December 6, 2007


This I Believe: Romney's incomplete speech on religion in America. (John Dickerson, Dec. 6, 2007, Slate)

Romney mounted a defense of religion in the public square—on his terms, which became clear when he started talking about Jesus. "I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and the Savior of mankind," he said, but then he quickly closed the door to further questioning about any of his specific beliefs. He argued that Mormonism was merely a different brand of Christianity and that to pick at the differences between Mormons and other faiths was incompatible with America's history of religious tolerance.

Some evangelicals won't like this. Why does Romney get to show them some of his doctrinal beliefs while shutting off discussion of the others? He wants credit for saying Jesus was the Son of God but doesn't want to answer for the other ways many Mormons see Jesus. This is not just a quibble, as Romney seemed to suggest. This is evangelicals' fundamental question about Mormonism. Christians see Jesus as the literal incarnation of God. (The doctrine of the Trinity states that the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are all God.) Mormons see Jesus as literally the son of a God, but also as a separate God, just as the Holy Spirit is separate. For those who focus on these differences, Romney's argument that Mormonism belongs within the Christian fold is a shocking theological claim that can't go unanswered.

When talking about America's religious heritage, Romney invoked the founders to build a wall around his own religious privacy. He talked about their noble aspirations for tolerance—John Adams made an appearance—and also about the shame that now accrues to those who once applied religious tests and banished American icons like Anne Hutchinson and Roger Williams. The point was that a decision not to vote for Romney because he is Mormon is unconstitutional. And yet Romney seemed to misapply the whole idea. He claimed that for voters to ask questions about his faith runs afoul of the founders' prohibition against religious tests for office. But the legal prohibition refers to government barring people from becoming a candidate or holding office. It does not bar voters from considering religion as they make their choices.

The fundamental political point of such a high-stakes speech is to be able to move off of the issue and start talking about what you want to talk about. That is the measure by which the speech was a failure.

Posted by Orrin Judd at December 6, 2007 9:07 PM

Disagree as to premise. The point is to convert a liability into an asset, not to divert attention.

By that measure, it looks to me like a winner. Dickerson, for example, comes across as a whining pedant.

Posted by: ghostcat at December 6, 2007 10:14 PM

Father Jonathan Morris has a good critique of Romney’s speech at his blog.

Posted by: AP in PA at December 7, 2007 9:46 AM

Romney may have made a far bigger mistake explaining his religious views on camera than his father did by crying.

Here's a clue. If you want to be president, don't make a fool of yourself in front of a camera.

Posted by: erp at December 7, 2007 12:34 PM