After months of dithering about whether to make a major speech about his Mormon faith, GOP presidential contender Mitt Romney is scheduled to address “Faith in America” at the George H. W. Bush presidential library Thursday night. John F. Kennedy’s famous speech (video | transcript) to protestant ministers in Houston is often cited as the precedent. But Romney’s no J.F.K. and this will have to be a much different speech.
Kennedy was the Democratic nominee pledging to Americans his support for “absolute” separation of church and state, promising that his Catholicism would not dictate his policy positions, and urging Americans to rise above religious intolerance and promote an ideal of brotherhood.
Romney is in a dramatically different situation. He’s in a heated primary race, losing conservative evangelical Christian voters to Mike Huckabee, and walking a tightrope. He can’t make JFK’s appeal to church-state separation, because he’s trying to get support from people who think church-state separation is, in Pat Robertson’s phrase, a “lie of the left.” Ditto for an appeal to religious tolerance, not a high priority for the “Christian nation” crowd.
So Romney’s more likely to try to convince Religious Right voters that they should care less about the theology of Mormonism and more about his pledge to support Religious Right policy priorities down the line: criminalization of abortion, opposition to equality for gay people, a dismantling of the wall separating church and state — and judges who agree. That’s been enough to win the support of some high-profile Religious Right leaders, including Paul Weyrich, Lou Sheldon and Jay Sekulow.
But as Huckabee surges, Romney finds himself in a bit of a box, partly of his own making. Given the power of Religious Right voters in the GOP primary, and the de facto religious test many of them apply to the presidency, Romney has stressed the importance of electing a person of faith. But when he has tried to assure Religious Right voters that he is a follower of Christ, he has drawn stern warnings from people like the Southern Baptists’ Richard Land, because many evangelicals view Mormonism as a cult. According to Pew polls, more than a third of white evangelicals, and more than 4 in 10 of evangelicals who attend church weekly, say they’re less likely to vote for a candidate who is Mormon. Says Land, “When he goes around and says Jesus Christ is my Lord and savior, he ticks off at least half the evangelicals.”
Mike Huckabee, in many ways the dream candidate for Religious Right voters, isn’t trying to make things any easier for Romney. While deflecting opportunities to comment directly on whether or not Mormons are Christians, Huckabee has encouraged others to ask Romney. “If we’re going to ask me about my faith, let’s ask all the candidates about theirs,” he suggests. “Now as you noticed, I’m not hesitant or reluctant to talk about mine.”
Of course, the whole conversation tells us how far the Religious Right and its GOP allies are from the vision espoused by John F. Kennedy. In October, a prominent Dallas minister Robert Jeffress, speaking of Romney, said, “It’s a little hypocritical for the last eight years to be talking about how important it is for us to elect a Christian president and then turn around and endorse a non-Christian,” he said. “Christian conservatives are going to have to decide whether having a Christian president is really important or not.”
The Religious Right’s long public war on church-state separation and religious pluralism has been cheered on by Republican officials as long as it has been a weapon against Democratic candidates. But it’s not as much fun for them when the target is one of the GOP’s top contenders.