.