For Charles W. Dunn, dean of the Robertson School of Government at Regent University—a school founded by the Christian conservative Pat Robertson—the problem with Mitt Romney’s religion speech today is that the former Massachusetts Governor sought to place Mormonism under the umbrella of Christendom, where for many evangelical voters, it does not belong.
"To that extent," said Dunn. "I don’t think that he did himself well with this speech."
Instead of extending an olive branch to wary evangelical voters, Dunn said, Romney essentially provoked them by asserting, "I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and the Savior of mankind. My church’s beliefs about Christ may not all be the same as those of other faiths. Each religion has its own unique doctrines and history. These are not bases for criticism but rather a test of our tolerance. Religious tolerance would be a shallow principle indeed if it were reserved only for faiths with which we agree."
"You don’t need to go there," Dunn said. "That is an invitation for people to think about the issue. You want them to think about Mitt Romney."
Dunn added that regardless how good the rest of the speech was—and he and other political and religious observers found much merit in the portions of it which dealt with Romney’s political independence from the Mormon church—it nevertheless contained what he called an "Achilles heel."
"There’s a serious dichotomy there," Dunn said. "A serious-minded evangelical Christian does not look upon Mormons in the same light as they do Baptists or Charismatics or a Pentecostals. I felt that he made a mistake."
Dunn said the speech was very different from John F. Kennedy’s address to Southern Baptists in Houston, where "he did not try to say ‘as a Catholic I am like you.’ With Mitt Romney, he tried to say too much ‘I am like you.’"
Dunn, who is not supporting any candidate, said that when Romney delivered the University’s commencement address in May, he spoke to members of the candidate’s staff and told them ‘I don’t think it is wise to bring Mormonism in as part of the Christian faith. You have other common bonds that can help build a pretty good bridge, but to try to say and that you are Christian isn’t one of them."
He said that until a few decades ago, Mormons self-identified not as Christians, but as Mormons. He added that rock-ribbed evangelicals continued to view them outside of the Christian mainstream
"Some would say Mormonism is a cult, others would say that it is just another religious faith. It depends on how heated the conversation is," Dunn said.
Dunn said Romney’s speech potentially weakens him politically.
"Romney has a lot going for him," he said. "But by doing this he makes Huckabee look better. Huckabee can clearly present himself as someone whose faith defines him."