Jason Horowitz, the enterprising Washington Post reporter who broke the story about Mitt Romney’s high school “pranks,” cracked another window into camp Romney on Friday. Romney aides challenge media coverage of Mormonism by asking journalists to compare their stories to hypothetical coverage of Jewish candidates.
Horowitz explained the approach in an opinion column:
“Our test to see if a similar story would be written about others’ religion is to substitute ‘Jew’ or ‘Jewish,’ ” Romney campaign spokeswoman Andrea Saul wrote in objection to [an] article…about the candidate’s role as a church leader in Boston. She pointed out a passage that explained [the Mormon] belief that Christ’s true church was restored after centuries of apostasy when the 19th-century prophet Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon from golden plates that he discovered in Upstate New York. “Would you write this sentence in describing the Jewish faith: ‘Jews believe their prophet Moses was delivered tablets on a mountain top directly from G-d after he appeared to him in a burning bush,’ ” Saul wrote in a November e-mail. “Of course not, yet you reference a similar story in Mormonism.”
Saul has a point. While religious pluralism is a popular ideal, and the press strives for objectivity in campaign coverage, some religions are covered as more exotic or dangerous than others. This cycle, few major candidates have been pressed as frequently about the tenets of their faith as Romney. President Obama, for his part, has been repeatedly “accused” of practicing Islam (as if that were a bad thing). The notion of a Jewish “test” for campaign coverage will rub some the wrong way,* but it may also bluntly cut through the semiotics of debates over balanced religious treatment.
For example, many media types (and liberals) defended the infamous New Yorker cover lampooning Muslim caricatures about Obama by arguing it was (a) just light satire or (b) actually a spoof of the people attacking Islam—a chance to “ridicule the lies,” (as one New Yorker writer argued).
But would that Muslim-garbed, fist-bumping, flag-burning, bin Laden–saluting cartoon have run on the cover if it featured a comparable bevy of anti-Semitic canards? Very doubtful.
Of course, Romney’s faith—and its potential role in his values and philosophy—is a long way from religious satire and attacks. Many argue that he runs on the idea of his faith, including ads touting membership in the “same church” his “entire life,” without explaining what that actually entails. Horowitz asked for a reaction to the debate from Joseph Lieberman, the first Jewish American to run on a national ticket. (Like Obama, Liberman also has an unusual middle name, Isadore, that he does not use in political life.)
“The reality is that the more you talk about the details of somebody’s religion,” Lieberman said, “the more you encourage voters to vote on the religion rather than on the person and his policies.” That seems to capture Romney’s political calculus, which drives the press strategy to beat back theology stories.
Finally, while many have speculated on whether anti-Mormon bias will hurt Romney in November, the larger trends suggest it will probably not be a deciding factor. Of the ten states with the highest church attendance in the nation, nine are red states, firmly in the GOP column, and one leans Republican (North Carolina). Meanwhile, the swing states that will decide the race, like Ohio and Colorado, tend to be less driven by religious issues and more focused on the economy.
* Horowitz reports more examples from the Romney campaign’s test, which may work better as a general point than in an extensive rewrite:
Saul, the campaign spokeswoman, combed through last fall’ s Post story and substituted every reference to Mormonism and the Mormon Church, producing more Semitic-flavored sentences about a “young synagogue leader named Mitt Romney,” and “a group of devout but independent Jew women” who all belonged to “the Synagogue of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.” Her version observed that Romney “was far from the only young and brilliant Jew on Harvard’s campus” and ended with one devout woman’s trip to “the Jew Temple in neighboring Belmont, where she performs proxy baptisms for the deceased and other synagogue rites.”