Romney vs. Obama on religion: will we see it?

A pro-Romney Super PAC has reportedly floated, and then sank, the option of attacking Barrack Obama over his former membership in a church pastored by Jeremiah Wright. During the 2008 Presidential campaign, ABC News investigators discovered that Wright had once implied that the September 11 attacks were an avoidable consequence of U.S. foreign policy mistakes, and in another instance had uttered the shocking words “God damn America!” after a discussion of the country’s racial history. Obama and his family resigned from the church during the 2008 campaign, citing disagreement with their their former pastor’s inflammatory statements.

Obama has one other religious liability, which is the fact that despite his lifelong Protestant background and church attendance, 16% of voters believe he is a Muslim or crypto-Muslim. Romney is smart enough, politically, not to overtly associate himself with such conspiracy theories. So at least for now, the issue of Obama’s religious background is off the table.

Obama, as well, has taken the possibility of attacking Romney’s Mormon religion off the table. Most commentators seem to agree that a backlash is likely to ensue should Obama ever be seen to attack Romney’s religion. The criticism for such a move would be directed back at Obama.

But does anybody really believe that religion will not be an issue in this election cycle? Like it or not, as a result of the Citizens United case, this will be the first modern presidential election in which there will be unlimited and unregulated money from corporations, opinionated tycoons, labor unions, and maybe even foreign countries. This money and the resulting explosion of TV ads cannot, at least in theory, be controlled by the candidates themselves. Citizens United aside, neither of the candidates can control the actions of the press.

If such a religious fight breaks out over the TV airwaves, Romney has a distinct disadvantage. Obama’s religious issues were well-aired by the press four years ago, and it is hard to imagine what new damage they could cause now, four years later. By contrast, only a slim majority of voters are currently even aware that Romney is Mormon. Romney has far more potential to be hurt when his religious views are placed open to criticism.

If Romney were to become President, he would be the first nontrinitarian to hold that office since the 19th century, and he would be only the second non-Protestant. Thus, the issue of his religion is newsworthy and important. But will the media and Super PACs treat the subject of Romney’s Mormonism with a level of serious and accuracy that it deserves? And will care be taken to note that there is diversity within Mormon thought?

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Harry Reid: the most prominent Mormon to back same-sex marriage

Following President Obama’s announcement that he now supports same sex marriage, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has announced his own support for same-sex marriage, thus becoming the most prominent Mormon to back equal marriage rights for gays and lesbians.

Reid’s position is somewhat nuanced. Though he supports same sex marriage as as a legal matter, he notes that his “personal belief is that marriage is between a man and a woman.” That “personal belief” is certainly a religious one, and it echoes the opinion of leaders of the LDS Church to which he belongs. In September 2008, just before the vote on California’s Proposition 8, which amended the California constitution to ban same sex marriage, the LDS Church issued a public statement encouraging its members to support political efforts to prevent gays and lesbians from getting married. By supporting equal marriage rights for gay and lesbian couples, Reid is expressing what appears to be a disagreement with his church leadership on matters of policy, while still agreeing with the church on matters of doctrine.

There was a significant political backlash against the LDS Church’s political effort to pass Proposition 8 in California. The effort led to bad press, and has contributed to at least some defections from the faith by LDS Church members. Since then, the church has been much less aggressive on the issue. The LDS Church is sensitive about avoiding the appearance of giving “orders” to Mormon political leaders. Therefore, it would be uncharacteristic for the church to issue any statement that might be interpreted as a rebuke of Reid. For that reason, I expect the LDS Church to remain silent on the issue for the time being.