Hewitt’s message is that Mitt Romney has become a political canary in the coalmine. If a man of Romney’s intellectual and professional stature is taken down simply because of his religious beliefs, others will follow. Permission will have been granted to destroy political opponents across the religious spectrum for believing “weird” things — or perhaps for being excessively moral in the eyes of a skeptical, secular press.
Slate editor Jacob Weisberg threw down the challenge after reviewing some of Joseph Smith’s more extravagant assertions. “He was an obvious con man,” Weisberg wrote. “Romney has every right to believe in con men, but I want to know if he does, and if so, I don’t want him running the country.” That argument, counters author and radio host Hugh Hewitt, amounts to unashamed bigotry and opens the door to any person of any faith who runs for office being called to account for the mysteries of personal belief. He has published A Mormon in the White House?, a chronicle of Romney’s rise as business genius, Olympic savior, political star. But Hewitt has a religious mission as well when he cites a survey in which a majority of Evangelicals said voting for a Mormon was out of the question. If that general objection means they would not consider Romney in 2008, Hewitt warns, then prejudice is legitimized, and “it will prove a disastrous turning point for all people of faith in public life.”
Weisberg observes that modern political discourse seems to permit the exploration of candidates’ every secret except their most basic philosophical beliefs: “The crucial distinction is between someone’s background and heritage, which they don’t choose, and their views, which they do choose and which are central to the question of whether someone has the capacity to serve in the highest office in the country.” He would raise the same concerns, he notes, about a Jew or a Methodist who believed the earth is less than 6,000 years old. Weisberg’s characterization of Mormonism as “Scientology plus 125 years” did not stop Romney from naming L. Ron Hubbard’s Battlefield Earth a favorite novel. “Someone who believes, seriously believes, in a modern hoax is someone we should think hard about,” Weisberg argues, “whether they have the skepticism and intellectual seriousness to take on this job.”
Hewitt counters that Romney is facing a double standard, born of a barely hidden bias. “It is unreasonable to demand that a Mormon candidate expose and defend his deepest beliefs in rational terms in order to reassure voters that he is of sound mind,” he says. He warns Evangelicals hostile to Romney’s religion against colluding with those he sees as hostile to all religions. “The secular left that does not like people of faith in the public square is very happy to have a group of Fundamentalists raise this issue and be a battering ram,” Hewitt argues. But if purely theological challenge becomes acceptable, he says, your own theology will be next: Which miracles do you believe in; what about this contradiction in Scripture?
Every critic of Romney’s faith is shooting at every person of faith running for office in the future.
It is that simple. If you aren’t persuaded, read the book.