Lots of discussion going on right now about Mitt Romney’s speech on his religious faith, and what exactly it says about him and his chances as a candidate. I have real doubts about the effectiveness of Romney’s speech. Most of the comparisons have focused on Kennedy’s speech in Texas about Catholicism, but the speech that Romney delivered presented a much more muddled message.
Kennedy delivered a speech where he clearly re-affirmed a fundamental belief in the separation of church and state. He was addressing an audience during a time when evangelicals were not a driving force in politics among Republicans or Democrats, and was running as a progressive candidate. By emphasizing the separation of religious matters and political ones, he was able to sway a wide variety of people: conservative Protestants viewed the separation of church and state as a way to keep Vatican meddling out of the White House, Catholics were reassured that Kennedy had neither abandoned his faith, nor would trigger an anti-Catholic backlash, and progressives were given a vision of an executive who would govern with respect to the Constitution and the mores of the time, rather than the commandments of a medieval authority.
Romney’s speech could only ever hope to appease one group: conservative evangelicals. His repeated references to weakening the separation of church and state gave a collective shudder to liberals and, perhaps more importantly, libertarian leaning voters within the Republican party. His comments on his views on Christianity and Jesus- which some commentators have indicated went astray from Mormon orthodoxy- might have given some thoughtful Mormons pause as to whether Romney is distorting or attempting to leverage his religious beliefs as a political tool.
Meanwhile, by discussing opposition to secularism, Romney has indicated that religious beliefs will be in play as part of the platform of a Romney presidency. He has, in essence, said the exact opposite of Kennedy: his religious beliefs will play a role in policy in his administration. The attempt in this speech was to convince evangelical voters that his beliefs were close enough to theirs that they should embrace his candidacy as a step in pushing their own beliefs back into the center of public life. But realistically, Romney said little or nothing that will really alter the basic beliefs of evangelical Christians, who widely see Mormonism as a distortion of Christian teachings, and possibly as a non-Christian cult.
Romney has rejected calls for him to discuss his religious beliefs more openly on the grounds that doing so would apply a ‘religious test’, of the sort banned by the founding fathers. But with a speech like this, Romney has essentially said that his religious beliefs are an aspect of his political views. The ‘religious test’ envisioned by the founding fathers was an attempt to deny government office to people on the basis of an affiliation with a church or sect, rather than their policy goals. When your policy is dictated by your religious faith, a ‘religious test’ is entirely appropriate; the candidate is already promising, in effect, to turn his own religion into government policy of some sort. If Romney wants people to separate his beliefs from his candidacy, he needs to start with himself. Speech’s like the one he gave this week invite more, not less, scrutiny of the beliefs of a man who has promised that religion will have a place in his administration.