A few quick observations on Mitt Romney’s just-concluded speech on religious freedom:
1. The atmospherics. It was well-written and well-delivered. No surprise. But it’s interesting to ponder how much more compelling Romney seems giving a speech than he does participating in debates with 57 other candidates, a format that somehow diminishes him. The same could be said of Barack Obama.
2. Hypocrisy watch. Romney argues for the right of Mormons to be full partners in the political process, but he has no problem throwing non-believers over the side of the boat:
And you can be certain of this: Any believer in religious freedom, any person who has knelt in prayer to the Almighty, has a friend and ally in me. And so it is for hundreds of millions of our countrymen: we do not insist on a single strain of religion — rather, we welcome our nation’s symphony of faith.
Govenor, I’m not an atheist, and I don’t mind seeing crèches on public property. But, on a more substantive level, freedom of religion also means freedom from religion.
Of course, we’re also still awaiting word on whether Romney actually said he would not name a Muslim to his Cabinet if he’s elected president.
3. Will it work? Romney’s speech has been endlessly compared to John Kennedy’s 1960 address to Protestant ministers in Houston. Kennedy, though, had a far easier task — persuading the public that a Catholic politician could embrace the separation of church and state.
Romney’s goal was to persuade the evangelical Christians who vote disproportionately in Republican primaries that a Mormon is enough like them that they should support him rather than waste their vote on a longshot candidate like Mike Huckabee. The problem is that many of these people will not vote for a candidate who isn’t a Christian. And — sorry, Governor — Mormonism differs sufficiently from the central tenets of Christianity that you could make a very respectable case that Mormons are not Christians.
Romney’s been running away from Massachusetts ever since he decided he wanted to be president. He may be about to learn that Blue America, where we truly don’t care what your religious beliefs are (as long as they don’t run up against point #4), is far more hospitable to a Mormon than are the red-state Christians with whom he is trying to make common cause.
4. The real issue. Romney said repeatedly that there should be no religious prerequisite for public office. Indeed, the Constitution says that “no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.” But all that means is that Congress can’t pass a law banning a member of a particular religion from running for office.
In fact, there is a perfectly legitimate religious test, and the voters will apply that test. I’ll summarize it as follows: Are a candidate’s religious views compatible with the office of president as defined by the Constitution?
Personally, I can think of a few examples where that would not be the case.
We know, for instance, that there are some very extreme Christians who favor environmental collapse, or even world war, because they think such a calamity would bring on the Apocalypse predicted in the Book of Revelations. A candidate who held such views could not be disqualified by law, but he could certainly be disqualified by the voters on Election Day.
Romney himself took a few moments this morning to bash “radical Islamists.” Obviously the embrace of violent jihad would be completely incompatible with running for the presidency.
Finally, in January of this year, The New Republic ran an essay (PDF) arguing that Mormonism’s core beliefs — especially as they relate to the United States’ special status in the divine plan — are worrisome enough with respect to how a Mormon president might govern that we shouldn’t shy away from asking some tough questions.
I’m not sure I agree with that proposition, but I do know this: Romney’s speech today was designed to prevent such questions from being asked. The next few weeks will tell us how well it worked.