Getting Religion

Mitt Romney’s big speech on his faith.

Mitt Romney. Click image to expand.
Mitt Romney

Whether Mitt Romney needs to give a big speech on his Mormon faith has been a question facing his campaign for more than a year. His wife and children have pushed him to do it, arguing that he needs to dispel myths and explain the role his religion would play in his presidential decisions. Better to make one cogent statement than to give out his views in dribs and drabs—in radio interviews and in the last GOP debate, when Romney gave an underwhelming answer to a question about whether the Bible should be read literally.

Aides who have argued against giving the speech say it will bog him down in the “Mormon issue” for the next few crucial weeks. The debate got so intense inside the campaign and speculation so rife outside it that one aide suggested that Romney had simply said, “Enough.” He had to give the speech to stop all the chatter. And then also, there is Mike Huckabee’s current tie with Romney in the Iowa polls, where the Arkansas governor has risen because of the support of evangelical Christians, some of whom believe Mormonism runs counter to their beliefs.

One way to make the pitch would be to speak about Jesus, which Romney has done privately in meetings with religious leaders over the last two years. “Mormons often say they are more into Jesus than regular Christians are,” says Stephen Prothero, author of The American Jesus, speaking at the Pew Conference on Religion, Politics, and Public Life. “The best answer to the accusation that they are not Christian is that they are crazy for Jesus.”

But this approach has a downside, because to skeptical evangelicals, any talk of Jesus will sound like theological pandering. “Tell him not to say that Jesus Christ is his lord and savior,” one religious leader told Mark DeMoss, president of a Christian public-relations firm promoting Romney in the Christian community.

In the end, Romney wrote his Big Mormon Speech with very little input. It is likely to be mostly about his strong belief in religious tolerance and liberty. He will argue that those who have strong religious beliefs should not be pushed out of the public square. He will be passionate and emphatic not so much about his personal relationship with religion or Jesus, but about his belief that he should be judged by his values and record.

Will the pitch work politically? It’s a long shot. There are better ways to go after Mike Huckabee: Romney is not going to out-God a Baptist minister. He could do more damage by spending the days on which he’ll now be answering for his religion on blasting Huckabee’s tax and immigration record. The speech also raises expectations for Romney’s performance in Iowa, because it is the biggest dramatic moment he can create to change the political dynamic. By investing in this way, he makes a possible caucus loss to Huckabee all the more dramatic.

If Romney skirts specific doctrinal questions, he’ll get himself out of talking about “reformed” Egyptian hieroglyphics and explaining his view on the afterlife—but also limit his chance to win over voters who want to know about just those things. Vague is bad for Romney: It can make him look calculating and insincere, which is already the rap against him. That’s what tripped him up when he talked about the Bible in the debate. He seemed to be dancing around an issue that evangelicals think should be in his heart. Elites mocked George Bush when he said in a debate that his favorite philosopher was Jesus, but to evangelical voters, the quick answer from Bush’s gut showed he was really one of them.

The best political outcome after the Romney speech is that by giving the long-anticipated and much-discussed address, he’ll change the current dynamic of news coverage, which is about Huckabee’s rise. Even if Romney can’t address the specific concerns of some evangelicals, he may very well look presidential to other voters as he takes on the weighty topic under the full glare of a media spotlight. If he feels a little irritated that he’s being put to a religious test the other candidates aren’t, addressing that issue forcefully will likely come across as principled and authentic. That’s the side Romney has trouble displaying to all audiences. In the end, his best hope is that he’ll display it when addressing the issue he’s been most reluctant to talk about.