So ‘weird’: Mitt, Mormonism and the media

Matt Philbin Managing Editor, Culture and Media Institute
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Mitt Romney is “weird.” At least he is sometimes to some in the Obama campaign. He’s “slick,” with an “innate phoniness” and “personal awkwardness.” Oh, and just coincidentally, Romney’s a Mormon.

Back in August, as Politico reported, a “senior Obama adviser” and “about a dozen” other surrogates suddenly carpet-bombed Romney with “weird.” They weren’t worried about Romney in the general election: he’s kind of weird and the public won’t be comfortable with him.

Politico noted that “none of the Obama advisers interviewed made any suggestion that Romney’s personal qualities would be connected to his minority Mormon faith, but the step from casting Romney as a bit off to raising questions about religion may not be a large step for some of the incumbent’s supporters.”

Just a couple of days later, Obama honcho David Axelrod’s mustache twitched indignantly that “weird” was off-limits, and using the word against Romney was a fire-able offense. Of course, even the liberal Huffington Post observed the “weird” punishment “won’t apply to the numerous aforementioned advisers who have now very firmly planted the idea that Mitt Romney is ‘weird’ in the public’s consciousness.”

Of course, Axelrod can’t fire anyone at the Obama super PAC also known as “the media,” and they can do the campaign’s bidding without fear of termination. So, it would be tempting to say they got Axelrod’s “weird” hint. Except that they were way ahead of him.

The media, particularly the broadcast networks, have been mentioning Romney’s Latter Day Saints affiliation continuously for a year. “Baptism by Fire,” a special report from the Media Research Center’s Culture and Media Institute, studied network news coverage of the GOP primary candidates’ religion during 2011. In just the first 10 months of the year, ABC, CBS and NBC mentioned Mormonism more than 100 times.

Mitt Romney has been running for president for six years. His religion is hardly news — certainly not worth over 100 mentions. So either some rare form of Tourettes is afflicting network reporters, or they think it important to reinforce the notion that Romney’s faith is, well, weird.

Now, with New Hampshire in Romney’s W column (Win, not Weird), the media is starting to gun the Mormon engine. Look no further than New York Times columnist and “Mean Girls” star Maureen Dowd’s Jan. 14 piece entitled “Mitt’s big love” (Get it? A clever reference to the show about polygamists, which Mormons used to be, and polygamy is weird, and Mitt’s a Mormon, and …), which tells readers that Romney, like Obama, has a background that makes him seem “alien and exotic to some voters.”

What’s more, “Romney’s religion pulls a curtain over parts of his life story because some important moments for Mormons are restricted to Mormons.” Dowd mentions a wedding-related ceremony involving “white robes” that Ann Romney’s parents weren’t allowed to attend because they weren’t Mormon. A religion whose rules people actually observe? Too weird for Ms. Dowd.

And to Maureen, Mitt’s story just gets weirder. “Romney recoiled from ’60s counterculture and was ‘proudly square,’” and “at Harvard, Romney was in a nondrinking, nonsmoking, suburban, uxorious bubble with Ann, revolving around Mormon rituals, Mormon couples and the Mormon credo of strong, heterosexual, traditional families.” And get this: “The parental roles were clear … Mitt would have the career, and Ann would run the house.”

Strong families practicing their faith? Heterosexuals marrying and raising children? Outlandish. How would a Maureen Dowd even begin talk with such other-worldly beings at a cocktail party? (But they don’t drink, so thankfully, she’d be spared that ordeal!)

Dowd ends the column by recounting how Romney’s great-grandfather was made to take a second wife by Brigham Young, and how unhappy that made the first wife. (Mormons — those that did practice it — have eschewed polygamy for more than a century, but who knows? There could be a “weird” gene science hasn’t identified yet.)

After reading that, the Christian conservative South Carolina Republicans who will be voting for or against Romney this week can’t fail to have been sufficiently disquieted by the “weirdness” of Mitt. Not that Ms. Dowd writes for such people. If Romney hadn’t risen as a threat to Obama, she and the rest of the elite media would hardly deign to differentiate a Mormon from a Baptist. Were Rick Perry to become the presumptive nominee, they’d happily revert to bashing evangelical conservatives, rather than trying to spook them with Romney’s Mormon “weirdness.”

But things haven’t worked out that way, and the Christian conservatives aren’t spooking very easily. All year long, network reporters pulled their chins about whether conservative evangelicals could vote for a Mormon. They’d cite polls and sound like foreign correspondents explaining the complicated issues behind a civil war between two primitive sky god-worshipping tribes.

But the polls they cited didn’t really illustrate their point. Gallup’s June 2011 poll found only 20 percent of Republicans wouldn’t vote for a Mormon candidate. Nearly half again as many Democrats (29 percent) wouldn’t. It also said that 77 percent of voters of all Christian denominations would pull the lever for a Mormon. A May 30, 2011 Pew poll found that 64 percent of white evangelicals view a candidate’s Mormonism as inconsequential or even as a positive.

In a recent foray into the wilds of South Carolina, the adventurous anthropologists of The Washington Post found that “most Republicans have a generally positive view of Romney, even evangelical Christians,” in the words of a local political scientist.

The truth is, Romney’s religion is more troubling — and “weirder” — to liberals than to conservative Christians. And chances are, if you’re religious, yours is too.

That’s not to say that there aren’t Christians who wouldn’t vote for a Mormon, or that there aren’t plenty of Christians who don’t believe Mormons are Christians. But it is to point to the real fault-line: between the secular liberals of the media and much of America.

Matt Philbin is the managing editor at The Culture and Media Institute.