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by Michael Winship

Romney Can't Escape Questions About Mormon Church

My attitude toward a person's individual religious faith is much like the British actress Mrs. Patrick Campbell's feeling about sex: almost everything is okay as long as you don't do it in the street and frighten the horses.

I have my beliefs and they walk, talk and abideth within me to an important degree, influencing the way I live and love and work, but I think it's pretty much my business and none of your own. So if my theology is based on a credo that the Big Rock Candy Mountain is real and the face on the Shroud of Turin is Roy Orbison, that's fine as long as I don't try to convince you that I'm the only one who's right and you're going straight to H-E-double hockey sticks.

My hometown in upstate New York is about 18 miles from the location where the Mormon Church began. Hill Cumorah is the place at which, in 1827, Joseph Smith is said to have found the buried golden tablets that he translated into the Book of Mormon.

Today, it's the site of an annual religious pageant, a sound and light extravaganza with a cast of 700 that makes Oberammergau's Bavarian passion spectacular look like my third grade's class play on synthetic fabrics (my portrayal of Orlon killed, by the way). Mormons from all over the earth come to participate and there's a nightly audience of thousands.

The site also includes a visitor's center that I have visited many times. When you grow up in someplace small, having a worldwide religion created just a couple of towns over is a source of endless fascination.

One time, the guide at the center was telling the story of the Mormon's westward pilgrimage to Salt Lake City. He got to the point where Smith and his followers reached Illinois and from swampland built the town of Nauvoo. That's where Smith died, at the hands of elements of the Illinois state militia, in 1844, the point at which Brigham Young took over.

"Nauvoo," I said, innocently. "That's where Joseph Smith was lynched, right?"

The guide shot me a look that I imagine duplicated the famous withering stare Brigham Young gave infidels. "Brother Smith was ASSASSINATED!" he hissed.

Suitably chastened, I have always taken the Mormon church seriously -- not ascribing to its holy text, which to me has always seemed a curious admixture of the New Testament and L. Frank Baum's Oz books -- but certainly respecting those who embrace the faith and honoring their right to worship. And, let's face it, there are plenty of religions with as odd or odder origin stories.

What's more, growing up where I did, we were in constant contact with Mormon families, not to mention the earnest young Mormon missionaries who came knocking at our screen doors every summer in their narrow neckties and short-sleeved white shirts. While there is no excusing the church's past sins, including the racism that kept African Americans from its ministry until 1978, such familiarity with their faith on our part created a comfort level that may be rare in other parts of the country.

Their strong sense of community and family is well known, the church's protectiveness of the flock all-encompassing to the point of suffocation. My parents owned a two-family home next door to ours that, given small town size standards, was known as "the apartment house." At one point, my mother rented to a newlywed Mormon couple who, callow youth, wound up skipping out on several months' rent. Within days, Mom had a check for the full amount and then some from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

So I watched with interest the brouhaha surrounding "The Speech," Mitt Romney's address on his Mormon faith last Thursday at Texas A&M's George Bush Presidential Library and Museum. Much was made of the campus' proximity to Houston, where in 1960 John F. Kennedy gave his important address explaining the role of Catholicism in his life.

For Romney, it was a good speech, even, as the Boston Globe's Peter Canellos wrote, "With its breadth of spirit... the most presidential moment of the 2008 campaign." And conservative commentator Peggy Noonan noted, "He seized the opportunity to connect his candidacy to something larger and transcendent: the history of religious freedom in America. He made a virtue of necessity."

But... he barely mentioned the nature of Mormonism, saying, simply, "I believe in my Mormon faith and endeavor to live by it." The speech did little toward reassuring the public that it would never be an issue for him as president.

And, disturbingly, when addressing the crucial separation of church and state, he weaved around like Luke Skywalker trying to punch out the Death Star, demonstrating vestiges of the flipfloppery that have dogged him throughout this campaign. "I will take care to separate the affairs of government from any religion, but I will not separate us from the God who gave us liberty," he declared. "Nor would I separate us from our religious heritage." He said that those of us who view religion as a private matter act "as if they are intent on establishing a new religion in America, the religion of secularism. They are wrong."

I think I resent that, yet flopping back to the other side, Romney invoked Lincoln's concept of "political religion" -- "the commitment to defend the rule of law and the Constitution... I will serve no one religion, no one group, no one cause, and no one interest. A President must serve only the common cause of the people of the United States."

Bottom line -- as Harry Truman said during the controversy over JFK's Catholic faith -- "It's not the Pope I'm worried about. It's the Pop," a reference to Kennedy's avaricious, wheeler-dealer father Joe. Ultimately, Romney's religion is not so much the issue as the man himself, the smooth talking millionaire who seems capable of saying anything to anyone to get what he wants.

In any case, the rush of events may soon make Mitt moot. This week's Newsweek Iowa poll shows evangelical favorite Mike Huckabee -- the real target of Romney's speech -- ahead of him by a 39-17 margin. As they say three times during the Pope's coronation, "Sic transit gloria mundi." Fame is fleeting.

© 2007 Messenger Post Newspapers

Michael Winship, Writers Guild of America Award winner and former writer with Bill Moyers, writes for the Messenger Post Newspapers in upstate New York

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Albion Monitor   December 18, 2007   (

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