Feature

Mitt Romney: Addressing the question of faith

"Voters may not know any more about Mormonism

"Voters may not know any more about Mormonism” than they did last week, said Kathleen Parker in the Orlando Sentinel. But after hearing Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s much anticipated “faith speech,” they surely know more about “what it means to be an American.” Like John F. Kennedy a half-century ago, Romney took to a podium in Texas to reassure voters that his loyalty as president would be to the Constitution, not the leaders or tenets of his religion. The task was far harder for Romney, a Mormon, than for Kennedy, a Roman Catholic, since many evangelicals view Mormon teachings as a heretical insult to true Christian belief. Polls show Romney losing ground among Republicans to self-described “Christian leader’’ Mike Huckabee, who has pointedly declined to say whether he thinks Mormonism is a cult. But with “heartfelt humility and poetic eloquence,” Romney rose to the challenge. He said he would never disavow the faith of his fathers, reiterated his belief in Jesus Christ as the savior, and reminded Americans that “religious tolerance would be a shallow principle indeed if it were reserved only for faiths with which we agree.” As we like to say here in America, “Amen.”

The speech may help Romney with evangelicals, said Alan Wolfe in the New York Daily News, but only by pandering to this country’s “odd obsession” with the religious fervor of its political leaders. Like virtually everyone running for president this year, Romney turned the words “faith,” “God,” and “morality” into empty platitudes, knowing that candidates must now publicly profess belief—but not what they believe in. He used the word “Mormon” only once, and didn’t mention that Mormons think the Bible embraced by evangelicals is riddled with error, or that the Angel Moroni gave a new, improved rewrite of Scripture to Mormon founder Joseph Smith in western New York in the 1820s. Romney’s not going to get away with his evasions forever, said Christopher Hitchens in Slate.com. At some point, he owes the country some “straight answers” about his membership in a religion that practiced racism, polygamy, and statutory rape as a matter of principle, and that even today offers its male adherents the promise of “multiple wives in heaven (just like the sick dream of Mohamed Atta).”

The most glaring omission, said Steve Chapman in the Chicago Tribune, was any friendly mention of atheists, agnostics, and other nonbelievers. He spoke of America as a land of piety, insisting that “freedom requires religion just as religion requires freedom.” Gratuitously, he went on to mock European societies “too busy or too ‘enlightened’ … to kneel in prayer.” Apparently, Romney needs to review American history. The Founding Fathers quite deliberately made no mention of God in the Constitution. Indeed, they specified in that founding document that “no religious test shall ever be required as qualification to any office.” By design, this is a secular democracy in which belief in Jesus, the Angel Moroni, or anyone’s God was purely a personal matter. By railing against secularism, said David Brooks in The New York Times, Romney was engaging in a cynical political ploy. It’s Us against Them, he was telling evangelicals, Believers vs. Secularists. Let’s not argue over our theological differences; join me in “a culture war without end.”

That played well enough in the evangelical community, said David Kuo in Beliefnet.com. But Romney fell into a trap when he asserted his belief in Jesus Christ as “the son of God and savior of mankind,” and tried to portray Mormonism as just another branch of Christianity. Evangelicals emphatically reject that assertion, since Mormons don’t follow the same Bible, and you can be sure they’ll continue to cite Mormon theology to prove Mormons are not Christian. The pity is that we’re having this discussion at all, said USA Today in an editorial. What does it say about our supposedly pluralistic democracy that in 2007, a presidential candidate has to spend nearly an hour addressing bigoted attacks on his personal religious beliefs?

The irony here, said The Wall Street Journal, is that it’s not Romney’s religious convictions that give most voters pause. It’s his political convictions—or rather, the lack of them. He governed liberal Massachusetts as a pro-choice, gay-friendly Republican moderate, then entirely reinvented himself as a hard-core, pro-life conservative when it came time to compete in the GOP primaries. Romney has now shown he can handle the Mormon issue with grace and sincerity. Ultimately, though, “he will rise or fall as a candidate based on how well he can sell his worldly record.”

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