Private Lives in Politics: How Far is Too Far?

As the Republican primary race drags on into the Fall, the issues that will shape both the primaries and the general election in 2012 become clearer by the day.  The economy, jobs, taxes and foreign policy are all buzz words that have been central to every election in the past five years, but along with analysis of the issues, comes analysis of the candidates as individuals.  Is a candidate a father, mother, fat, thin, tan, rich, Catholic, Mormon, or Muslim?  And those are only the adjectives used to describe the candidates themselves; as the race heats up the focus also turns to the wives, husbands, and children of the chosen few.

The private lives and beliefs of candidates are torn to shreds over the course of the year-plus primary and general election season, examined in every way possible and linked, however implausibly, to what one will do once he or she actually assumes office.  Certainly, the way in which the media dissects every minute detail of a candidate’s life will prepare them for the onslaught of media scrutiny that comes with taking any public office. Yet how being bombarded by sensational information is beneficial to anyone, either candidates or voters, is questionable.  Does it really matter if we have a Mormon president?  Or a Muslim president born outside of the United States to that point?  Whether a candidate has two or 28 children is probably not the strongest indicator of what kind of leader they might be, but yet we continue to delve into the backgrounds of the candidates, admittedly egged on by their own campaigns at certain points.

The question of faith has been particularly contentious in the past few years, aided partly by the fallacy that President Obama is Muslim, and further fueled by the fact that two of the current GOP candidates are Latter-day Saints, colloquially known as Mormon, a religion largely unfamiliar to the majority of the US population.  While faith is an important part of many Americans’ identities, it is also a personal issue many do not discuss publicly.  If Mitt Romney or Jon Huntsman does not want to talk about his religion, they should not be coerced into doing so by a curious public and a press hungry for a new story angle.  For no matter how good of a story it may be, it is unlikely that a Presidential candidate’s faith will ever influence the American public as much as the public and the media think it might.

I concede that of course opinions on some issues can be based in one’s faith – the obvious ones that come to mind are abortion and gay rights. But even Presidents have their limitations, which is both the beauty and downfall of the American system of checks-and-balances.  While President George W. Bush may not have repealed ‘Don’t Ask Don’t Tell’ during his time in office, he also was not able to pass amendments defining marriage as between a man and women, or banning abortions, both of which were platforms that he ran on in 2004. No matter how devout a President or Member of Congress may be, they will always be kept in check by the other 535 nationally elected officials. In the case of someone such as Mitt Romney, it could be argued that if elected President, he would consciously act to make sure his faith did not influence decisions made in the oval office, for fear of the backlash that might occur.

As the Republican field narrows and candidates are forced to both reveal more about themselves and simultaneously find things to criticize about their opponents, faith, among many other lifestyle details, is a topic unlikely to disappear.  But endlessly agonizing over a candidate’s faith and the decisions it may or may not influence, will only send voters into a tizzy, leaving them to forget the more pertinent issues at hand.  We may never again see a day when Presidential candidates are not scrutinized on a myriad of intimate choices, so in the meantime, it is up to us to ignore the distractions and judge them on issues that affect policy.

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Roxana Elliott

Roxana is a former student at CCT. She graduated from George Washington University in 2010 with a BA in Psychology, and at CCT studies media and politics, including the effects of celebrity and soft political news on candidates and campaigns. She also loves to cook and travel, and dreams of a life where she is constantly flown to exotic places just to eat delicious meals.