It finally happened. Presidential hopeful Mitt Romney delivered his “religion speech” last Thursday, and by all accounts, it was a success. Of course, the lasting results of his message remain to be seen. But it’s done. It happened. Time to move-on.
I’ve got lots more to say about the fact that Romney was compelled to deliver this speech, even against the better judgment of some of his advisors. But before I go further, let me make something very clear: I am not endorsing, nor opposing Romney’s presidential bid. I have been watching Romney fairly closely since he became governor of Massachusetts in early 2003, and I find him to be an impressive leader. But if there was a primary election in my home state of Arizona tomorrow, I honestly don’t know who I’d vote for, and I am certainly not writing today as a partisan Romney supporter.
That said, I am intrigued, and troubled, that Romney felt that he “needed” to do this.
Let’s start by considering Romney’s apparent intent with the speech. For this, it’s best to review this official statement by Romney spokesman Kevin Madden, issued just prior to Thursday: “This speech is an opportunity for Governor Romney to share his views on religious liberty, the grand tradition religious tolerance has played in the progress of our nation and how the governor’s own faith would inform his presidency if he were elected.”
Okay, fair enough. The “grand tradition” that “religious tolerance has played in the progress of our nation” is something we should all revisit from time to time. By why must Romney be the candidate that is stuck with this task?
The reason is simple: there has been a growing drumbeat over the past few months from pundits, supporters and would-be supporters, saying that Romney needed to speak publicly about his Mormon faith. Many have made the comparison between what they have believed that Romney needed to do, and what John F. Kennedy did do during his presidential campaign in 1960, when he addressed our nation about his Catholicism. In short, Romney is being singled-outl, simply because he's a Mormon, and he's making the best of it that he can.
Earlier in the campaign cycle, when questions would arise about his Mormonism, Romney seemed to make a practice of saying, essentially, “I’m not here to talk about my church or my faith, I’m here to talk about our country and about being president.” That seemed to work for a while. But eventually his polling numbers began to stall, particularly in certain sections of the southern U.S. At that point, Romney seemed to adopt an “I’m just like you” approach with religious conservative audiences, making references to himself as being “born again.” And this made matters worse, especially with conservative evangelicals.
And let’s keep in mind that, while all this has been unfolding with Romney, former Baptist minister and Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee has emerged from relative obscurity, to being tied with Romney in the all-important primary state of Iowa. Despite the fact that Romney is objectively a more well-funded and more viable candidate, and by most accounts is a more “truly conservative” Republican, the Baptist credentials seem to trump political philosophy and public policy - - especially when compared to those of a “Mormon.”
And this gets to why I find the entire scenario troubling: I simply do not believe that, in this instance, the theological views of the current crop of presidential candidates should matter in how they are viewed as a prospective president.
Don’t get me wrong: I understand very well that the theological divide between the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and historic Protestant and Catholic Christianity is significant. This is one of the reasons why the Romney/Kennedy analogy makes no sense - - it’s a lot easier to connect Catholicism and, say, Evangelicalism, than it is to connect Mormonism with either of the other two.
But Romney is not campaigning to be our nation’s theologian-in-chief. And personally, I don’t look to a President or a would-be President for theological wisdom, anyway. I do, however, look for a would-be President to possess leadership capabilities, a solid grasp of the constitutional duties entailed in the presidency, and a well-defined moral compass. And Romney seems to possess all of these, in good measure.
But despite all the furor over Romney, he’s not the problem. The real problem is that far too many Americans apparently don’t grasp that “values” can transcend theological belief systems, and that some values are universal.
Thus is the case with Romney and me. I don’t embrace his theology, and I never will. But his values, so far as I can know them, seem to be consistent with mine, and I would not be uncomfortable in the least to call him President.
As our nation continues to become more culturally and religiously pluralistic, Americans will increasingly be required to think more critically, and more rationally, with respect to these kinds of “faith and values” dilemmas.
In the meantime, Governor Romney is doing the best he can in an awkward situation, a situation brought about by other people’s short-sidedness.