Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, hoping to settle the minds of GOP primary voters about his Mormon faith, stood before an audience comprised predominately (we may presume) of Christian Conservatives and proceeded to defeat himself in the 2008 general election.
In a speech that some conservatives are calling a masterpiece, Romney sounded several excellent notes and a few pleasantly banal ones before he fell perilously out of key.
While hardly Reaganesque, Gov. Romney managed to nicely characterize the positive aspects of many different religions, and to serve up reminders about American tolerance, liberty and basic freedoms that the citizenry have not been treated to since President Bush’s memorable and excellent speech to the joint houses of congress, following the attacks of 9/11. Romney’s “Americans acknowledge that liberty is a gift of God, and not an indulgence of government” could have come out of the pen of Michael Gerson and the mouth of George W. Bush.
Romney inserted a perfunctory assurance that just as John F. Kennedy managed to be faithful to his church without becoming the tool of Rome in the Oval Office, he, Romney, would maintain fidelity to the faith of his fathers while sparing the nation the concerns of Salt Lake City. That was all very nice, but the truth is – in an age where voters are media-and-spin savvy, and where every political move is increasingly examined less for its content than its calculation – Romney probably did very little to appease the suspicions of some. His speech should be looked at as a pre-emptive strike, meant to deflect direct or penetrating questions about what he believes by making the whole matter of a candidate’s religion “off-limits” to the press and the opposition. It is doubtful that his vague generalities will accomplish that, particularly when the press and the Democrats have some time, yet, to introduce suspicion and doubt into the minds of voters
As far back as 2005, blogger Betsy Newmark was sounding the warning bell on Romney’s difficulties:
I have had a vision of what would happen if Romney were the Republican candidate. No one would attack him explicitly on his religion. That would be too crass. Instead, the media would run human interest stories on the history of the Mormon church, warts and all. We’d read again about Joseph Smith getting the word from the Angel Moroni with the Book of Mormon on golden plates. We’d learn about the persecution suffered by the early Mormons and the assassination of Joseph Smith and how Brigham Young led the Mormons across the country to Utah. Vivid stories of the Mountain Meadow Massacre would appear on the History Channel. The history of Mormons and polygamy would be introduced in segments on the evening news as well as the fact that the Mormons allowed black ministers only in 1978 and women in 1984. Newsweek and Time would have cover stories looking at the tenets of the Mormon religion with special attention to baptism of dead ancestors, their lack of belief in the Trinity, their conviction that God has a physical body, and their condemnation of homosexuality.
Newmark was prescient. CNN managed to split-screen Romney so that even as he sought to re-assure voters, those watching were being treated to “red-meat -to-the-Evangelicals” (and fodder-for-the-secularists) informational LDS “church history” sidebars reading,
¬∑ Joseph Smith was killed by a mob in 1844
¬∑ Mormons believe the Book of Mormon is the word of God
¬∑ They accept the Bible as scripture but not as final authority
¬∑ Smith claimed God told him Mormons should have more than one wife
¬∑ For years Mormon Church did not admit blacks to the priesthood
I’m sure that, given time, someone at CNN would have dug up the fact that Mormons – in opposition to Christian scripture – believe that marriages exist in heaven and throughout eternity, and thrown that out there to upset Evangelical Christians. The press knows it need not examine the LDS church too closely until such time as Romney seals the nomination – but CNN’s display came off like a warning shot across a bow. Romney has not taken his religion off the table.
Mitt Romney is an unexciting orator, but he does have an assured manner, so I suspect he did manage to shore up his support among Republicans and religious Democrats in a general way because there was little there to offend any person of faith. Really, the speech was one-part boilerplate, one-part salesmanship and too-many-parts comfortable, “applaud-here” clich√©.
However the speech was not wholly innocuous. If Romney does manage to become the GOP nominee for president, this will follow him around like a Kindergarten report card:
You can be certain of this: any believer in religious freedom, any person who has knelt in prayer to the Almighty, has a friend and ally in me. And so it is for hundreds of millions of our countrymen: we do not insist on a single strain of religion – rather, we welcome our nation’s symphony of faith.
I believe what he meant to say there, was, “we do not insist on a single strain of religion – or indeed the embrasure of any religion at all – we welcome the dance of faith and reason.” Not saying it was a big mistake.
It’s true that the speech was intended for believers, but a presidential candidate must always – even in the earliest moments of his declared candidacy – bear in mind that his every utterance is being heard and measured by a broad swath of humanity, and that he is speaking not to a focus group, or a base, or a troubling voting bloc, but to a whole nation of individuals. And every voter is listening to hear one thing in particular: will you be my president, too, or only theirs?