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Faith in the system (continued)


When asked whether the Catholic Church scandal has made religion more relevant to the governor’s race, the Romney campaign sidesteps the question. "As for whether or not the cardinal should continue to lead the Archdiocese of Boston, that’s a matter for the cardinal’s own conscience," says Fehrnstrom, echoing the candidate’s public statements. Fehrnstrom declines to say whether Romney’s Mormonism factored into his decision to run for governor at a time when the Catholic Church was in crisis. Romney could be hoping that his non-position vis-à-vis Law will help him capture the support of conservative Catholic voters, who, like House Speaker Tom Finneran and former Boston mayor Ray Flynn, have been unwilling to criticize Cardinal Law. These — along with suburban independents — are voters he will need to be elected governor. That said, Romney’s recent attack on the Evacuation Day holiday of March 17 may cut into that support: some of the holiday’s most avid supporters happen to be Irish Catholics who relish the day off because it falls on St. Patrick’s Day. In Massachusetts, support for Evacuation Day has historically distinguished Yankee from Catholic voters (See "History Denied," page 18).

That Massachusetts handed Romney the Republican gubernatorial nomination with full knowledge of his Mormon background may suggest that the country has become less rather than more sensitive to religious differences. But look again. When Mitt Romney’s father, Michigan governor George Romney, ran for president in 1968, his religion was of little interest to reporters. Theodore White, who focused so much on the question of Kennedy’s religion in his earlier book The Making of the President 1960 barely addressed religion in his reporting on the election of 1968. In fact, contemporaries commented not on the elder Romney's religion, but on his exceptionally "progressive" politics, which attracted the support of moderate New York governor Nelson Rockefeller. Like Rockefeller, Romney was "governor of a great industrial state, sensitive to civil rights, a good executive," writes White.

Schlesinger — another rough contemporary of Romney senior — downplays religion as a factor in the former presidential candidate’s career. "George Romney, his father, was a very secular governor of Michigan," recalls Schlesinger. But the elder Romney's legacy, in this regard, seems to be of no help to his son. Even when Mitt Romney has attempted to honor his secular, public-spirited father, he has also become entangled in a sea of complicated, interrelated social and religious issues. It was to honor his father that Romney donated $1 million to Brigham Young University, and in 1998, the school created the George Romney Institute of Public Management. BYU, from which Romney graduated in 1971, is a private Mormon institution that attempts to educate students in the spirit of the religion. The university has a strict honor code that regulates student behavior — from banning the use of caffeine and alcohol to forbidding private visits with members of the opposite sex. It also maintains strict limits on students’ sexual activities. In a category labeled "Sexual and Similar Misconduct," the university states that "the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and BYU affirm that sexual relationships outside the covenant of marriage are inappropriate." The code cites "extramarital relations," "promiscuity," and "homosexual conduct" as "inappropriate."

Last year, the school suspended two students accused of honor-code violations because of gay activity, reports a March 29, 2001, Salt Lake Tribune story. One of the students was suspended for such activity as visiting an Internet gay chat room, kissing another man, and going on dates. The student denied the allegations. The scope of the honor code goes far beyond gay sex. BYU suspended undergraduate Julie Stoffer after she appeared on the MTV program The Real World. Her violation? Sleeping in the same home with men who were not her husband.

The Romney campaign acknowledges the candidate’s involvement with BYU. "Any support Mitt has given BYU is to show gratitude for the education Mitt and his five sons received there," says Fehrnstrom, adding that Jim McMahon, the wild man former quarterback for the Chicago Bears, attended the school. Fehrnstrom doesn’t "know much about the honor code," he says. "So I don’t know how rigid their honor code is."

For the school’s part, BYU spokesperson Carri Jenkins says that while the school’s honor code strictly circumscribes the behavior of students — including homosexuality — it also makes all that clear to prospective students, who must sign a pledge promising to abide by the code if they are admitted. "We make it extremely open," says Jenkins. "We want it to be their choice and an environment they want to live in. If it’s not, then it’s probably not the place for them." She confirmed that the students described in the Salt Lake Tribune and the participant in the MTV program The Real World were suspended, but she would not provide details about the incidents. It’s fair to note that, as Jenkins points out, that students sign the BYU code voluntarily. It’s also fair to point out that what plays well in Utah doesn’t play as well in Massachusetts.

IF ROMNEY’S connections to BYU are fair game, then what about another candidate’s link with a Jewish communal organization? Grossman, a Democratic candidate, served previously as the president of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), a pro-Israel lobby. Might some oppose Grossman on the grounds that he is a strong supporter of Israel at a time when that country is engaged in military action? In fact, that position helped differentiate Reich and Grossman at the Kennedy Library debate. Asked by WBZ talk-show host David Brudnoy about a statement Reich allegedly made in California that America’s war on terrorism served "corporate interests," Reich answered that while he did not "recall those words ... the war on terrorism does not respond to what big military contractors lobbied for." When it was time for Grossman to comment, he linked Massachusetts’s status as the "birthplace of democracy" to America’s obligations to a "democratic state," namely Israel. Those whose political sympathies lie with the Palestinians, however, might want to take one point about Grossman’s time at AIPAC into account. It came when Israel, under Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, was in the midst of turning over territory in the West Bank and Gaza to the Palestinian Authority as part of the Middle East peace process. Grossman’s job was to make the case to Congress that America needed to help both parties make peace — a job that many would laud him for today. Still, the unfortunate fact is that no matter what anyone thinks about Israel or AIPAC, the possibility of a Middle East–wide war around election time should be factored into election-year equations. In a climate of almost-daily demonstrations against US policy in the Middle East, how could it not be?

SO IS RELIGION going to be the dominant issue in the upcoming race? Alan Solomont, who chairs Grossman’s campaign, doesn’t think so. "I think my father’s generation would have seen the race this way," says Solomont. "I don’t think that’s how people will look at it any longer. I think the people are going to judge the candidates not on their religion, but on the promise of their candidacies."

The great hope of the Romney campaign is that John F. Kennedy’s victory in the 1960 race means that its candidate will not have to answer religion-based attacks. "I think a lot of these questions were answered 40 years ago when John F. Kennedy became the first Catholic president," says Fehrnstrom.

Indeed, Romney is not alone among the six candidates running for Massachusetts governor in hoping that Kennedy’s candidacy took the issue of religion out of politics. But anybody looking at the turmoil besetting Boston’s Roman Catholic Church — and the delicate manner with which this year’s raft of gubernatorial candidates has been forced to deal with it — can see religion’s irrelevance to the campaign isn’t likely. Exactly how that factor will play out, and in whose favor, is anyone’s guess. Chances are we won’t see a replay of 1960 in Massachusetts this year — actually, it might be worse.

Seth Gitell can be reached at sgitell[a]

Is Seth Gitell accurate in his analysis? Will religion play a significant role in the governor's race? Voice your opinion here in the Phoenix Forum.

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Issue Date: April 18 - 25, 2002
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