The idea that we should simply adjust our handling of the Mormon issue misses the point completely. We should not be handling this issue at all.
Last week, Washington Post reporter Jason Horowitz wrote a piece in which Mitt Romney’s campaign spokesperson Andrea Saul questioned the fairness with which Romney’s faith is being handled by the press during this campaign season.
According to Horowitz’s report, Saul (below) questioned whether or not a Jewish candidate’s religion would receive the same type of coverage, as Romney’s Mormonism seems to. “Our test to see if a similar story would be written about others’ religion is to substitute ‘Jew’ or ‘Jewish,’” she asked, pointing out passages from news reports that she said painted Mormonism as “exotic.” On Friday, Ari Melber wrote in The Nation that he agreed, indicating that she “has a point.”
She does have a point, but not an intellectually or constitutionally sound one. Yes, the media is bungling its handling of Romney’s religion on many levels. And yes, there is a sense in the ethos that Mormonism is an “exotic” religion, and therefore is being fetishized. But the idea that we should simply adjust our handling of these issues misses the point completely. We should not be handling this issue at all.
The coverage of any candidate’s religious preference is “exotic” coverage by default. Ask any atheists, who will undoubtedly say that religion in itself is an “exotic” and self-indulgent practice. And unless the U.S. constitution was amended last week adding a particular religious belief as a criterion to hold office, or even campaign for one, the point is moot, without intellectual merit and should therefore be dismissed out-of-hand. To give any credence to the idea that someone’s personal spiritual belief is somehow relevant to her/his candidacy or ability to govern abdicates a journalist’s true responsibility to cover and report on the kind of governor or legislator a candidate would actually be. This is anti-science, “be more like me,” Tea Party bullshit, and I don’t understand why journalists, who have the power of the podium to elevate political discourse, honor it.
A few forward-thinking purists pointed this out after a McCain supporter insisted that then-Senator Barack Obama was a Muslim at a rally in 2008. But even they prefaced their defensive positions by inserting the “not that it matters” postscript after speaking out. What is this, Seinfeld (“Not that there’s anything wrong with that …”)?
The only acceptable coverage of a candidate’s spiritual belief (or lack thereof) is no coverage. Anything else is a tacit nod to the theocrats who still hold dear the idea that some religious belief inherently holds some type of virtue that indicates a particular political philosophy. Even those who speak out in defense of candidates like Obama and Romney implying that no religion should be considered more or less virtuous than another, collude in the idea that religion is an important factor in deciding who should represent us. It’s “short-cut” thinking, and this intellectual laziness is not good for the democratic process.
Why do we, as a country, continually conflate the roles of religion and civics in our public discourse? Even those who have the “right” idea tend to fall prey to what is apparently an irresistible urge to pepper our politics with religion.
Did it matter that Grover Cleveland was a Presbyterian, or that William McKinley was a Methodist, or that John Adams was a Unitarian, or Jimmy Carter a Baptist? Of course not. Would hit have mattered if they had been atheist, Muslim or Jewish? Perhaps, in terms of their ability to get elected, but probably not in terms of their governance. Our system of government doesn’t allow for it. Covering a candidate’s philosophical leanings in an election season is fair game if that philosophy is germane to the question of one’s ability to govern. Otherwise, religion has no place in the political discourse. These are ideas of personal belief, not of policy.[Images: Austen Hufford / Andrea Saul’s Twitter]
Scott Mackey is a writer based in San Francisco, California. A former teacher and public relations executive, he currently chronicles cultural and political affairs in the U.S. and U.K.
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