Time To Talk Mormon, Mitt

Romney needs to get past the faith issue, fast.

Mitt Romney. Click image to expand.
Mitt Romney

Mitt Romney has said that if his Mormon faith becomes an issue in his race for the presidency, he will address it at length in a speech. Does he have space on his calendar tomorrow?

The press is writing about his religion. Pollsters are asking about it, and GOP voters inevitably bring it up in any discussion of the 2008 candidates. Will his faith affect how he governs? Will it hurt his chances at winning the nomination? A debate in the blogosphere rages over Andrew Sullivan’s posting of a picture of the undergarment worn by some Mormons, an act that some of the faithful have found offensive.

When they’re talking about your bloomers, it’s time to clear a few things up. It’s not that Romney should come clean about his clean laundry—he should please stay quiet about that—but now is the time to improve on his current approach, which has largely been to make fun of misconceptions about Mormonism. (“Take my wives, please” kinds of jokes.) If he doesn’t define what his religion means to him, others will do it for him—focusing on the most loopy aspects. Constant questions and endless press coverage will get in the way of his larger task of pitching himself as the only “true conservative” in the GOP race.

Romney has also got to move fast to stop the conventional wisdom from calcifying that a Mormon can’t get elected in the GOP. Romney’s faith is of particular concern to evangelical voters who make up the GOP’s key voting bloc—some of whom believe Romney belongs to a cult. Conservative columnist Robert Novak has said  it will be the issue that keeps Romney from winning the nomination. A recent Rasmussen poll finds that 43 percent of respondents say they will never vote for a Mormon, and 51 percent of evangelicals say that.

Romney’s pitch to evangelicals is to focus on their shared values: He’s pro-life, supports traditional marriage, and opposes federal funding of stem-cell research. Social conservatives who really care about those issues are highly reluctant to trust John McCain and might overcome their doctrinal qualms and support Romney. Other candidates, such as Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback or Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, might be more theologically appealing, but Romney and his aides will make the case that they are unelectable.

Some evangelicals argue the question of Romney’s Mormonism is being overblown. But Romney and his advisers in the evangelical community are smart enough to know that it has to be addressed aggressively. The governor has been hard at work pitching this message behind the scenes, particularly in South Carolina, the site of a crucial early GOP primary and where he has made a programmatic effort to court local religious leaders. He has held nine meetings with leaders of Pentecostal, Charismatic, and Southern Baptist congregations. In those meetings, according to one person involved in the campaign, Romney has been asked whether he believes in Jesus Christ and his resurrection (yes) and whether the Mormon church will rule his decision-making (no).

In meetings with regular voters, the questions have been comical. In May, at a meeting with the Christian Alliance in Iowa, Romney was asked if his faith’s prohibition against drinking alcohol would keep him from supporting ethanol, the gasoline substitute produced from corn, a key state crop. “I don’t put it in my body,” he said, “but I will put it in my car.”

In October, Romney hosted more than a dozen evangelical leaders in his living room for a lunch of soup and sandwiches. The group included Franklin Graham, Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission * and perhaps the most influential religious lobbyist in the country, and former GOP presidential candidate Gary Bauer. The discussion of his Mormon faith passed quickly. Instead, the group focused on issues such as foreign policy, abortion, gay marriage, and judges. Jerry Falwell told Romney that 10 years ago he would have cared where a candidate went to church, but now he cares what the candidate believes.

Address the Mormon issue, and move on: That’s what the Romney camp hopes will happen when he gives his public speech. But talking about these issues in public will be tricky. First, it’s one thing to answer questions about Christ. It’s another to proclaim your faith in him at length and in public, if you consider your faith a largely private matter. Plus, Romney will have to say enough to inform the confused and comfort the fearful, but not so much that he has to answer doctrinal questions for the rest of his candidacy about exaltation and undergarment.

Romney and his advisers compare the speech he will give to John Kennedy’s appearance before the Houston Ministerial Association in which he addressed concerns about his Catholicism by talking about “an America where the separation of church and state is absolute.” Romney can’t say exactly that, since many of the supporters he’s courting think the doctrine of separation of church and state is not enshrined in the Constitution and has been used by liberals to take religion out of public life. Plus, he’s not asking that his faith not be an issue. He wants it to be an issue. He’s running on it, but he wants to be the one to draw the line marking where his faith ends.

The best intellectual argument Romney could use isn’t available to him, which is that all religions have their odd traditions and beliefs that look highly quirky under close examination. Romney could use my Catholic Church as an example, but in doing so, he’d risk alienating another key constituency. Imagine what fun he could have had with the Charismatics, some of whom speak in tongues or drink snake venom.

Romney’s aides say he won’t be able to give the speech until he formally announces that he’s running for president. That won’t happen until early next year, because, among other things, the governor wants to spend Christmas with his family one last time before the insanity of a full campaign begins. It’s apparently a big religious holiday in his tradition.

* Correction, Nov. 30, 2006: This piece originally stated that Richard Land is president of the Southern Baptist Convention. He is president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. (Return  to the corrected sentence.)