When Mitt Romney gave his speech on religion in American life Thursday in College Station, Texas, he brought everything but the presidential seal. Introduced by George Herbert Walker Bush, the last popular Republican president, he stood in front of a row of American flags and faced a bank of cameras worthy of a celebrity murder trial. Leading up to the address, his campaign had released pictures of his arduous speechwriting process, exactly as the White House does before the real president gives the State of the Union address.
Candidates rarely get this kind of big moment, and Romney hit his mark in many ways. He’s been criticized throughout the campaign for lacking core beliefs, but this time he stood tall for his religion. “I believe in my Mormon faith and I endeavor to live by it,” he said. “My faith is the faith of my fathers—I will be true to them and to my beliefs. … Americans do not respect believers of convenience. Americans tire of those who would jettison their beliefs, even to gain the world.” It was as if he were trying to throw over all the flip-flopper charges with one big heave.
Romney’s embrace of his Mormonism will get replayed endlessly in the press coverage. To some, it will make him look presidential. To others, it will scream Mormon, Mormon, Mormon. Whether the speech helped to energize Romney’s candidacy and change the political dynamic in Iowa as he hoped, may come down towhether voters in Iowa and South Carolina have a bigger problem with Romney’s authenticity or with his particular brand of religion.
Early in the speech, Romney channeled John F. Kennedy, proclaiming that he does not answer to the Mormon church, just as it doesn’t answer to him. In a departure from Kennedy’s famous pre-election remarks about Catholicism, though, Romney called on God as his witness that he would separate his official role from his private beliefs. “When I place my hand on the Bible and take the oath of office, that oath becomes my highest promise to God,” he said. Kennedy said that if his faith and public role ever came in conflict he would resign, suggesting his religion was paramount. Romney’s very muscular interpretation of the “so help me God” portion of the presidential oath assumes that the state and his beliefs will never be in conflict. Romney declares his public office his new most important promise to God, and presto, faith and presidency are in sync.
Romney mounted a defense of religion in the public square—on his terms, which became clear when he started talking about Jesus. “I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and the Savior of mankind,” he said, but then he quickly closed the door to further questioning about any of his specific beliefs. He argued that Mormonism was merely a different brand of Christianity and that to pick at the differences between Mormons and other faiths was incompatible with America’s history of religious tolerance.
Some evangelicals won’t like this. Why does Romney get to show them some of his doctrinal beliefs while shutting off discussion of the others? He wants credit for saying Jesus was the Son of God but doesn’t want to answer for the other ways many Mormons see Jesus. This is not just a quibble, as Romney seemed to suggest. This is evangelicals’ fundamental question about Mormonism. Christians see Jesus as the literal incarnation of God. (The doctrine of the Trinity states that the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are all God.) Mormons see Jesus as literally the son of a God, but also as a separate God, just as the Holy Spirit is separate. For those who focus on these differences, Romney’s argument that Mormonism belongs within the Christian fold is a shocking theological claim that can’t go unanswered.
When talking about America’s religious heritage, Romney invoked the founders to build a wall around his own religious privacy. He talked about their noble aspirations for tolerance—John Adams made an appearance—and also about the shame that now accrues to those who once applied religious tests and banished American icons like Anne Hutchinson and Roger Williams. The point was that a decision not to vote for Romney because he is Mormon is unconstitutional. And yet Romney seemed to misapply the whole idea. He claimed that for voters to ask questions about his faith runs afoul of the founders’ prohibition against religious tests for office. But the legal prohibition refers to government barring people from becoming a candidate or holding office. It does not bar voters from considering religion as they make their choices.
And for all of his reading of the founders, Romney had none of their concern for nonbelievers. Those with no faith were left out of his pluralistic vision. Even George Bush, the supposed theocratic president, gives a nod to nonbelievers. There probably aren’t going to be a lot of nonbelievers voting in the Republican primaries, but their exclusion left a hole in Romney’s carefully arranged presidential tableau.