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Time Magazine’s Nancy Gibbs talks about her cover story about Mitt Romney, and the questions about his faith.

Saturday, May 12, 2007
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HH: I’m joined today by Nancy Gibbs. Nancy is a Time Magazine reporter. A few months ago, she read my book, A Mormon In The White House? And in the new issue of Time, which features Mitt Romney on the cover, she has an article which I think is really one of the better ones I’ve seen in terms of raising the question without crossing the boundary, Romney’s Mormon Question. Nancy, good to have you on, thanks for joining me today.

NG: Nice to be with you, Hugh.

HH: Now I want to start by letting people know, you’ve been writing for Time Magazine how many years?

NG: It’ll be 22 years this fall.

HH: So you’ve seen a lot of presidential candidates come and go.

NG: I have.

HH: Have you ever seen a conversation about a candidate’s religious faith as intense as the one surrounding Mitt Romney?

NG: I have not, and the closest thing, and it wasn’t even, I don’t think it even came anywhere close to this, was when Al Gore nominated Joe Lieberman as his running mate. And yet, I don’t think even that conversation approached this one. You really do, as many people have pointed out, you have to go back to 1960 to have anything like this kind of conversation. That’s really the reference point.

HH: When I was writing A Mormon In The White House?, I reviewed the famous Making Of The President 1960 book, as well, ’64 and ’68, when Mitt Romney’s dad was involved in national politics. There was nothing like the intensity, either, or…I lack the word for it, brass knuckled, perhaps, Nancy Gibbs. What was your impression of the people eager to attack the Mormon faith? Were they overly aggressive? Or was it just par for the course these days?

NG: Well, you know, what I wonder when you talk about his father’s run, especially in 1968, is whether what happened in 1960, the fact that the country had an intense discussion about the relevance of Kennedy’s Catholicism, and essentially concluded that the substance of private religious faith is really not relevant to the discussion of qualification for public office. I wonder whether the residue of that conversation was still fresh in people’s minds when Mitt Romney’s father was running, and it has somehow faded, and so now we are, all these years later, having the conversation again, and much more intensely.

HH: Now I have a theory which is developing even as this story develops, and I had a little bit of it in the book, but it’s been getting more, which is that Americans have a very well developed ear for bigotry based upon race, a very well developed ear for bigotry based upon Jewish or Catholic background, but they’re tin eared when it comes to Mormon bigotry, so that when Al Sharpton can say what he said on Monday night, some people laugh, and other people just don’t get it. Do you think I’m onto something there, Nancy Gibbs?

NG: I think there is certainly, I know I have certainly often talked to Evangelicals who have said that the one group that it’s acceptable to mock or condescend to, are certain kinds of people of faith, and in particular, often of Evangelicals. About Mormons, I think that the issue very often is ignorance more than hostility. I mean, I certainly found, I knew very little of the details and the substance of the history of Mormonism before looking into this. I think what you’re seeing now is certainly a theological and historical education of political reporters, that is the preview of the kind of education of the voting public that you know is going to take place in the next eighteen months, and I think a lot of people who… I mean, Teddy White said this was true for Kennedy in 1960, that Kennedy needed to divide between those who were against him because they were bigots, and those who were against him because they were ignorant. The bigots, he was never going to be able to reach. The ignorant, he could educate. You can overcome fear with truth, but you can’t overcome bigotry.

HH: And is that the same divide that Romney faces, in your estimation?

NG: I think it is, and I think that’s why it’s such an interesting…and the challenge that you posed in your book is so fascinating, because in one sense, in order for him to overcome the hostility that is out there, he needs to talk about his faith, he may need to educate, he may need to help allay concerns people have that are based on just now knowing enough about it, or misunderstanding it because of thing they’ve read that are inaccurate. But the minute he does that, I think what you were pointing out is, aren’t we requiring that he do something that we aren’t asking anyone else to? And are we holding him to a different standard in saying you need to conduct some kind of public theology lesson, but we’re not going to ask any other candidate to, because they’re a Methodist or Episcopalian or Southern Baptist, or whatever else.

HH: There’s also this third group, and I really think it’s part of the bigoted group, but because of their credentials, they don’t go there. Jacob Weisberg, who you quote, he’s the editor of Slate, he’s a Rhodes scholar, he’s a very accomplished pundit. Robert Novak also, one of the deans, they write things which are jarring to me, but because we know them not normally to be bigoted, we hesitate…I don’t, I think Jacob Weisberg is a bigot, but I know that makes you uneasy. But they’re clearly not ignorant of the Mormon faith. They understand what Mormons believe, and yet they swing away with brick bats, Nancy Gibbs.

