Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Romney Can't Have It Both Ways

Christopher Hitchens deploys his snappy prose to explain why the public is entitled to inquire into his religious beliefs.

Now I enjoy reading Hitchens, particularly when I'm on board with his thinking. It's like watching a lion maul an antelope: if you can convince yourself the antelope had it coming, the mauling can be a thing of beauty. And Mitt Romney is a had-it-coming antelope in the worst way.

Hitchens's argumentation isn't always as polished as his prose, though, and here he skips over one crucial point: Romney put this issue in play a long time ago — not by initiating push-poll calls about his Mormonism in Iowa, but by leveraging his religiosity to appeal to Republican "values voters."

Back in June, Romney announced the formation of his campaign's "National Faith and Values Steering Committee." As he explained in the accompanying press release,

"The men and women of our National Steering Committee represent decades spent defending faith, religious expression and traditional values. I believe that our Party and our nation must stand for strong families, traditional marriage and the sanctity of human life. I am proud to be joined by these leaders in our campaign to change Washington."

A Presidential candidate can't make "moral values" a central component of his campaign, then declare that no one is entitled to inquire into the nature of his religious beliefs. Well, he can: but the candidate would have to state clearly and unequivocally that his personal religious beliefs do not inform, influence, or provide the basis of the "moral values" he hopes to advance as President. Romney certainly has not partitioned off his personal faith in that fashion. In fact, quite the opposite.

Three years ago, John Kerry "put in play" his military service. He "reported for duty" at the Democratic National Convention, and he stated that his tours in Vietnam uniquely qualified him for the position of Commander-in-Chief. Kerry could complain that the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth made misrepresentations or outright lied about his military service, but he certainly could not — and to my knowledge he did not — turn on a dime and say his tour in Vietnam was off-limits in the campaign.

Likewise, if a candidate — as candidates do — makes a big show of parading his picture-perfect family in TV spots or on stage after debates, then it would not be a breach of privacy for a news outlet to report on skeletons in the family closet.

If politicians want to use their personal religious faith to appeal to voters, they should be prepared to give full and complete answers to the public about what they believe. If a candidate promises voters that he will govern in accordance with his religious convictions, we ought to know what those convictions are. If he does not, I'm not interested. But you can't have it both ways.

Hitchens didn't make this point, and I wish he had. His thesis seems more striaghtforward: the public should know if a leading Presidential candidate is a whack-job. And I suppose it is more of a kick for Hitchens to explore all the way-out tenets and prophecies of Mormonism. Missouri, indeed . . .

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