In the span of just a few days, Mitt Romney's Mormon faith has moved to the front burner of the 2008 presidential election. In New Hampshire, mysterious opposition push polls branded Mormonism a cult, a smear Romney declared "un-American." That development came after the candidate suggested he would likely renege on an earlier promise to offer a Kennedyesque explanation of the role his religion would play in a potential presidency. While there are, of course, many legitimate reasons to not to vote for Mitt Romney, his religious faith should not be one of them. Sadly, to the degree that his Mormon beliefs are now a campaign issue, Mitt Romney himself is largely responsible for it.
Romney's self-made trap began with his 2006 declaration that religious faith is a prerequisite for being President of the United States. "People in this country,' Romney told Fox News, "want a person of faith to lead them as their president." But on his own religiosity, Romney has insisted, Americans must take him at his word.
Unfortunately for the self-proclaimed heir to Ronald Reagan, Americans have followed the Gipper's mantra of "trust but verify" when it comes to Romney's religion. In August, WHO radio host Jan Mickelson took him up on it, and questioned Romney about his Mormon faith. An agitated Romney complained he was not "running as a Mormon" and that Mickelson was "trying to tell me I'm not a faithful Mormon."
Despite his protestations now as during his 1994 Senate run against Ted Kennedy ("I'm not running for cardinal"), Romney brought this kind of investigation upon himself. In a February 2007 interview in South Carolina, Romney acknowledged Americans' natural curiosity about his faith. In May, Romney gave a graduation address at Pat Robertson's Regent University, despite the latter's past description of Mormonism as a "cult." And in July, Romney signaled he would likely follow in the footsteps of John F. Kennedy and deliver a major speech describing his Mormon faith and how it would inform his presidency:
"I have thought about that. I haven't made a final decision, but it's probably more likely than not. It's probably too early for something like that. At some point it's more likely than not, but we'll see how things develop."
As it turns out, not so much. Using his campaign team as a human shield, Romney last week apparently decided that discretion is the better part of valor, at least for now:
"The political advisors tell me no, no, no, it's not a good idea. Draws too much attention to that issue alone. But I sorta like the idea anyway, and will probably do it at some point."
Making matters worse, having raised religiosity as a requirement for the occupant of the Oval Office, Romney has since been careful to blur the distinctions between his Mormonism and mainline Protestant faiths (often to the dismay of his own co-religionists). As Josh Patashnik wrote in the New Republic, Romney has repeatedly downplayed fundamental Mormon doctrines including the Baptism of the Dead and the past and future visits of Jesus Christ to America:
During an interview earlier this year with George Stephanopoulos, the presidential candidate disputed the suggestion that Christ would someday return to the United States rather than the Middle East. Mormons, he said, believe "that the Messiah will come to Jerusalem...It's the same as the other Christian tradition."
This was both technically correct and completely misleading: The church's position is that, while Christ will indeed appear at the Mount of Olives, he will also build a new Jerusalem in Jackson County, Missouri, which will serve as the seat of his 1,000-year reign on Earth. Romney had conveniently neglected to mention this part of his church's doctrine.
Needless to say, his fellow Mormons were none too pleased. "Brother Romney is playing a little bit of a political game with his answer," one church official told Lee Benson of the Deseret Morning News--in a column noting that Romney's comment had "caused more than a few members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints...to scratch their heads as if to say, 'What the flip?'"
Given his aggressive courtship of evangelical leaders, some of the details of Romney's Mormon faith could pose real political obstacles for his 2008 presidential bid. Evangelical voters not only dominate the Republican primaries, they also constitute the competition when it comes to proselytizing for new followers. (While polls show that about one quarter of Americans would not vote – or are less likely to vote - for a Mormon, that figure reaches 36% among evangelicals.) While his outreach to Pat Robertson was ultimately unsuccessful, Romney was able to secure the backing of conservative movement founding father Paul Weyrich and Robert Taylor, the dean of Bob Jones University in South Carolina. Despite the 2000 assertion by Bob Jones III that Catholicism and Mormonism are "cults which call themselves Christian," Taylor proclaimed:
"The fact that I'm seen as a Religious Right person would hopefully get others to step out for him."
To get more of the likes of Taylor to step out for him, Mitt Romney will have to walk a tightrope. He must speak of the central importance of faith without elaborating on his own. Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, encouraged Romney to follow in John F. Kennedy's footsteps and address the issue head on:
"Nobody else can close that deal, so I encouraged him to give a Kennedy-style, Greater Houston Ministerial Association-style speech, in his own words."
But when John F. Kennedy said, "I do not speak for my church on public matters -- and the church does not speak for me," he had not made religious faith a sine qua non of his campaign. He famously met with Baptist leaders to explain that his Catholic faith, one shared by tens of millions of Americans, would not govern his decisions as President. But after declaring religious faith a prerequisite for office, Mitt Romney refuses to discuss his own, one which remains a mystery to most Americans.
A Kennedy biographer said of JFK's 1960 address to the Southern Baptists, "he knocked religion out of the campaign as an intellectually respectable issue." By making religion a centerpiece of his campaign, Mitt Romney simply doesn't have that option. And for that, he has no one to blame but himself.