“What will Romney say tomorrow?” was the most-talked of topic over lunch on Wednesday with two of my colleagues in the Fourth Estate and a seasoned Washington election-watcher. We were referring, of course, to Mitt Romney and his much-ballyhooed address on religion and politics set for the following day. The consensus of the group at lunch was that the Republican would not specifically deal with his Mormon faith, but discuss, rather, his personal values and the importance of religion in politics.
“So if we want to learn more about what it’s like to be a Mormon, we won’t get it from Romney,” was how one of my luncheon companions put it.
That was spot-on, to use one of Romney’s own favorite expressions. He did state that “I believe in my Mormon faith, and I endeavor to live by it” and “My faith is the faith of my fathers. I will be true to them and to my beliefs.” But he didn’t elaborate on those beliefs. He also went on to profess his belief that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and the Savior of Mankind, that religion has had a major role in the founding of this nation and in its history, and “[w]e should acknowledge the Creator, as did the Founders — in ceremony and word.”
So did Romney gain politically? Many pundits and political operatives I spoke to feel that it did, but that its timing — coming as evangelical conservative Mike Huckabee is surging in Iowa and questions about Romney’s faith mushroom — was a bit off. Better it came before the firestorm over “the Mormon thing,” was the consensus.
Did it help him? “It helped him a lot,” said Don Devine, veteran political operative in Ronald Reagan’s campaigns and a former Reagan Administration official, “The fact that he gave it meant more than the content itself.” Devine went on to say that there was “nothing memorable” in Romney’s remarks but the speech at the George H.W. Bush Presidential Library would help to assuage questions raised about the former Bay State governor and his faith. But, Devine quickly added, “He still has a problem with both and this won’t end the questions.”
Nationally syndicated columnist Kathleen Parker went further than Devine — much further, in fact, by saying that Romney’s address has probably silenced critics and doubters about whether a Latter Day Saint could be President. In Parker’s words, “Romney reintroduced Americans to their better angels with respect to religious liberty and made it impossible for anyone of conscience to coarsen the debate by demaning explanations of personal faith.”
Parker’s views were echoed by Pat Buchanan, who dealt with the inevitable comparisons to John F. Kennedy’s address about Roman Catholicism to the Houston ministers in 1960. Romney’s speech today, wrote Buchanan, “was courageous in a way John F. Kennedy’s speech to the Baptist ministers was not. Kennedy went to Houston to assure the ministers he agreed with them on virtually every issue where they differed with the Catholic agenda and that his faith would not affect any decision he made as President.”
In contrast, concluded Buchanan, “Romney did not truckle” about his faith and in effect concluded: “If this costs me the Presidency. . so be it.”
So far, so good for Mitt Romney. The early reviews are good. But let’s see what happens next.