Damon Linker should have written his book about Mormons and politics.  It might have been equally over-the-top and outlandish in its way, but it would have generated a lot more interest than The Theocons, not least because it ties in directly to presidential politics. 

The cover article got the attention of Chris Matthews, who talks about it with David Gergen:

MATTHEWS:  On another front in the Republican Party, Mitt Romney is about to announce an exploratory committee tomorrow.  And what happens, the “New Republic” runs a front page story on the cover of their magazine about the dangers of a Mormon president.  That is pretty rough stuff.  And I read the long piece.  I don‘t think it does the damage they thought it would, but boy, what a long, exhaustive attack on someone‘s religion.

GERGEN:  Can you imagine if someone who had been—when John Kennedy was running, if the “National Review” opened up the great big package on the cover the dangers of having a Catholic in the White House?  Bill Buckley would never have done that.  Of course, he is Catholic, but nonetheless, that is just so below the belt and so inappropriate. 

MATTHEWS:  Is this the season we‘re entering?

GERGEN:  Well, I hope not because the mormonism issue is there.  It‘s lurking there, but it seems to me it‘s been entirely unfair to have this kind of whisper campaign that says a Mormon can‘t win.  You know, the conservatives believe that Mormons are engaged in witchcraft. 

You know, you hear that buzz out there, and, you know, Mitt Romney may or may not be your choice for candidate.  But he‘s got one heck of a record of accomplishment over a lot of things over time, that deserve to get a lot more attention before we ever turn to the question of whether the Mormonism is right or not.  In a day when we‘re burying Gerry Ford, I mean, I just find this stuff so…

I have had plenty of negative things to say about Linker’s article on Mormonism, but the Matthews/Gergen response is just pitiful, as is the reply from people at TNRHere is David Bell on their Open University page:

Linker’s critics are taking the predictable line that Romney’s religion is a private matter, and that any discussion of it therefore amounts to unacceptable prejudice. Linker is “below the belt,” to quote that concentrated essence of conventional wisdom known as David Gergen.

But most of his critics aren’t saying that, unless by “Linker’s critics” we mean Chris Matthews and David Gergen.  What the critics, including Profs. Fox and Bushman, are saying is that Linker gets extremely carried away with his logical unraveling of what Mormon acceptance of continuing prophecy must mean for their relationship with the government and what their millennarian expectations must mean for their politics.  They are saying that Mormons’ millennial hopes of Christ’s return, regardless of where it takes place, are very much on the back burner of actual Mormons’ concerns.  Prof. Bushman acknowledges how terribly logical Linker is being given the basic premises from which he starts, but finds all of his claims about the potential political dangers of prophecy in Mormonism entirely unfounded in the real world.  The critics insist that Linker needs to pay attention to what real Mormons have done in the public sphere and how LDS leaders have not noticeably interfered in the decisions of their members who serve in public office.  Because he does not do this enough, he gives the impression that there is some chance of political interference from church authorities when there is virtually no chance of it at all.  In this, he is amazingly wrong, and they take him to task for it.  But neither of them at any time says that no one should talk about Romney’s religion or that those who say critical things about it are prejudiced. 

As far as I know, David Gergen, ever the boring voice of the complacent middle that knows no strong conviction (except that all strong convictions are dangerous), is the only person to have suggested that the criticism was inherently inappropriate and unacceptable with the implication that it is an essentially private matter.  It was Chris Matthews, and not anyone who has engaged with the substance of the article, who called it “rough stuff.”  Why rough?  Because it raises questions–questions that thoughtful Mormons do not shy away from, but which seem to unsettle Chris Matthews quite a lot.  This is a silly response.  I think most people, Mormons and non-Mormons alike, agree: if you want to play with the big boys in national politics, you have to be able to hold your own in a fight and not run off in a fit when someone is less than superciliously nice to you, and this includes when they talk about your religion.  This is especially the case when you, the candidate, have decided to make your faith fair game by incorporating it into your campaign. 

Mr. Bell’s focus on Matthews and Gergen allows him to make the debate into one where Linker’s critics are supposedly refusing to engage in the substance of the matter, which results in an automatic pass for Linker’s hyperbolic and unfounded claims.  By holding up Matthews and Gergen as somehow representative of the responses to Linker, which they are not, he makes it seem as if all of Linker’s critics are accusing Linker and TNR of religious bigotry.  “Please make the mean, old David Gergens stop saying bad things about us!” he seems to be crying. 

So far as I can tell, very few critics have made any such accusations, and even fewer have tried to take refuge in the lame argument that “religion is a person’s private business” as Mr. Bell claims.  Perhaps for someone who publicly advocates that religion is purely private and personal, that might be a little more true, but, for any religious conservative or religious liberal who believes that his religion does or should inform public policy in any way, his religion becomes the legitimate subject of scrutiny and inquiry.  Mr. Bell is right when he argues this, but his entire post gives the impression that some band of harsh critics is relentlessly harrassing TNR with charges of prejudice, which is complete nonsense. 

Virtually no one, except maybe David Gergen, is really questioning TNR’s motives in running the piece.  No one questions Linker’s motives.  As he has shown, he is not really prejudiced against any particular religion, but he is against any kind of religion in the political sphere.  I do not assume that the editors there are being any more prejudiced towards Mormons than they would be towards any conservative religious person, for whatever that’s worth.  But Mr. Bell is not being serious when he refers to “Gergen, et al.,” when the only person he is really responding to is Gergen.  He gives the impression of an entire gang of people accusing TNR of religious prejudice, when all he really has to go on is David Gergen being bothered by anything so controversial as a discussion about religion.