There is an old story about a man who was visited in the hospital by his family after he had been in a terrible accident. When they came into his room, they were shocked. He looked like one complete cast from head to toe. He confessed privately to his family that he had not been run over by a truck, but he had talked about faith and politics in the wrong place. We may smile at this story but today’s news demonstrates its reality.
Tom Cruise has rediscovered the problem of mixing faith and politics. This year, German officials refused to allow him to film a movie in their nation because of his Scientology beliefs. In addition, the German government is discussing banning Scientology from Germany altogether. The German movie industry, however, in a unique grassroots initiative, has given Cruise a national award for courage. This story is important because it shows the scrutiny that minority faiths such as Mormonism, Scientology, and others can encounter in the post 9/11 world.
Against this international backdrop, Mitt Romney took the extraordinary step of finally discussing his faith. Many argue that this speech came a year too late to help him in Iowa and South Carolina primaries. Over a year ago, Dr. Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention suggested that the former governor give a Kennedy-like speech to address the issue of Mormonism. Dr. Land went so far as to give him a copy of Kennedy’s 1960 address which many say was the turning point in helping Americans lay aside their questions about JFK’s Catholic background.
As the year slipped by, Romney has run an excellent campaign in terms of strategy, fund raising, and developing regional awareness in important primary states. Yet he and his campaign team have avoided the 800 pound gorilla sitting in the room - America’s opinion about his faith and the Mormon church. It may have looked as though Romney was going to be able to sidestep the faith question until the general election. Then Mike Huckabee, the winsome, Baptist minister entered the race and began to sweep Iowa largely because of his faith. The straw that broke Romney’s silence may have been last month’s secret telephone poll that deceptively informed potential voters about his Mormon roots.
So Romney stepped up and delivered an astute speech that made a convincing case. The following lines were the core of the speech:
"Almost 50 years ago another candidate from Massachusetts explained that he was an American running for president, not a Catholic running for president. Like him, I am an American running for president. I do not define my candidacy by my religion. A person should not be elected because of his faith nor should he be rejected because of his faith.”
Romney then explained that he would not be answerable to the Mormon or any other church hierarchy in his role as president. This declaration was designed to assuage the fears of people who are concerned about mystical Mormon oaths and pledges.
Much of the rest of his speech focused on the values that he shares with conservative Christians: the importance of faith in God, the value of human life, the importance of the family, his belief in the concept of religious liberty, and his concern that America is becoming too secularized - often opposing public expressions of personal faith. He attempted to say that with these common values he would be a great ally to both conservative and evangelical voters. Using faith based “code words,” he assured nervous evangelicals that he would be against abortion, but pro-marriage and the traditional family.
Romney went to great pains to point out that Europe has lost something by pushing faith out of the public square. He even suggested that faith is needed to achieve the realization of true democracy. This perspective angered many non-religious Americans as they felt that he was pandering to evangelicals. Even some Bible-believing Christians feel that it is presumptuous for leaders to declare that adherence to faith is a necessary ingredient of any successful democracy.
There was one surprising statement in Romney’s speech - that he believed in Jesus Christ and sees Christ as the Savior of the world. This was a brief departure into doctrine which seemed to be an attempt to put evangelicals’ minds at ease concerning his belief system. Many theologians would take issue with this cloaked statement for worthy, theological reasons. Some evangelical laymen, on the other hand, may unknowingly say, “He’s one of us!”
Religious doctrine aside, many grassroots folks have seen him as either a sophisticated “used car salesman” or an aging super model in a CEO’s suit. This speech made Romney seem more touchable, approachable, and believable. I believe he will see a change in his national poll numbers. Yet, Romney will have to continue to address three issues as he prepares for Iowa:
• The question of flip-flopping.
• More questions about Mormonism’s practices
• Celebrity envy (jealousy concerning his personal fortune)
Despite the eloquence of his speech, the citizens of the Iowa may continue to respond to Romney as a cultural outsider. This oratory may be too little, too late to impact them. There may be cause for a glimmer of hope for Romney. Iowa seems open to both the first major female and black candidates on the Democratic side. The first serious Mormon candidate could get the same deference as they have received.
In Iowa…in all of America, there should be no wrong place to talk about faith and politics. So may the best candidate win!