Mitt Romney on faith in politics: Believers are best

His speech on faith sought to dampen concerns about his Mormonism, but it failed a larger test: Can he lead us from the wreckage of the Bush years?
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Mitt Romney (Romney campaign)

His speech on faith sought to dampen concerns about his Mormonism, but it failed a larger test: Can he lead us from the wreckage of the Bush years?

Mitt Romney's speech on religion this week sought to ease concerns with Evangelical Christians about electing a Mormon as president. The speech was hugely important as Romney sought to regain ground lost to Mike Huckabee, a former Arkansas governor and former Baptist pastor. Since I'm not in his target audience, I can't measure whether Romney's speech helped or hurt. I'd guess it hurt because Romney hardly dealt with his particular faith, supposedly the source of unease for evangelicals. He used the word "Mormon" just once in his 20 minute speech at College Station, Texas. Instead, Romney employed the same tactic used nearly 50 years ago by John Kennedy, a Roman Catholic candidate for president. Both politicians said that, as president, they would not be taking orders from religious leaders. Both placed their personal beliefs in a long tradition of faith as central to American values. And as far as that goes, they are both right. Religion shaped our history and animates much of the good in our culture. Some critics, such as Andrew Sullivan, complained that Romney's speech raised alarms by putting secularists on the margins and by insisting that faith is a proper criterion for public office. Others said Romney should have squarely addressed concerns about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Rebutting claims that Mormonism is heretical, however, poses a problem. The first rule in politics is, don't repeat the charge. Instead, recast the issue or just change the subject. That's what Romney tried in Texas by framing the issue as a broader question around "our grand tradition of religious tolerance and liberty." Personally, I would have welcomed an introduction to Mormonism. I know little about the church. I'm curious, not hostile. The Majority Leader in the U.S. Senate, Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nevada, is a Mormon. A family who used to live next door to me were Mormon. They were good people. Romney did not open that subject. He talked about freedom and religion. But I think the problem for him is less about his particular faith than his authenticity. It's okay to change your mind about policies, but Romney seems to have changed his mind about deeply-felt issues such as abortion. Romney has never been able to dispel concerns about his convictions; so anything he says on religion is seen as calibrated. Romney's speech is measured against what today is regarded as an effective speech by by JFK in 1960 to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association: "I believe in an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant nor Jewish--where no public official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the Pope, the National Council of Churches or any other ecclesiastical source--where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials--and where religious liberty is so indivisible that an act against one church is treated as an act against all." Romney explicitly recalled that speech and echoed its language: "Almost 50 years ago another candidate from Massachusetts explained that he was an American running for president, not a Catholic running for president. Like him, I am an American running for president. I do not define my candidacy by my religion. A person should not be elected because of his faith nor should he be rejected because of his faith. "Let me assure you that no authorities of my church, or of any other church for that matter, will ever exert influence on presidential decisions. Their authority is theirs, within the province of church affairs, and it ends where the affairs of the nation begin. " Ironically, even today JFK's words come across as much stronger, convincing and genuine on the topic of faith, though we know that Kennedy's personal life was hardly in keeping with Catholic doctrine. Romney, by everything told about him, is Mr. Family Values, with a wife and sons so affluent and wholesome they could pose for a Ralph Lauren photo shoot. Among the presidential candidates, Romney is not alone in talking about faith. Democrats and Republicans are working to reassure voters that they pray and put God at the center of their lives. It seems to be a necessary exercise. Most voters want faith to play a role in affairs of state. Even in secular Seattle, the mayor closes his State of the City speeches by asking God to bless our soggy town. In my mind, the best speech on faith by a presidential candidate came from Sen. Barack Obama, who praised religion as a positive force in American culture and condemned those who would use it as a wedge. "For some time now, there has been plenty of talk among pundits and pollsters that the political divide in this country has fallen sharply along religious lines. Indeed, the single biggest "gap" in party affiliation among white Americans today is not between men and women, or those who reside in so-called Red States and those who reside in Blue, but between those who attend church regularly and those who don't. Conservative leaders have been all too happy to exploit this gap, consistently reminding evangelical Christians that Democrats disrespect their values and dislike their Church, while suggesting to the rest of the country that religious Americans care only about issues like abortion and gay marriage; school prayer and intelligent design. Democrats, for the most part, have taken the bait. At best, we may try to avoid the conversation about religious values altogether, fearful of offending anyone and claiming that - regardless of our personal beliefs - constitutional principles tie our hands. At worst, there are some liberals who dismiss religion in the public square as inherently irrational or intolerant, insisting on a caricature of religious Americans that paints them as fanatical, or thinking that the very word "Christian" describes one's political opponents, not people of faith. Now, such strategies of avoidance may work for progressives when our opponent is Alan Keyes. But over the long haul, I think we make a mistake when we fail to acknowledge the power of faith in people's lives -- in the lives of the American people -- and I think it's time that we join a serious debate about how to reconcile faith with our modern, pluralistic democracy." A few months ago, I listened to a recording Obama's speech and was deeply affected. Obama is trying to bridge the divide between those who embrace faith and those who don't. Just as important, he wants to take back faith as the sole province of the right, where some have used religion as a tool to deny, divide or disenfranchise others, especially gays. Romney's speech doesn't attempt to unite all God's children. Instead he speaks of believers and those who don't. He says that "any believer in religious freedom, any person who has knelt in prayer to the Almighty, has a friend and ally in me." From that, you get a sense he's drawing a circle of believers and putting inside practicing Mormons along with Jews, Catholics and Muslims. That excludes millions of others in America who don't practice any faith. And that may be my biggest disappointment, which puts me in agreement with Sullivan. This speech provides no evidence he's the leader who would take us from the wreckage of the Bush Administration, seven years of division at home and bluster beyond. I'm looking for a leader who finds in his faith qualities needed now, a person who can bring unity at home and renewal abroad, facing threats that are real but recognizing differences among friends, a leader whose notion of faith is expansive and therefore inclusive, who looks, as Lincoln did, to the "better angels of our nature."


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About the Authors & Contributors

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O. Casey Corr

O. Casey Corr is a Seattle native, author and marketing communications consultant.