Romney Still Facing Questions of Faith

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As interviewers continue pressing GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney about his Mormon beliefs, David Kuo of BeliefNet.com considers whether Romney is being treated fairly.

TOURE, host:

Last Sunday on "Meet the Press," Tim Russert grilled Mitt Romney about his faith for almost 15 minutes with a series of questions that makes some wonder if Russert went too far.

Mr. TIM RUSSERT (Host, "Meet the Press"): Should voters be concerned that you were seeking input from the leader of the Mormon Church as to whether or not you should run for president?

How can you accept the support of someone who would trash your faith?

But you wouldn't call Judaism a cult or erroneous religion, would you?

Didn't you think, what am I doing part of an organization that is viewed by many as a racist organization?

ALISON STEWART, host:

Something on your mind there, Tim?

TOURE: Bam, bam, bam. And during an interview with The New York Times Sunday magazine, Republican presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee asked the reporter whether, quote, "Mormons believe that Jesus and the devil are brothers." Huckabee has since apologized. But are these the questions we should be asking major presidential candidates weeks before the caucuses? What ever happened to the separation of church and state?

David Kuo is the Washington editor for BeliefNet.com. He's been looking at the '08 campaign and the growing obsession - his word - with mixing religion and politics.

David, is there a de facto religious test for presidential candidates now?

Mr. DAVID KUO (Washington Editor, BeliefNet.com): It sure as heck seems that way, doesn't it? You know, it really is extraordinary. And, obviously, what happened on Sunday with Mitt Romney and Tim Russert was just another example of it. You know, I think in some ways back to a front page in New York Times piece that ran several months ago in which, you know, there was a real grilling or a real sort of investigative reporting into Barack Obama's pastor.

And, you know, I think about, you know, a lot of the stuff that Mike Huckabee, frankly, has faced. You know, he's been asked time and again all of these theological questions that other candidates haven't. You look at Mitt Romney and being asked all these questions about his particular faith. You know, it really is this extraordinary merging of faith and politics that's less frankly church and state than it is, you know, this de facto religious test, as you just said. And it's frightening.

TOURE: Do you think religion is being treated differently in this election? And is it because we have someone - Romney - of a faith that's uncommon to most Americans, and a preacher who puts his faith on his chest? Or is it because the Bush administration has kept religion top of brain? Or is it something else entirely?

Mr. KUO: You know, in a lot of ways, I pin some of the blame on the Bush administration, or I should say on the Bush campaign. Because starting in 1999 and then again throughout his presidency, he ran as this sort of de facto president-in-chief.

If you recall, back in 1999, you know, there was such great dissatisfaction amongst conservative evangelicals, conservative Christians about the Clinton administration, and so much of how Bush ran in '99 and 2000 was as this sort of de facto president-in-chief. You know, he was sort of saying I'm going to restore honor and dignity to the White House. But then behind the scenes, you know, he developed a viral network of pastors, where he didn't share any public policy point of view, but it was all of his - the story was about his religious state - excuse me, his religious faith and his conversion story.

And, you know, I think going forward then, you've seen both Democratic and Republican candidates now really trying to adopt that same perspective, that you've have the Democratic candidates talk repeatedly about their faith. I mean, actually, it's been only in the past month or so that you've seen the Republican candidates really step up to talk of faith of their own. So I really - I think a lot of it really goes back to simply the old adage in politics, you know, what helps someone win works.

STEWART: David, two points. You said president-in-chief. Did you mean pastor-in-chief?

Mr. KUO: Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEWART: And also, you know a lot about…

Mr. KUO: My point was missed.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEWART: I - we got it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEWART: The other point we should make clear is that you actually worked within the Bush administration, in there - with their faith-based initiatives, so you kind of speak to this from a place of experience.

Mr. KUO: Yeah. I know of what I speak. I went into the White House not, you know, as someone who got recruited by a Democratic friend in the White House, in the faith-based office, because the whole idea is we're going to work with the poor and we were going to try to fulfill President Bush's promise of $8 billion a year in new money for the poor. That didn't exactly happen.

TOURE: David, JFK made a famous speech that closed the door on the religion issue, but Romney's recent speech on religion doesn't seem to have closed the door at all.

Mr. MITT ROMNEY (Former Republican Governor, Massachusetts; Republican Presidential Candidate): I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and the Savior of mankind. My church's beliefs about Christ may not all be the same as those of other faiths. Religious tolerance would be a shallow principle indeed if it were reserved only for faiths with which we agree.

TOURE: Why do think Romney's approach makes him a continued target?

Mr. KUO: You know, I think in that speech, his - that was, you know, a one paragraph gaff, if you will, because, you know, he tried in that paragraph to make a great spiritual and theological point. You know, it's like he tried to say to evangelical elders, hey, I'm just like you guys. But at the same time, he made the mistake of trying to say, listen, my Mormon faith and your Christian faith, they really aren't all that different.

And I think you're seeing some backlash to that now, because there are some huge theological differences between the two faiths, and I think that was a huge spiritual point he tried to make. And I think that in some ways, that opened him up to the questioning that Tim Russert gave him on Sunday. Because Kennedy's speech in 1960 was utterly devoid of faith. He said, listen, my faith is a private matter. It informs who I am, sure, but I'm going to be commander-in-chief. And, you know, he did talk about a faith. And Romney gave, you know, something of a sermon.

TOURE: Well, we always - the leaders always have to talk about faith when they're campaigning. Do you think an atheist could win the presidency?

Mr. KUO: Oh, absolutely. You know, I really - I don't doubt that. You know, I think in some ways, an atheist would have, you know, an easier time maybe than Mitt Romney would have.

STEWART: You don't think there'd be a giant pile on, and that would somehow become a wedge issue?

Mr. KUO: Well, you know, I think it depends on how the candidate handled it. You know, if they were, you know, like, you know, Christopher Hitchens or somebody…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. KUO: …you know, who's sort of actively making fun of everyone else's faith, I think they might have some problems. But if they said listen, I am informed by a particular world view, and I believe this and this and that, and I'm running to be commander-in-chief. And, you know, it's more important that we talk about entitlements and we talk about foreign policy than we talk about whether or not I believe the book of John is the inspired word of God. You know, I think a lot of people would stand up and respect that.

I mean, I still think it's true. I think there's an opportunity for the presidential - for a presidential candidate (unintelligible) this time around to get up and give a speech and say, hey guys, let's just get back to basics here…

TOURE: But…

Mr. KUO: …and in some ways to give a more Kennedy-like speech than Romney ended up giving.

TOURE: But this is not a religious state, obviously, but there seems to be a need in people to have their leaders believe and believe like them.

Mr. KUO: Yes, that's absolutely true. But I also think that, you know, that it's warped and morphed in some ways, where it's now become, well, I need you to believe, you know, theologically, you know, up and down like I believe. And that's very different, I think, than, you know, the traditional view of saying, you know, hey, I want somebody to share my general beliefs. That those beliefs tend to be more, you know, about, you know, how you run the government and the sort of commander-in-chief you're going to be.

I mean, if I think even back to 1988 when Pat Robertson and Jesse Jackson ran, both reverends, both for president, there was far less discussion about, you know, issues of theology. Sure, each of them had fun poked at them. "Saturday Night Live" did some very funny skits, but it really was not a huge issue. And keep in mind, Robertson did finish second in Iowa in 1988, beating the seated vice president. So it's not like he wasn't a serious candidate.

TOURE: David, thank you for your time and your thoughts.

David Kuo is the Washington editor for BeliefNet.com.

Mr. KUO: My pleasure. You guys have a great day.

STEWART: You, too, now.

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