Finally, nearly one year into his campaign for President of the United States, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney decided to acknowledge the elephant in the room. Nevertheless, by the time he was done with his highly anticipated speech on religion, the word "elephant", so to speak, had passed his lips exactly once. In his famous address to the Houston Baptists in 1960, John F. Kennedy spoke the word "Catholic" twenty times. By contrast, Romney, in his nationally televised comments yesterday, made only a single specific reference to being a Mormon.
But, hey, who's counting? Well, everyone. This has been, for months now, the issue that dare not speak its name. Instead, it has been discussed privately in living rooms, whispered about in church lobbies, broached in only the most elusive terms by people afraid of being labeled as bigots (and, to be sure, sometimes for good reason). With his polling numbers stagnant, and with Reverend Huckabee breathing down his neck in the crucial states of Iowa and New Hampshire, Mitt Romney reluctantly came to the conclusion that he had to drag the matter of his Mormonism out into the open where he could, at last, be part of the conversation.
In the end, however, he couldn't quite bring himself to do it. The speech he gave in Texas was notable primarily for its bald-faced pandering to the very Christian conservatives who have so far rejected him as an outsider. After paying Kennedyesque lip service to the separation of church and state, Romney made it clear that he rejects the Jeffersonian version of the concept in favor of one that allows significant religious influence over public life. Writing non-believers out of the Constitution entirely, the GOP hopeful went so far as to say that "freedom requires religion". For good measure, he even reached for the old oxymoronic canard about those sinister forces working to impose "the religion of secularism". I may not share your doctrines, he seemed to tell evangelicals, but at least I embrace your prejudices and intolerance.
Still, at least from a political point of view, that was not really the problem with Romney's speech. He is, after all, seeking the Republican nomination for president, and much mileage can be gained in GOP precincts by bashing humanists and dumbing down the Establishment Clause. The real failure of Romney's address at the Bush Library was its failure to take a bold stand in defense of his Mormon faith to an electorate that, in large part, still regards the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints as a cult.
First, I should say that this entire discussion has always struck me as strange and ill-informed. At one point in my life, I lived in an area of the country that was significantly populated by Mormons, and I worked and studied alongside them. They are, most of them, friendly and generous people, the very opposite of bizarre, and the idea that they constitute some sort of dangerous cult is both ignorant and laughable. Those who ridicule Mormon teachings (Joseph Smith and the seer stones, the location of the Garden of Eden in Missouri, etc.) often fail to acknowledge the supernatural moments that dominate every religion's back story. If you can accept that Moses parted the Red Sea, then why can’t someone else, equally grounded in reality, believe that a young man in upstate New York unearthed golden plates containing ancient scripture? That is, in a word, why they call it faith.
Regardless, it makes no difference what I think. Mitt is not seeking my vote, nor is he likely to get it. But he does need to demystify Mormonism to the Middle Americans whose ballots he simply must have if he is to sustain his candidacy beyond the next thirty days. Ultimately, these voters don't want to hear that Romney is a conservative or that he would eagerly dismantle the Wall of Separation brick by brick (presumably to be rebuilt on the Mexican border). They already know that. Instead, they need to hear Romney, in his own words, explain what it means to be a Mormon.
It is not difficult to understand Romney's reluctance in this matter. He does not want to spend the precious hours remaining before the Iowa caucuses fending off questions about the angel Moroni or the status of polygamy. He should understand, however, that these issues are on the table, whether he likes it or not. Here's Wolf Blitzer yesterday on CNN:
"About six million Americans are members of the Mormon Church. Some tenets that are unique to Mormons, they believe that Jesus visited ancient America, that God has a physical body, and that there is no original sin. They also believe in holding proxy baptisms for the dead. The church also teaches that the Garden of Eden was not in the Middle East but in Missouri."
The point, of course, is not that Romney should have mounted a point by point defense of his faith. In his speech, he professed his devotion to Mormonism and rejected those "who would have a presidential candidate describe and explain his church's distinctive doctrines". So far, so good. But Romney could at least have attempted to introduce his religion to people who have never knowingly spoken to a Latter Day Saint, and he could have done so without a single mention of the temple garments (the so-called Mormon underwear). Maybe he could have tried something like this:
"A lot of people have spoken and speculated about my church and its history, things that happened all the way back to the 1800s. All Christian faiths have their stories of wonder and discovery, and Mormonism is no different. But I am here to tell you about my church, the Mormon church of the 21st Century. It is a faith with 13 million believers worldwide and a great diversity of membership. My friend Orrin Hatch, the great conservative senator from Utah, is a member. And so is Harry Reid, the leader of the Senate Democrats. [See, we're not a single-minded cult.].
"Like all Christians, Mormons put family at the center of our lives. One night a week is devoted to something we call Family Home Evening, where fathers, mothers, and their children stay home, turn off the television set, and simply enjoy one another's company. We believe in the sanctity of marriage and the vital importance of traditional marriage to the survival of any healthy society.
"We are a missionary Christian faith, and our young people are expected to spread the good news of Jesus Christ throughout the world. But Mormon missionaries don't just preach to others. We also try our best to lead by example and we take seriously Jesus' command that his followers come to the aid of those in need. In my own missionary experience in France, I [fill in with good deeds done during mission—make them up if you have to]."
And so forth.
Not only would these words—or others like them—have put a human face on the Mormon church, they would also have put one on Mitt Romney himself, a man who seems at times too measured, too aloof. In any event, the opportunity was missed. Romney gave a good speech, at least given his target audience. But it probably wasn't the speech he had to give, the one that would reassure Christian conservatives that he was, more or less, one of them.
Romney may yet survive to win the GOP nomination. Huckabee has little money, Thompson has been ineffective to date, McCain has placed himself on the wrong side of the immigration debate (at least from the right-wing perspective), and Giuliani increasingly reeks of sleaze and corruption. But the former Massachusetts governor had a singular opportunity to make his case before God and George H.W. Bush and he stopped short. We will soon learn whether that decision will come back to haunt him in the new year.