So far, it seems that former Senator Rick Santorum is having his Paul Tsongas/Bill Bradley Moment. Remember them? Each of these former senators enjoyed a momentary surge when running against a flawed candidate on the Democratic side. In 1992, Tsongas was the Massachusetts media darling who had a brief moment in the political sun, attacking Bill Clinton as a “Pander Bear,” with pander coming out as “panda,” thanks to Tsongas’s Massachusetts accent. New Jersey senator Bill Bradley was the former New York Knicks basketball star and Rhodes Scholar who distracted voters momentarily when Al Gore ran as the inevitable Democratic candidate in 2000. Both Tsongas and Bradley were more popular with reporters than with voters, particularly as they prolonged campaigns that threatened to end too quickly, given the media need for an extended fight.
Santorum is now proving useful to reporters anxious to drag out the Republican campaign, even as most reporters abhor his cultural conservatism. Tsongas and Bradley were each high priests in “Our Lady of the Principled, Priggish Politician,” appearing to waft above the normal political fray. Their fleeting surges fed mass American fantasies about politics as a higher calling. Santorum lacks that appeal—or much popularity with reporters, many of whom view him as a puritanical prig. Republican voters in conservative caucus states like his membership in a real Christian church, the Roman Catholic Church. In this election, that excites Protestant bigots who prefer a Catholic to a Mormon president.
While the bigotry from the Right against Mormonism has attracted attention, this bigotry is also being reinforced from the Left. The unfair obstacle Mitt Romney faces due to prejudice against his community of faith has not stirred enough indignation from the Left or the Right. On the Right, the passivity reflects the deep prejudice among the bigots who view Mormonism as an abomination, not a Christian denomination. On the Left, it reflects a pro-Obama protectiveness laced with an instinctive anti-Mormonism, based on its conservatism and strangeness. It is definitely a red-state religion.
A recent “Room for Debate” among New York Times guest bloggers asking “What is it about Mormons” reflected the kind of static Romney endures from those who would normally be primed to see the underlying hostility against him as a civil rights issue. The five experts the Times solicited about Mormonism were unflattering, to one degree or another. Sally Denton, the author of “The Money and the Power wrote about the Mormon church’s “Male-Dominated World,” with the tag line: “Given that Mitt Romney is a high church official and not just a member, voters are right to be circumspect,” Jana Riess, who wrote Flunking Sainthood, asked “Can a Candidate Be Too Perfect?” explaining that “Voters want someone they can identify with. Historically, that does not bode well for Mormons.” Ian Williams, a refugee from Mormonism, said: “It May Look Good on Paper…. But some of us who have experienced the Mormon life firsthand would rather choose a messy, colorful America.” And “There Is a Dark Side to Mormonism,” warned another author, Jane Barnes, saying “When it comes to the social agenda, the Mormon church does not respect separation of church and state.” Finally, readers learned about “Mormons’ Double Legacy” from Professor Laurie F. Maffly-Kipp, who said “Just as Mormons seem to be ideal Americans, they also provoke typically American fears.”
In fairness, the short entries raised issues that are shaping the contemporary conversation about the man who still remains the leading Republican candidate. But it is instructive to substitute the words “Mormon” and “Mormonism” in judging whether the overall impression provided enlightenment or bred bigotry. I doubt the Times would have run a debate asking: “What is it about” blacks or gays or Catholics or women or Jews?” Would it have been acceptable to write in 1960 about John Kennedy’s Catholicism: Given that the Kennedys have met the Pope and support the church, “voters are right to be circumspect,” or in 2000 during Democratic vice presidential candidate Joe Lieberman’s stint as the first Jew on a major ticket, that “There is a Dark Side” to Judaism? How about an analysis in 2008 that “just as” African Americans like Barack Obama, “seem to be ideal Americans, they also provoke typically American fears?”
Standing alone, each of these articles analyzes the fears of others. But their cumulative effect together, with no full-throated defense of Mormonism, created this noxious impression. Mitt Romney has been careful to downplay his religion, emphasizing that he is a Jesus-believing, God-fearing Christian. Given what he is experiencing left and right, it seems like the shrewd but unfortunate strategy to follow, especially while the media and voters are still dragging out the nomination battle saga with the Tsantorum Tsurge.