WASHINGTON -- Voters may not know any more about Mormonism than they did before Mitt Romney's faith speech on Thursday, but they surely know more about what it means to be an American.
Romney's much-anticipated address from the George H.W. Bush library at Texas A&M reminded Americans of some fundamental truths that often get lost in the guerrilla warfare of presidential politics.
He made two important points clear: Freedom and religious liberty are inextricably linked. And, though Romney's religion informs his life, leaders of his church will not inform his decisions as president.
That second statement is essentially a reiteration of John F. Kennedy's speech nearly 50 years ago when he had to assuage voters' fears that he would be taking orders from the pope. Like Kennedy, Romney said his commitment is to the rule of law and the Constitution.
If Kennedy's speech was an important landmark in American political history, Romney's was surpassing. With heartfelt humility and poetic eloquence, he tracked the nation's struggle with and for freedom.
He held up a mirror and, for the first time in a long while, Americans did not have to avert their gaze. They could see themselves reflected and be both proud and humbled by their country's unique beauty.
That may be the most valuable result of Romney's speech. He raised the bar by focusing on broad principles of religious freedom, rather than on the small details of doctrinal differences. In the process, he elevated everyone -- even those not-so-deserving.
Disappointing many, no doubt, Romney steered clear of the details of Mormon belief and deprived the boxers-or-briefs crowd an answer to the Mormon undergarment question. This was smart for Romney, but it was also a gift to the American people -- a gesture of mutual respect.Where does one begin to defend one's religious faith, anyway? And where does anyone draw the line? No religion can bear close scrutiny if we go literal. Who among Christians wants to explain the Immaculate Conception? A talking snake? The rather peculiar ritual of "grokking" Jesus by eating stale wafers and sipping cheap wine?
Romney effectively neutralized these questions with his recognition that all religions have their curiosities as well as their wonders. In a nod toward pluralism, Romney noted the things he loves about other religions -- "the profound ceremony of the Catholic Mass, the approachability of God in the prayers of the evangelicals, the tenderness of spirit among the Pentecostals, the confident independence of the Lutherans, the ancient traditions of the Jews, unchanged through the ages, and the commitment to frequent prayer of the Muslims."
Romney also smartly asserted commitment to his own beliefs, including that Jesus Christ is the Son of God. Unapologetically, Romney said he wouldn't disavow the faith of his fathers and if his campaign for president fails because of it, then "so be it."
But why should he or anyone disavow his faith to run for president? How did that idea ever gain entry into the political arena of a country founded on the idea of religious liberty? Didn't the earliest Americans die to secure that proposition and to codify it into law?
Who is to judge another's faith? And by what standard has Romney's religion failed in guiding what has clearly been an exemplary life?
The religious questions raised by Romney's candidacy have intersected (by grace, some would say) with a time when Americans needed to review their nation's founding principles and, in Romney's words, appreciate "the profound implications of our tradition of religious liberty."
As radical Islam seeks to impose theocratic tyranny -- to convert by conquest -- Americans can be grateful that, as Romney put it, reason and religion are allies in this country. But that relationship has always been a fragile marriage and this presidential election seems to be testing our resolve.
Perhaps it took someone more recently persecuted for his beliefs to remind us that "religious tolerance would be a shallow principle indeed if it were reserved only for faiths with which we agree."
Or, as they say, amen.