Romney and Religion

In delivering his long anticipated “Mormon Speech” Thursday, Mitt Romney seemed ill at ease negotiating the treacherous minefields of religion and politics. He succeeded in avoiding a false step that would result in his destruction. But he failed to detonate any of the live explosives that may yet terminate his presidential candidacy.

Romney’s problem is not difficult to diagnose. He never has come close to being a leading rank-and-file choice for president by Republicans. He is simply not popular nationally, and one national pollster (with no personal animus against him) has told me that Romney is not electable. The overriding source of his difficulty is that over 30 percent of all voters say they cannot vote for any Mormon.

The strategic game plan: overcome his religious liability by using his ample bank roll and efficient organization to finish first in the Iowa caucuses Jan. 3 and the New Hampshire primary Jan. 8, and then capitalize on the momentum to sweep the board in subsequent primaries climaxing on Feb. 5. That sidesteps Romney’s Mormon problem. But the danger, recognized inside the Romney campaign, was a popular candidate overtaking him in Iowa and collapsing Romney’s house of cards.

It has happened, with startling speed, within the last two weeks. Mike Huckabee, the former Governor of Arkansas, has come from nowhere to overtake Romney in Iowa. The unusually high percentage of Evangelical Protestants among Iowa Republicans, leery of a Mormon, finally found a candidate they could agree upon. To them it apparently makes no difference that Gov. Romney governed as more of a conservative in Boston than Gov. Huckabee did in Little Rock.

Knowing that a defeat in Iowa would doom him, Romney overruled his advisers who wanted him to publicly address the religious problem only after he had won primary elections and was the de facto nominee for president. But Romney concluded there would be no tomorrow unless he acted and delivered a self-written speech.

It has been compared so often to Sen. John F. Kennedy’s famous 1960 religious speech that it would be useful to list the contrasts between them in order to understand the problems faced by Romney.

#Kennedy was the nominee of his party and by then its most popular personality nationally; Romney is fighting for the nomination, and is well down the party’s pecking order in popularity.

#Kennedy had the sole task of convincing his visitors that he as president would not be taking orders from Rome; hardly anybody worries about Romney being directed by Salt Lake City.

#Kennedy was at best a casual Catholic and was not called on to defend his faith’s doctrine; Romney is a devout Mormon, practicing a religion that is derided as a cult and whose beliefs are under fire.

#Kennedy delivered his speech “in the belly of the beast” to Protestant preachers in Houston whose ranks included anti-Catholic bigots and who were permitted to ask questions; Romney spoke to a tame Republican audience at George H. W. Bush’s presidential library, with no questions asked.

Romney on Thursday faced the possibility of taking two highly lethal courses in dealing with his religious problem.

The first was to defend — and that would mean to explain — Mormon theology. Taking that course would have spelled disaster, and neither the candidate nor his advisers ever considered going down such a murky trail. To “describe and explain” his church’s “distinctive doctrines,” Romney said, “would enable the very religious test the founders prohibited in the Constitution.” That still left people phoning radio talk shows immediately after Romney’s speech to revile his religion.

The second was to deliver a vigorous declaration that there is no religious test for President for the United States. The problem there was that he might be put in the position of implying that anybody who votes against him is a bigot. Romney moved very gingerly into this dangerous territory. Early in his speech, he said: “A person should not be elected because of his faith. Nor should he be rejected because of his faith.” He let it go at that and did not press home that point.

Instead, Romney stressed the similarity between Mormonism — which he designated by name only one time — and other religions: “It is important to recognize that while differences in theology exist between the churches in America, we share a common creed of moral convictions.” As a salient sign of that commonality, he declares, “I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and the Savior of mankind.” That is a close as he got to calling himself a Christian, a self-designation that would have generated an uproarious rebuttal from both Protestant and Catholic theologians.

Romney promised that “no authorities” of his church “will ever exert influence on presidential decisions”– an issue that was much more prominent 47 years ago in fears that Kennedy would be taking direction from the Pope.

The most sustained argument by Romney was that the Constitution was being misinterpreted to drive religion out of the public square. That appealed to religious conservatives without getting entangled in theological dogma.

Even Romney advisers who doubted the wisdom of Thursday’s speech hoped his speech would make their candidate appear presidential after his slugging match with Rudy Giuliani in the last presidential speech. He succeeded there. But he certainly did not perform an exorcism of the demons of religious prejudice who have infiltrated his presidential candidacy.