Why Harry Reid’s Mormon Slur May Be Good for the Church

Senate majority leader is punching low in slurring Mitt Romney’s faith. Michelle Cottle on why the brawl might actually be good for his church.

Lynne Sladky / AP Photo

Did Harry Reid really have to go there? I mean, it’s one thing to assert that Mitt Romney is an inveterate tax cheat. But a lousy Mormon? That’s hitting a brother where it hurts.

Technically, it wasn’t Reid, himself a Latter Day Saint, who launched this particular theological assault. Rather, Mormon author Gregory Prince posted a piece on the Huffington Post charging that Romney had “sullied the faith” with his asinine remarks about the less affluent 47 percent of Americans.

But though he didn’t cast the first clot of mud, the Senate majority leader piled on with characteristic gusto. On a conference call with political reporters Monday, Reid not only expressed his approval of Prince’s assessment, he sneered at Romney’s visit to Nevada later this week: “He’s coming to a state where there are a lot of members of the LDS Church ... They understand that he is not the face of Mormonism.”

Now, say what you will about Romney’s political persona (shifty, smarmy, untrustworthy), his ideology (opaque, inconstant, opportunistic), and his personality in general (awkward, toffee-nosed, gooberish), the man, by most accounts, has been a damn good Mormon, generous with his time, his energy, his millions. There is, in fact, an argument to be made that the reason Romney so consistently fails to connect on a human level with voters is that the central element of his being—his faith—is something the governor is wildly uncomfortable discussing. And so we are presented with a picture so incomplete as to be virtually formless.

On some level, Reid’s nasty remarks must simply be filed under the category of Harry being Harry. Despite his nebbishy demeanor, the Senate majority leader is an incorrigible junkyard dog. He has, after all, already called Romney “kind of a joke,” snarled that he “doesn’t stand for anything,” claimed knowledge that Romney hadn’t paid a dime in taxes for 10 years (without offering any corroborating evidence), labeled Mitt “the most secretive presidential candidate since Richard Nixon,” and slammed his refusal to release as many years of tax returns as his dad, former Michigan governor and presidential candidate, George. (“His poor father must be so embarrassed about his son.”)

It’s not just Romney that gets Harry’s dander up. In recent years, Reid has taken a swing at everyone from former Fed chairman Alan Greenspan to Gen. Peter Pace, at the time chairman of the Joint Chiefs. And after decades of serving in the Senate with John McCain, Reid did not hesitate to eviscerate his colleague during the 2008 presidential race, calling McCain “erratic” and suggesting his temperament was wholly unsuited to the Oval Office. Reid’s assertion that “I can’t stand John McCain” raised plenty of eyebrows in the clubby upper chamber.

“It’s classic Harry Reid,” shrugs the Majority Leader’s former spokesman, Jim Manley, now with QGA Public Affairs. “He’s a blunt and plainspoken guy. He speaks his mind. He’s also a committed Mormon who takes his faith very seriously.”

In fact, contends Manley, “there’s no reason why, in this day and age, with the Mormon religion where it is in this country, that it can’t be a part of the political debate as well, just like the Catholic faith or the Jewish faith.”

Looked at this way, Reid’s willingness to drag his religion into the arena is a positive sign—an indication that he is confident that Mormonism is now mainstream enough to handle the heat.

Arguably, seeing two Latter Day Saints duking it out could actually benefit the church. For all its progress, Mormonism is still viewed with unease by many Americans who see it as secretive, hierarchical, and controlling. The squabbling between Reid and Romney could help promote the message (fervently stressed by church leaders) that Mormons do not march in cultlike political lockstep anymore than, say, Southern Baptists or Catholics.

Indeed, while Catholic leaders occasionally come out and proclaim a politician (such as, say, the pro-choice John Kerry) to be a bad Catholic, the Mormon Church is scrupulously staying out of this presidential dogfight.

Church leaders have declined to comment on Reid’s swipe at Romney. But, in talking with Mormons who have a finger on the pulse of the community, the prevailing sentiment seems to be that, while the church hopes its members will not question each other’s faithfulness, it respects their rights to hold different political views.

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