Mitt Romney gave his long-anticipated speech about religion, which he called “Faith in America.”
The purported purpose of the address was for the Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts governor to dispel festering doubts about himself because of his Mormon faith.
Unfortunately, I believe it was a failed performance.
I think that Romney and his team overestimated the extent to which his Mormonism has been what is troubling his candidacy and underestimated the extent to which his credibility has been the real problem.
Despite outspending all the other candidates, the Romney candidacy hasn’t ignited.
By contrast, former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani has maintained his lead in national polls, despite a background of three marriages, estranged children, pictures of himself in drag, open support for gays, open support for abortion, having endorsed a Democratic candidate for governor of New York, and support for gun control.
But Giuliani has not been running as a traditional conservative candidate. Romney has.
What dogs Romney is a sense that he is not being honest about who he is.
In an election such as this, where voters clearly are concerned about honesty and transparency, candidates who do not score well in these areas are paying a price.
In Romney’s case, that price reflects his credibility challenge in convincing religious conservatives that his changed positions on abortion and gays are for real.
It’s not news that Romney ran two political campaigns, one for the Senate in 1994 and one for Massachusetts governor in 2002, in which he campaigned openly and clearly as pro-Roe v. Wade and pro-abortion rights. Suddenly, in 2004, as a result of some kind of epiphany tied to embryos and stem-cell research, he opposed abortion.
Similarly regarding gay rights, Romney has a paper trail expressing support that strains the credibility of his current stance in support of traditional values and family.
Given persistent doubts about the sincerity of Romney’s stands on these two issues, both of central concern to religious conservatives, it is astonishing that he would make a major speech about his views on religion and faith in America and not mention either.
Yes, he clarified, regarding his Mormon faith, that “no authorities of my church” would influence his presidential decisions. But this tells us who he is not. We need to know who he is.
And here Romney left us with platitudes about religion in America with which few of any stripe would disagree.
Despite his assurance that his commitment to religious liberty does not mean that he sees no place for religion in public life, he ducked the hard questions about what this means.
The boldest he could get was to say we should continue to acknowledge the Creator on “our currency, in our pledge, in the teaching of our history,” and in public displays during holidays.
But despite noting family breakdown as one of the challenges of our generation, he never mentioned the importance of the preservation of the traditional family, never mentioned abortion and never mentioned his personal concern about either.
It feeds the doubts about Romney in that, in my experience, those who have had a change of heart about abortion are among the most passionate and committed. It certainly is my personal experience, and what I have seen in the work I do with crisis pregnancy centers around the country.
But Romney didn’t give a hint that this is something that keeps him up at night.
Comparisons have been made with John Kennedy’s speech during his 1960 presidential campaign in which he addressed concerns about his Roman Catholic religion.
Romney could have clearly contrasted himself with Kennedy, who made a point to say that religion did not belong in public life and decried the fact that questions about religion were diverting attention from the “real issues” of the campaign.
And he might have pointed out that the Kennedy presidency marked the beginning of a great cultural decline in America. Just one point of comparison: In the early 1960s, 3 percent of white babies were born to unwed mothers, compared with almost 30 percent today, and 24 percent of black babies were born to unwed mothers, compared with 70 percent today.
Romney’s observation that “freedom requires religion just as religion requires freedom” and that “freedom and religion endure together or perish alone” was not something I would expect to hear from someone of deep faith.
Religion endures any circumstance. Faith exists independent of freedom. It survives the darkest, dankest prison cell. But freedom allows it to flourish.
I think Romney, with this speech, confirmed rather than dispelled the doubts about his faith and conservatism that have troubled his campaign. If the point was to fix his credentials as a bona fide conservative leader, he failed.