The Speech: Romney still no JFK

Mitt Romney’s speech on religious liberty and the role his faith would play in his presidency – the long-discussed “JFK speech” — included some Kennedy-esque rhetoric about the fundamental importance of religious liberty, but it was a far cry from JFK’s ringing endorsement of church-state separation.

The timing of Romney’s speech, as former Arkansas governor and Baptist minister Mike Huckabee overtook Romney in Iowa polling, seemed to make it clear that Romney’s target audience was the conservative evangelicals who play a major role in Republican primaries. Many of those voters have told pollsters that they’re reluctant to vote for a Mormon, and they have little patience for arguments that church-state separation is good for religious liberty.

Romney’s speech was a mixed bag. At its best, it included high-minded praise for America’s religious diversity, what Romney called “our nation’s symphony of faith.” He also acknowledged that religious intolerance has been part of American history, something usually not spoken of by Religious Right leaders who cite the Puritans as evidence that America was designed to be a “Christian nation.”

Regarding the Mormon church, Romney made the same kind of assertions that were at the heart of JFK’s speech about his Catholicism – that the church would not dictate policy positions to him, and he would be a president for all Americans. Well, at least all religious Americans — Romney’s speech did not include even a simple nod to Americans who aren’t religious. “Freedom requires religion,” he said.

Romney also did a dance around the notion of a religious test for public office. He said it would be wrong to ask him to “explain his church’s distinctive doctrines” because that “would enable the very religious test the founders prohibited in the Constitution.” But then he declared Jesus Christ to be “the son of God and savior of mankind.” He knows that his target audience has a de facto religious test for the presidency – Christians only please – and argued today that he meets it.

He also took what seemed like a veiled shot at other candidates by saying “Americans do not respect believers of convenience.” That’s a pretty dangerous argument for him, given that it’s his own 180-degree policy shifts that many voters don’t trust. And what exactly did he mean by that? Was he implying that the faith of candidates who say they’re Christian but disagree with him on some political issues is somehow suspect? Candidates on both sides of the aisle have had their faith questioned on those grounds.

Romney also reached out to conservative evangelical voters by advancing one of the movement’s main talking points on religion in the public arena – that there’s a sinister effort to establish “a new religion in America – the religion of secularism.” He hit another Religious Right talking point on federal judges: “Our greatness would not long endure without judges who respect the foundation of faith upon which our Constitution rests.”

He asserted that “while differences in theology exist between the churches in America, we share a common creed of moral convictions,” citing “the right to life itself among them.” Of course there’s no common moral conviction on that issue, even among Christian churches, indicating one again that Romney was speaking here to a particular group of conservative Christians whose teachings on social issues mirror those of the Mormon Church.

It’s a fascinating position Romney is in. As a member of a minority faith that has experienced persecution, he understands the importance of church-state separation. And it’s good for Americans to hear a Republican candidate talk about the value of religious diversity and how church-state separation has contributed to America’s vibrant religious life. But his efforts to reach out to conservative evangelical primary voters undermined that message. It will be interesting to find out whether the speech has its intended effect.