By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Taking Romney on faith

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.

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  1. Harry

    …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.Dan, I find the thought of a campaign between Romney and Obama is positively refreshing. I hope we are fortunate enough to see it.

  2. rozzie

    More speeches, please! Especially speeches that tell us what’s important to the candidate, and how the candidate intends to accomplish these things.Fewer debates, please. Especially the sound-bite productions we’ve been seeing on cable news.

  3. Anonymous

    This atheist finds himself in the strange position of having some sympathy for Mitt Romney, whose religion may be more goofy than most, but certainly no more false than any other.America will never elect a nonbeleiver, or at least one who admits he is a nonbeliever. But Amercia doesn’t want a true believer either.If you’re a latter day Joseph P. Kennedy and you want one of your offspring to be President, may I suggest becoming a Congregationalist. It’s probably the safest bet.Bob in Peabody

  4. MeTheSheeple

    Oh, Dan. Silly liberals like you keep trying to bring the Constitution back into politics. Helllooooo!

  5. Anonymous

    I am a basically secular, run-of-the-mill average Joe with no strong religious beliefs. I find the militant atheist a more repellent and frightening figure than any Mormon, evangelical Christian, or Orthodox Jew. This type of person has been crawling out of the woodwork in general in the last couple years — just look at some of the books on the bestseller list — and they are the only ones I hear criticizing this speech. As we enter the brave new world of scary biotechnological developments, what would we rather have: A militant atheist or a person with beliefs with some grounding in the human past? I will vote for the latter any time. As someone born and raised in Massachusetts, I find those attacking Romney now far more troublesome than the evangelical Christians Romney is trying to reach out to.

  6. Bad

    “But, on a more substantive level, freedom of religion also means freedom from religion.”Actually, we secularists are not really even asking for that in the way it’s commonly interpreted. All we’re asking is for freedom from the GOVERNMENT getting involved in the religion business. That private citizens be free to push their religion all they want in public (just as we are free to not listen to them) is not only acceptable, it’s a right most of us would give our lives defending.

  7. Anonymous

    anon9:05,You don’t have to be a militant atheist to criticize Romney’s speech. Even Michael Graham disliked it:’m not suggesting Romney is a liar. I just wonder if there’s anything he’s campaigning for that he truly believes in? Or is he a CEO with a 10-point plan to win the GOP nomination, simply checking off all the boxes?“Abortion. Pro-life, check.”“Marriage? Traditional family, check.”

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