Mitt Romney's Underwear

Daniel Sorrell: In 1994 Bill Clinton was asked on MTV if he wore boxers or briefs. At the time, the introduction of undergarment choice into political discourse probably had more to do with the touted hipness of our first baby boomer president and a touchy-feely intimacy that was part of his public persona. The ensuing Bush years have been refreshingly free of probing questions about undergarments and their attendant political meanings. With the upcoming 2008 presidential election, the specter of underwear talk looms in the distance, but for completely different reasons.

For no presidential hopeful is this more pressing an issue than Mitt Romney. The Republican governor of Massachusetts is, as the media continues to mention with ever more frequency, a member of the Church of Latter Day Saints — in popular parlance, a Mormon. Less touched upon in the press are the ritual undergarments worn by many LDS members referred to as “temple garments.”

The garments, and the decision whether or not to wear them, are an apparently touchy subject with many in the LDS Church. Given their ritual and sacred meaning — and the private nature of underwear generally — public discussion of Mormon underclothes can be a taboo subject. When pressed a year ago in The Atlantic Monthly, Romney politely declined to discuss the topic saying, “I’ll just say those sorts of things I’ll keep private.”

Andrew Sullivan, in a recent post on his blog, started a minor storm in the blogosphere by posting pictures of the garments and then speculating as to whether or not Mormons were really Christian. (For some responses see here and here.)

This little fracas going on in a relatively obscure corner of blogdom is part of a larger narrative emerging in the main stream media and among the punditocracy: Will Romney’s Mormonism matter? From the tawdry if ultimately banal topic of Mormon underwear to the much more politically relevant issues of the Mormon doctrine of America’s “divine founding” and a history of institutionalized racism, the collision of the LDS Church and presidential politics is being hyped as potentially explosive.

The media consensus developing up to this point is that Romney’s religion will be an “issue,” especially given that many evangelicals, presumably the religious base that Romney will have to appeal to, have some reservations about the LDS Church.

Yet prognosticators would do well to remember the Olympic Games of 2002. Held in Salt Lake City, they brought the LDS Church to the national media forefront without any serious queasiness or rejection by either secular blue-staters or evangelical red-staters. More telling, Romney himself was involved in rescuing the games from a debilitating bribery scandal. Presumably Romney — with Mormon moral probity in tow — was brought in to clear out the corruption and, with an efficient marketing campaign, get the Games back on sound financial footing.

Casting even further back, we can compare the presidential campaigns of two other religious outliers in the national political spotlight. When John F. Kennedy was running for president, he had to abjure fealty to Rome to convince the voters that he would not take his marching orders from the Pope. More recently, John Kerry, another Catholic, seemed to be consistently falling over himself to demonstrate how big a part religion played in his life. His Catholic sympathies were an issue only inasmuch as it was necessary to have them to begin with. The lesson here is that the electorate of today — in contrast to a couple decades back — just wants a president who embraces any faith, whether Mormon, evangelical, or Catholic. Believing in God and mouthing a conspicuous piety — of a broadly Judeo-Christian flavor — is the prerequisite for the presidency.

Is this at bottom another instance of the media not “getting” religion? Probably not. Since the focus has generally not been on core theological issues that inflect political positions — something the media should do more often — but on comparatively superficial aspects of Mormonism, the media misreading here has to do more with their misunderstanding of cultural aspects of a religious minority. That is to say, the focus will tend to be on lifestyle choices and behavioral ticks that diverge from the mainstream — no booze or caffeine, missionary programs, funny underwear, and a perceived cult-like insularity — rather than on religious dogma as such. For example, according to the Articles of Faith Mormons consider themselves to be a regathering of the ten tribes of Israel and hold that a “New Jerusalem” will be literally built on the American continent.

It is a shame the press cannot engage in substantive issues of belief and dogma such as these, given how an America-centric theology could influence how a Mormon president would interpret and interact with the rest of the world. That seems a more pressing matter than whether or not Romney wears Mormon underwear.

Daniel Sorrell is a graduate student at New York University.