Did Mitt Romney have to give a speech on religion? Yes. When you’re in a race so close you could lose due to one issue, your Mormonism, you must address the issue of your Mormonism. The only question was timing: now, in the primaries, or later, as the nominee? But could he get to the general without The Speech? Apparently he judged not. (Mr. Romney’s campaign must have some interesting internal polling about Republicans on the ground in Iowa and elsewhere.)
But Mr. Romney had other needs, too. His candidacy needed a high-minded kick start. It needed an Act II. He’s been around for a year, he’s made his first impression, he needed to make it new again. He seized the opportunity to connect his candidacy to something larger and transcendent: the history of religious freedom in America. He made a virtue of necessity.
He had nothing to prove to me regarding his faith or his church, which apparently makes me your basic Catholic. Catholics are not his problem. His problem, a Romney aide told me, had more to do with a particular fundamentalist strain within evangelical Protestantism. Bill Buckley once said he’d rather be governed by the first thousand names in the Boston phone book than the Harvard faculty. I’d rather be governed by Donny and Marie than the Washington establishment. Mormons have been, in American history, hardworking, family-loving citizens whose civic impulses have tended toward the constructive. Good enough for me. He’s running for president, not pastor. In any case his faith is one thing about Mr. Romney I haven’t questioned.
It is true that some in his campaign thought a speech risky, but others saw it as an opportunity, and a first draft was ready last March. In certain ways Mr. Romney had felt a tugging resistance: I’ve been in public life—served as governor, run the Olympics, run a business. I have to do a speech saying my faith won’t distort my leadership?
In May he decided to do it, but timing was everything. His campaign wanted to do it when he was on the ascendancy, not defensively but from a position of strength. In October they decided to do the speech around Thanksgiving. Mr. Romney gathered together all the material and began to work in earnest. Then they decided it would get lost in the holiday clutter. They decided to go after Thanksgiving, but before Dec. 15. The rise of Mike Huckabee, according to this telling, didn’t force this decision but complicated it.
The campaign fixed on Dec. 6, at the College Station, Texas, library of George H.W. Bush, with the former president introducing him, which would lend a certain imprimatur (and mute those who say his son’s White House is pulling for Rudy Giuliani).
It is called his JFK speech, but in many ways JFK had it easier than Mr. Romney does now. The Catholic Church was the single biggest Christian denomination in America, representing 30% of the population (Mormons: 2%, six million). Americans who had never met a Catholic in 1920 had by 1960 fought side by side with them in World War II and sat with them in college under the GI bill. JFK had always signaled that he held his faith lightly, not with furrow-browed earnestness. He had one great question to answer: Would he let the Vatican control him? As if. And although some would vote against him because he was Catholic, some would vote for him for the same reason, and they lived in the cities and suburbs of the industrial states.
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Mr. Romney gave the speech Thursday morning. How did he do?
Very, very well. He made himself some history. The words he said will likely have a real and positive impact on his fortunes. The speech’s main and immediate achievement is that foes of his faith will now have to defend their thinking, in public. But what can they say to counter his high-minded arguments? “Mormons have cooties”?
Romney reintroduced himself to a distracted country—Who is that handsome man saying those nice things?—while defending principles we all, actually, hold close, and hold high.
His text was warmly cool. It covered a lot of ground briskly, in less than 25 minutes. His approach was calm, logical, with an emphasis on clarity. It wasn’t blowhardy, and it wasn’t fancy. The only groaner was, “We do not insist on a single strain of religion—rather, we welcome our nation’s symphony of faith.” It is a great tragedy that there is no replacement for that signal phrase of the 1980s, “Gag me with a spoon.”
Beyond that, the speech was marked by the simplicity that accompanies intellectual confidence.
At the start, Mr. Romney was nervous and rushed, his voice less full than usual. He settled down during the second applause, halfway though the text—”No candidate should become the spokesman for his faith. For if he becomes president he will need the prayers of the people of all faiths.” From that moment he was himself.
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He started with a full JFK: “I am an American running for president. I do not define my candidacy by my religion. A person should not be elected because of his faith, nor should he be rejected because of his faith.” No “authorities of my church” or any church, will “ever exert influence” on presidential decisions. “Their authority is theirs,” within the province of the church, and it ends “where the affairs of the nation begin.” “I will put no doctrine of any church above the plain duties of the office and the sovereign authority of the law.” He pledged to serve “no one religion, no one group, no one cause, and no one interest.” He will not disavow his religion. “My faith is the faith of my fathers. I will be true to them and to my beliefs.”
Bracingly: “Some believe that such a confession of my faith will sink my candidacy. If they are right, so be it.” Whatever our faith, the things we value—equality, obligation, commitment to liberty—unite us. In a passage his advisers debated over until the night before the speech, Mr. Romney declared: “I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and the Savior of mankind.” He made the call. Why? I asked the aide. “Because it’s what he thinks.”
At the end, he told a story he had inserted just before Thanksgiving. During the dark days of the First Continental Congress in Philadelphia, someone suggested the delegates pray. But there were objections: They all held different faiths. “Then Sam Adams rose, and said he would hear a prayer from anyone of piety and good character, as long as they were a patriot. And so together they prayed.” At this point in Mr. Romney’s speech, the roused audience stood and applauded, and the candidate looked moved.
There was one significant mistake in the speech. I do not know why Romney did not include nonbelievers in his moving portrait of the great American family. We were founded by believing Christians, but soon enough Jeremiah Johnson, and the old proud agnostic mountain men, and the village atheist, and the Brahmin doubter, were there, and they too are part of us, part of this wonderful thing we have. Why did Mr. Romney not do the obvious thing and include them? My guess: It would have been reported, and some idiots would have seen it and been offended that this Romney character likes to laud atheists. And he would have lost the idiot vote.
My feeling is we’ve bowed too far to the idiots. This is true in politics, journalism, and just about everything else.