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Mitt Romney's call for tolerance praised, but will it appeal to a traditionally intolerant group?

Mitt Romney
REUTERS/Jessica Rinaldi
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, speaking at the George Bush Presidential Library in College Station,Texas, on Thursday, defended his Mormon values while trying to appeal to Christian evangelicals.

 

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney did a curious thing on Thursday. He gave a speech in which he appealed to Christian evangelicals for tolerance of his Mormon beliefs when, in fact, a good portion of evangelicals define themselves by their intolerance of other religious views, including most certainly the details of Mormon theology.

Maybe that's why Romney didn't go into the details, didn't mention "my Mormon faith" by name more than once, didn't disguise his attempt to pattern his speech after John F. Kennedy's memorable — and successful — attempt 47 years ago to reassure non-Catholic voters that, as president, he wouldn't be taking orders from Rome.

"When I place my hand on the Bible and take the oath of office, that oath becomes my highest promise to God," Romney said, meaning that his oath would be above all else to defend the rule of law and the Constitution.

He interprets those basic foundations of American democracy the same way that Christian evangelicals do, he explained. Freedom is a gift from God, he said, not "an indulgence of government." Even if the tenets of his faith differ, he said, its values are broadly held and identical to those of conservative Christian believers.

"Perhaps the most important question to ask a person of faith who seeks a political office, is this: Does he share these American values – the equality of human kind, the obligation to serve one another and a steadfast commitment to liberty? They are not unique to any one denomination," Romney said, attempting to cast the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints as just another Christian segment, as part of the "firm ground on which Americans of different faiths meet and stand as a nation."

As recently as a few weeks ago, Romney dismissed the notion of having to make such a speech. After all, there's something distasteful, in a country that cherishes religious freedom, about being forced to define your specific views about God and Jesus as a test for holding political office. But polls show Romney losing ground in Iowa to Mike Huckabee, a former Arkansas governor and an ordained Southern Baptist minister who seems better suited to the evangelicals who control Iowa's Republican Party — and who carry considerable weight in the national party as well.

Few commentators found fault with Romney's eloquence before a selected audience in College Station, Texas, on Thursday. "The best political speech of the year," said National Review's Mona Charen.

But overall, the reaction was mixed.

First, he's not Mormon enough
The problem many conservative Christians have with Romney isn't his Mormonism, but that he isn't Mormon enough, meaning he's not steadfastly conservative, David Nasaw wrote for the British newspaper, The Guardian.

Indeed, his shifting views on abortion, gay rights and other social topics seem to them evidence that Romney is a believer "of convenience" not of conviction. As governor of Massachusetts Romney came across as insufficiently religious, at least in their terms.

Other commentators pointed out important differences between the Romney and Kennedy speeches and the context in which they were delivered.

Mormon beliefs are probably less widely known in 2007 than Catholic views were in 1960, meaning that Romney may have a tougher case to make. Unlike in 1960, many religious voters now expect an explicit "confession of faith" from candidates. "Romney felt compelled for some reason to define his personal views of Jesus Christ," Ted Sorensen, Kennedy's speech writer, told CNN.

"Kennedy said his personal views of religion were totally his business and not the business of the American people."

Another difference comes in their basic views of religion in public life. Kennedy said he believed in an America "where separation of church and state is absolute." Romney said that the two forces are intertwined and that religion is fundamental to the nation's identity. "Our greatness would not long endure without judges who respect the foundation of faith upon which our Constitution rests," he said. "I will take care to separate the affairs of government from any religion, but I will not separate us from 'the God who gave us liberty.' ''

The notion that God is responsible for granting America's political freedom is foreign to many Catholics, liberal Protestants and other believers, and is obviously troubling to secular Americans. Indeed, Romney seemed to leave no room in his version of America for secular views, said Jon Meacham of Newsweek magazine, who wrote the book "American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers and the Making of a Nation." Appearing on PBS' News Hour, Meacham said, "I would have argued that he needed to explain a bit more clearly that religion is one force among many in the American experience and that what Thomas Jefferson and James Madison were doing was trying to create a world in which religion could be like commerce, like partisanship, like geography, a force in the republic that would be subject to checks and balances and would be something that, instead of trying to drive it out of politics — which can never be done — or letting it dominate politics — which it should not do — [would be put] on a level playing field with other considerations."

Romney seemed to overlook secularism's important role in the American tradition, Meacham said. "There are many, many moral people who are not religious, in the same way there are many religious people who are immoral," he said.

Romney's views place him in an awkward position, especially evangelical voters, some commentators said. Adam Christing, producer/director of the film "Mormon President," said Romney is caught in a Catch-22. If he holds his beliefs too close to the vest they won't trust him; if he's too open about the specifics of Mormon faith they'll be alienated.

Then again, maybe he's too Mormon
"To evangelicals in particular, some of the tenets of Mormonism are troubling," said Randall Ballmer, a professor of American religious history at Columbia University.

"The Mormon notion of God as both male and female, baptism for the dead and even the practice of wearing Mormon underwear (thought by many to have protective powers) strike many evangelicals as unorthodox, if not downright bizarre. Most crucial, however is the doctrine of revelation. Mormons accept the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament as divinely inspired, but they believe that the Book of Mormon, discovered by Joseph Smith in Palmyra, N.Y., in 1827, is similarly inspired. ... Evangelicals, on the other hand, have an almost talismanic view of the Bible which they often refer to as "the word of God" and which provides their sole religious authority. For another religious group to 'tamper' with the canon of scripture – much less add to it at any time – strikes most evangelicals as utter blasphemy."

Check out this BBC website if you want to hear a specific evangelical critique of Mormon faith.

Meanwhile, across the pond, Romney's speech drew head shakes and chuckles about America's religiosity. Former Prime Minister Tony Blair, whose investigation of Catholicism has made headlines in Britain, told the BBC: "If you are in the American political system you can talk about religious faith and people say, 'Yes, that's fair enough,' and it is something they respond to quite naturally. You talk about it in our system and, frankly, people do think you're a nutter."

Steve Berg, a former Washington Bureau reporter, national correspondent and editorial writer for the Star Tribune, reports on urban design, transportation and national politics. He can be reached at sberg [at] minnpost [dot] com.

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Comments (1)

According to this article, "Romney seemed to overlook secularism's important role in the American tradition, [Jon] Meacham said." In fact, he did much more than that; he flat out stated that those who believe that "religion is seen as merely a private affair with no place in public life... are wrong."

Furthermore, Romney used the tried and true code words of those pandering to the religious right. He said, "Our greatness would not long endure without judges who respect the foundation of faith upon which our Constitution rests." This was not merely a break with the tenets of Kennedy's speech, as this article would have us believe, but also a statement about the ideology of judges he would appoint should he be elected president.

I have a very difficult time finding any "eloquence" in a speech supposedly about religious tolerance in which certain points of view are anointed as wrong. Pandering to the fanatic right is nothing new, and Romney plays the game as good as any. Thus, perhaps it is "distasteful" that Romney felt he needed to give such a speech. Nevertheless, Romney covets the vote of the fanatic religious right, people who define themselves and interpret the world through their religious beliefs. If he feels he is forced to defend his religious beliefs, then so be it. That is the bed he chose to lie in.

Furthermore, Romney's failure to utter the words Mormon or Mormonism strike me as cowardly and extremely un-eloquent.