If Mitt Romney wins the Republican nomination, it will be due in large measure to his splendid and moving defense of his faith and beliefs delivered today at the George Bush Presidential Library.
The address was courageous in a way John F. Kennedy's speech to the Baptist ministers was not. Kennedy went to Houston to assure the ministers he agreed with them on virtually every issue where they differed with the Catholic agenda and that his faith would not affect any decision he made as president. He called himself "the Democratic Party's candidate for president who happens also to be a Catholic."
It was like saying: "I happen to be left-handed. I can't help it."
Romney did not truckle. He did not suggest that his faith was irrelevant to the formation of his political philosophy. While declaring, "I will serve no one religion, no one group, no one cause and no one interest," he did not back away an inch from his Mormon faith."
"There are some for whom these commitments are not enough," said Romney. "They would prefer it if I would simply distance myself from my religion, say that it is more a tradition than my personal conviction, or disavow one or another of its precepts. That I will not do. I believe in my Mormon faith, and I endeavor to live by it. My faith is the faith of my fathers. I will be true to them and to my beliefs."
If this costs me the presidency, said Romney, so be it.
That is the kind of defiance this country can never hear enough of.
What Romney was saying was: If you so dislike or resent my faith you will not vote for me if I stay true to it, don't vote for me. But that may say more about you than it does about me.
Questioned repeatedly on what he, as a Mormon, believes about Jesus Christ, a matter crucial to evangelicals, Romney replied:
"What do I believe about Jesus Christ? I believe that 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 it 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 if it were reserved only for faiths with which we agree."
Surely that is right.
After defending his own faith, Romney declared himself a fighting ally of traditionalists and conservatives in the culture war against a militant secularism that is hostile to all faiths rooted in supernatural beliefs and that seeks to de-Christianize America.
"(T)he notion of separation of church and state has been taken by some beyond its original meaning," Romney said, "They seek to remove from the public domain any acknowledgement of God. Religion is seen as merely a private affair with no place in the public life. It is as if they are intent on establishing a new religion in America -- the religion of secularism. They are wrong.
"We should acknowledge the Creator as did the Founders -- in ceremony and word. He should remain in our currency, in our pledge, in the teaching of our history and, during the holiday seasons, Nativity scenes and Menorahs should be welcome in our public places."
Romney understands that while the First Amendment proscribes the establishment of religion, it guarantees the free expression of all religions, even in the public school. Supreme Court, take note. "I will not separate us from the God who gave us liberty," said Romney.
This was a tour de force, and it was delivered before perhaps the largest audience Romney will have for any speech before the January caucuses and primaries. It will be the subject of editorials and columns in coming weeks. And it is hard to see how Romney does not benefit hugely from what was a quintessentially "American" address
With this speech, Romney has thrown on the defensive his main rival in Iowa, Mike Huckabee, the Christians' candidate who, when asked if Mormonism is a cult, left the impression it might well be.
The issues of religious tolerance, what it means to be a Christian in politics, and of secularism versus traditionalism are all now out on the table, and will likely be the social-moral issues on which the race turns between now and January.
To this writer, Romney is on unassailable grounds. Nor is he hurt by the fact that his wife and five children testify eloquently that he is a man of principles who lives by them.
Mike Huckabee's ascendancy and Romney's address defending his faith, refusing to disavow his beliefs and making this a test of tolerance while launching an offensive against secular humanism, tell us that God is back -- in the presidential campaign.