Video of the Day: Is Mitt Romney Afraid to Discuss Mormonism?

David Gregory's view that the candidate needs to focus on faith makes little sense, philosophically or politically.

In an unusual turn of events, something interesting happened on Jay Leno last night. The comedian was hosting David Gregory of Meet the Press, and the conversation turned to faith. Here's what Gregory had to say about Mormonism:

Let's be honest, this is the core of who Mitt Romney is. He was a missionary in France for two years. He has been a bishop in the church, which, in the Mormon church, is effectively like a a priest. Philanthropically, he's made huge contributions. He's had a big impact on the church. And yet he doesn't talk about it. It's the core of who he is, and yet he doesn't feel like it's safe to talk about.

There are two distinct and important points here. One is the idea that Romney -- often derided as missing a core -- does have one, in Mormonism; and the second is that he's afraid to discuss it. It's easy to see his Catch-22, if it's all true.

But does it make sense, philosophically or politically? It's not as if Romney has tried to hide his faith. He's spoken about its importance to him and touted his experiences as a bishop. In December 2007, he delivered a major speech in Houston -- meant to echo John F. Kennedy's famous speech on religion in 1960 -- discussing it. (An interesting footnote: During the 1968 presidential campaign, the Mormon faith of Romney's father George was a minor issue.) As recently as Monday, Romney fielded a pointed question about Mormonism in Wisconsin. And he handled it with aplomb: He was willing to answer specific questions about his own faith, but wisely declined to engage in a dead-end theological debate with an obviously hostile questioner.

Besides, it's hard to see much political benefit. Even as Rick Santorum has talked at length about religion, Romney has easily outpaced him at the polls. Despite dire predictions that evangelicals would never support Romney, they're doing so -- not enthusiastically, perhaps, but it's unlikely that discussing his faith more publicly would change that. And any sideline into religion detracts from the sharp new line of attack that Romney is pushing against Barack Obama's governing style.

Unless Gregory feels that Romney ought to be national spokesman for the Latter-day Saints -- almost certainly not what he intended -- it's hard to see what else he should be doing. Kennedy certainly wasn't expected to be a spokesman for Catholicism; on the contrary, the worry was that he would be too controlled by the Vatican. That we're having this discussion shows how much the role of religion has changed in presidential politics, but it doesn't say much about Mitt Romney's path to the White House.

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David A. Graham is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Politics Channel. He previously reported for Newsweek, The Wall Street Journal, and The National.

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