A guest post from Max Mueller–JI blogger, Eccles Fellow, and a very, very smart Mormon watcher.
This past Sunday (April 29, 2012), Mitt Romney’s eldest son—and his doppelganger—tweeted to his some 7,500 followers a snapshot of his father. An Anthony Weiner moment, it was not. But for the buttoned-up and famously reserved GOP’s presidential nominee, Tagg’s picture—“busting” the former Governor for surreptitiously checking his twitter feed during Sunday school at the Belmont, Massachusetts meetinghouse—was as an intimate snapshot of Mitt Romney as we might hoped to get.
This tweeted picture, capturing only Mitt’s hands working his ipad, as well as what is probably Ann Romney sitting to his left (also on her ipad), brings us into the quotidian activity of Mormonism’s most famous couple. “The [Gentile] World”—the term Belmont some Mormons call the space outside of their Mormon geographical and spiritual enclave—might not know that starring down at ipads and iphones during Sunday school is acceptable behavior for Latter-day Saints. When I made my first visit to Belmont last summer, I was initially shocked that no one seemed to be paying attention to Tagg while he gave a Sunday school lesson on Christ’s atoning sacrifice. Instead the class, it seemed to me, was enthralled in their private worlds of facebooking or angry birds. I soon realized that these saints were, for the most part, engaged in the lesson; the smartphone or tablet has replaced the leather-bound “Quad” as the go-to scripture reference source. Those busy thumbs were scrolling to Matthew 14:27: “…Jesus spake unto them, saying, Be of good cheer; it is I; be not afraid.”
Tagg’s photo is interesting in so many ways. Let me name just two. First, the photo provides “the world” a rare avenue into a space that millions of Latter-day Saints experience every Sunday—a space foreign, and thus suspect, to many outsiders. And with Mitt occupying this “Mormon” space (made less foreign, even mundane by the image itself), the photo also captures Mitt looking out, and into “the world” he hopes to govern, perhaps to see what the world thinks of him at that moment. The photo thus places the viewer not on an avenue, but in a New England traffic rotary.
Second, what made Tagg’s photo an éxposé (he titled it: “Busted! #mitt2012 sneaking a peek at twitter during Sunday school”) was that the former bishop of the Belmont ward was not following along, at least not for that exact moment. The picture thus echoes a presidential poll: a helpful tool certainly, but one that can only capture the country’s collective political mood on a particular day. Likewise, Tagg’s snapshot fails to tell the story of Mitt’s relationship with his faith, and in particular, his relationship with the religious community in Belmont that he helped shape, and a community that helped shape him.
This is a long way of introducing the BCC community to Religion & Politics, the online news and analysis journal of the John C. Danforth Center on Religion & Politics. The journal’s goal—one based on the Center’s mandate—is to provide more than a snapshot of the religious and political lives of Americans. For example, in my first piece for R&P, “When Romney was a Mormon President,” I attempt to provide an in-depth accounting of Mitt Romney’s time as a leader of the Belmont/Boston Mormon communities. My argument is that while Romney has been reluctant to run as “pastor-in-chief,” perhaps more than any other recent major party candidate for the White House, Mitt Romney is a seasoned religious leader. As such, part of the American electorate’s vetting of Romney should include an analysis of his time as a local and regional Mormon leader.
Yet, as R&P’s editor, and director of the John C. Danforth Center, Marie Griffith suggests in her first “Editor’s Note,” investigating the “&” between religion and politics must be done with humility, self-awareness and “from a broad range of diverging view points.”
In this vein, I pose to the BCC community two related questions, questions that are at the heart of R&P’s work and questions on which we very much welcome the BCC community’s input.
First, how far into the religious worlds of our political candidates should we go?
Second, what should we do with the information and observations we make about these religious worlds?
We pose this set of questions in a different way on R&P’s first “Table”—as in the kitchen table—“a setting to debate the issues of the day.” We ask three leading opinion makers, with three different opinions—Michael Ruse, Amy Sullivan, and Timothy Dalrymple—to answer the following question: “What is fair game to discuss in the media about a candidate’s religion?”
We invite the BCC community to also participate in helping us answer this question, one that we think will continue define much of the coverage of “religion and politics” during this presidential cycle.
We also invite the BCC community to visit R&P—and participate in this project—as we attempt to make the two things “your mother warned you never to raise at a dinner party” Fit For Polite Company.