NG: I think where Jake ran into trouble, and of course, I talked to him for this story, is when he used the history of Joseph Smith, and of the Church, and some of the teachings as being…you know, he says this is patently a hoax, he was patently a con man, and of course, it’s very easy to say well, there are any number of beliefs that any number of people of faith hold. You can just pick one. You can ask any candidate do you believe in the Immaculate Conception? Do you believe in the Miracle at Fatima? Do you believe in the literal resurrection of the Body? You could ask any person of faith anything. Would their answers to that be a legitimate basis on which to judge their rationality? And yet, in this case, his suggestion is that because he thinks that Mitt Romney believes things that he thinks are obviously untrue and implausible, that that brings his faculties into question. Now in one sense, when you have a guy who is as accomplished in as many fields as someone like Romney is, it’s a little hard to argue that there’s…he’s not a rational thinking person. So it’s also a little hard to say he should have to defend in rational terms the substance of his faith, when we do not ask other candidates, and never have, it’s very much an American tradition that we don’t ask people to make a defense of their theology as part of running for office. You know, the only difference that people like Jake point to is the relative youth of Mormonism, that it’s a much more modern, young, less familiar religion, as though that’s a relevant differentiation. The other differentiation that they make is between someone’s religious heritage and their beliefs. I think the problem with that is saying it’s fine to be a Jew as long as you don’t believe in Judaism, or fine to be a Mormon as long as you don’t actually believe what Mormons believe, that gets to be a little problematic.

HH: Sure, it’s bigoted. And what I also…Fatima is more recent that the golden tablets.

NG: Well, this is why it’s very hard, and I think Jacob is sincere in the arguments that he’s making, but once you start making them, this is true of a lot of arguments that have to do with the intersections of religion and politics, you quickly can find yourself going places you don’t want to go.

HH: Right. Nancy Gibbs, Justin Hart who blogs at My Man Mitt had two questions, which he posted on his blog today, which I think are good. Can you point to a single religious view that Mormons hold that would directly call into question Mitt’s fitness for office?

NG: Huh. Well, he has certainly, you know, the legitimate question that has been asked by many people of faith is what happens if the leaders of your Church, and in the case of a Mormon, a leader who is seen as a living prophet, weighs in strongly on some issue that touches on your conduct in office, what would you do? What kind of a dilemma would that pose for you? The way John F. Kennedy answered that is if that ever were to happen, where some tenet of his faith came into conflict with his conduct in office, he would resign the office, and that he certainly had no intention of taking orders from Rome, and Romney has been just as clear that certainly, he has no intention of taking orders from Salt Lake City.

HH: That’s in my book. So I don’t come up with any. I can’t find any theological principle of the Church of Jesus Christ of latter-day Saints that convicts any of them as being incapable of holding any public office.

NG: No, I don’t…I don’t think that they’re…or that there isn’t anything that you can come up with that you wouldn’t then be able to turn around just as easily, and come up with something that disqualifies, on some comparable grounds, every president who has presided.

HH: What about the Weisberg, what Justin calls the Weisberg principle of nuttiness, which is does his disqualification, did he apply it to Harry Reid or Congressmen or Councilmen or dog catchers? Does he limit it? I’m looking at Harry Reid on Fox News as we speak. Does anyone ask Harry Reid these questions? Right now, he’s far more powerful than Mitt Romney.

NG: Well, for that matter, Orrin Hatch, and Orrin Hatch when he was running for president. I do think that the presidency is unique in that it’s the one nationally elected office, and it is uniquely powerful of any office in the world, so it’s not, certainly not comparable to the questions you ask before you choose the neighborhood dog catcher. Having said that, we have had other Mormons run for president who have not had the same kind of questions raised, and so I am, it is a little puzzling to me why this has come so fast and furious.

HH: 20 seconds, Nancy. What did you make of Mike Wallace’s question about premarital sex?

NG: I guess in the post-Clinton era, there are no rules about what you can ask. But the first thing I thought is I don’t know of a religion that is fine with premarital sex.

HH: Right. It was just another double standard. Nancy Gibbs, great piece in Time Magazine. I hope everyone reads it. Thanks for joining me.

End of interview.

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