When Mitt Romney spoke at the Bush presidential library at Texas A&M, he did so standing on a razor’s edge that cuts in two directions. On the one hand, his Mormon faith is a substantial obstacle to his candidacy for the Republican nomination for president. In his speech, Romney presented his Mormon faith as another version of Christianity, but that view is contested to say the least. Evangelicals make up a large part of the party’s base as do Catholics. For both groups, Mormonism is a heresy. On the other hand, without the uniqueness of his Mormon faith and its reputation for conservatism, one wonders whether the one term governor of a liberal northeastern state would have earned as much press and attention as he has. One way or another, Mormonism matters. Yesterday, Governor Romney addressed that fact.
When Rudy Giuliani spoke at Houston Baptist University earlier this year, we already had our JFK moment of the presidential cycle, or rather an attempted JFK moment. The problem was that the analogy was inexact. Conservative Protestants in the sixties wanted to hear Kennedy say he wouldn’t listen to the pope. As my former professor Francis Beckwith has pointed out, the same group today would rather have heard Giuliani say he would listen to the pope, at least with regard to abortion!
Romney’s speech in College Station was a better parallel. Everyone wanted to know just how Mormon he is and what it means to his politics. On the whole, Romney’s speech was just about as good as it possibly could have been. It lacked the dramatic flair of Hilaire Belloc explaining that he prayed his rosary every day and that if people wouldn’t vote for him for Parliament on that basis he’d rather be spared the indignity of representing them, but it was good.
The pedestrian part of the speech was when Romney said what everyone expected him to say. In short and paraphrased, “I am not now, nor will I ever be under the control of the hierarchy in Salt Lake. They control the church, but they don’t control me.” That is just what Kennedy said about the pope back in 1960. It was expected. Whether it is good theology in his church is beyond my competency to answer. Whether he helped himself with religious voters by distancing himself from his religion is questionable.
In the rest of the speech, however, Romney was nearly perfect.
While one might quibble with the way Romney presented the founding of the Republic and what it did or didn’t settle about religious liberty and established churches, he did an outstanding job of framing the overall discussion.
Right off, Romney reminded his audience that the United States has traditionally been a nation that recognizes freedom must be paired with religion and morality if it is to persevere in political society. This simple reiteration of the founding bargain between Enlightenment deists and Great Awakening evangelicals is an important message for a Republican electorate divided over the nexus of religion, morality, and politics. Libertarians need to hear it. So do secularists. When the governor embraced that point of view, he put himself squarely in the conservative camp, not only with religious conservatives, but with traditionalist Burkeans, too.
Though his faith has some unique features (so unique that thinking of it as “Christianity, but different” is a big stretch), he planted his flag on American values such as freedom, democracy, human rights, religious liberty, and limited government. He was right to do so. It is perhaps imperfectly understood that Mormonism is an American religion with a major preference for American values. It is the only major faith to be born in the United States. Mormonism is as American as jazz music! Missionaries spread their faith and its unique doctrines, but they also spread pro-Americanism. One would be hard pressed to find Mormons abroad who hate America. There is a long tradition of American Christians thinking of this land as the new Israel. For Mormons, American soil is the holy land.
Finally, Romney correctly recognized that while the church must always seek to encourage the state, to critique the state, to urge the state toward justice, it must never be part of the state. When the church is part of the state, it either becomes a useless Department of God, as is the case of European established churches, or it becomes a dangerous theocracy of the sort we find in many Muslim lands. The American model continues to serve both church and state well. Institutional separation has made the church far more influential than anyone might have expected.
Overall, the speech showed tremendous sophistication with regard to religion and politics. What the governor achieved with this speech, more so than he has been able to do so far, is to demonstrate very vividly that while his religious doctrines may vary dramatically from those of many Americans, the political values that flow from his faith are American values which religious conservatives in his own party share.