Romney’s Speech Doesn’t Put the Religion Question to Rest

The remarkable thing about Mitt Romney’s speech yesterday, an aspect that was overlooked in much of the (mostly positive) coverage of it, is that it went well beyond the Kennedy-esque assertion of independence from church influence and the sentiment that churches should likewise be free from government pressure.

Three keen religious observers I talked to (here and here), each of whom comes from a distinctly different Christian perspective, pointed to that fact as evidence that Romney may just have made the issue of his Mormon faith in the campaign yet more complicated. The consensus seemed to be that Romney actually opened the door to theological judgments about his candidacy by seeking to characterize his beliefs as consistent with those traditionally held by Christians.

Here’s the passage in question:

”There is one fundamental question about which I often am asked. What do I believe about Jesus Christ? 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.

“There are some who would have a presidential candidate describe and explain his church’s distinctive doctrines. To do so would enable the very religious test the founders prohibited in the Constitution. No candidate should become the spokesman for his faith. For if he becomes President he will need the prayers of the people of all faiths.”

Romney, essentially, explains to the evangelical audience to whom the speech seemed to be addressed only the portion of his faith they’d find most amenable. In the next breath he adds that the theological differences (which, it should be noted, remain unsaid) should not be criticized, but should instead be tolerated. He then says, preemptively, that he should not be asked to articulate those differences because no candidate should be a spokesman for his faith. The problem is that Romney, just a few sentences earlier, does indeed attempt to explain Mormonism. (“I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and the Savior of mankind”). And while his definition is reductive, boiling down his faith to a belief in Christ that excludes all the parts that distinguish it from more traditional Christian faiths, it nevertheless actually invites comparisons and examinations of the Mormon faith.

That is, of course, exactly the opposite of what the speech was designed to do and it a far cry from Kennedy’s words in Houston nearly 50 years ago:

“So it is apparently necessary for me to state once again–not what kind of church I believe in, for that should be important only to me–but what kind of America I believe in.

“I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute–where no Catholic prelate would tell the President (should he be Catholic) how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishoners for whom to vote–where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference–and where no man is denied public office merely because his religion differs from the President who might appoint him or the people who might elect him.”

Romney, the observers say, did well to echo Kennedy in his 1960 declaration of religious independence, and for that matter did well to recall the nation’s religious roots, but by discussing, even briefly – and incompletely – the tenets of his faith, and pointing out how much they had in common with the evangelical voters he needs to court, he undercut the larger argument that his beliefs shouldn’t be a matter of concern for religious-minded voters.

Connie Mackey, the senior vice president of the evangelical group the Family Research Council, told me, “There are people who feel that particular part, where he touched on the particulars of Mormonism, it might have been better without it. I have heard that opinion.”

Romney’s Speech Doesn’t Put the Religion Question to Rest