Mitt Should Can “The Speech”

December 3, 2007

I think it’s a mistake for Mitt Romney to give “the speech” — the one aimed at addressing his Mormonism and its relevance, or irrelevance, to his candidacy.

There have long been rumors that Romney would make “the speech,” but the matter seemed dormant until recently, when evangelical Mike Huckabee began surging in the polls, especially in Iowa.

Some Romney strategists fear his conservative Christian supporters in Iowa are shifting to Huckabee — an ordained Baptist minister — because they are uncomfortable with Mitt’s Mormonism.

Huckabee’s Christian credentials are doubtlessly helping him with many Christian conservatives. But I don’t think Mitt’s Mormonism is driving Romney voters to Huckabee. If Romney’s Mormonism didn’t bother them before Huckabee surged, it isn’t bothering them now.

This is not to say that Romney’s Mormonism isn’t a potential liability for him. I think it is, but not among those who have already been supporting him. The more attention he draws to his religion, the more of a liability it will become. He should leave well enough alone.

Indeed, Romney’s hurdles with Mormonism are probably greater than those John F. Kennedy faced with his Catholicism. Protestants might truly have been concerned that he would take his marching orders from the Pope and that his first allegiance would be to the Vatican, not the Constitution. Apparently, Kennedy’s speech confronting those concerns directly went a long way toward dispelling any anxieties.

Some similarly fear Romney’s primary loyalty will be to Mormon authorities. But I think a bigger problem is that many consider Mormonism a cult with certain bizarre beliefs.

So, you ask, shouldn’t Romney give a speech to clarify and assuage their concerns? I don’t think so.

With all due respect, many will find certain distinguishing Mormon beliefs disturbing. Romney would be better off relying on people’s relative ignorance of other religions and grateful that Mormonism presents itself as more mainstream Christian than it actually is.

Please don’t misunderstand. My purpose here isn’t to attack Mormonism. Mormons generally are very good people who live moral lives. But it’s inevitable that some voters will react negatively to Mormonism the more they learn about it — and that can’t possibly help Romney.

Romney also runs a risk in giving a “religious” speech that skirts all theological questions, which is likely. After all, we almost never hear Mormons talking about what distinguishes their religion from mainstream Christianity. They emphasize — even on their TV commercials — their belief in the Bible and their emphasis on Jesus Christ.

If Romney gives a speech that never gets past these generalities, it may prompt critics to probe further and discover there are major differences in Mormonism and mainstream Christianity of which they were unaware.

The teasers we’ve seen so far from Team Romney on “the speech” certainly hint that Romney will not delve into Mormon doctrine. Romney’s spokesmen say it will be an opportunity for Romney to share his views on religious liberty, religious tolerance and how his faith would inform his presidency.

But this approach could be problematic for Romney, as well. People might take offense at Romney suggesting they are intolerant or bigoted for considering his religious beliefs to be a factor. What’s wrong with considering a candidates’ faith — or lack thereof — as part of the mix? In fact, isn’t Romney inviting that consideration when he says his religion “will inform his presidency”? He can’t have it both ways.

Voters factoring in the candidates’ spiritual beliefs are exercising their liberties, not encroaching on the candidates’. For Romney to suggest otherwise is the tactical equivalent of Hillary Clinton or Mike Huckabee saying that criticizing their views is tantamount to personally attacking them. Nonsense.

All of this said, I don’t believe the voters’ exposure to Mormon theology will hurt Romney as much as the troubling perception that he is something less than completely authentic.

I sincerely believe that most evangelical Christians could support a Mormon — even if they learn Mormonism is different than what they thought — as long as he is right on the issues and can be trusted. Does he really share their values? Is he really who he says he is — about religion or anything else? That’s what inquiring conservatives want to know.

They love that he professes to be strongly pro-life and an ardent supporter of traditional marriage. But is he really? If so, why did it take him so long to come around to these views? Was it a religious conversion? How can that be when he’s been a Mormon for decades? I know he said that wrestling with the stem cell question changed him, but it strikes me as implausible that one could be moved over a Petri dish and not an ultrasound. But I would love to be wrong about this.

In the meantime, I believe the governor should reconsider giving “the speech.”