Facts and Faith: Evaluating Mitt Romney's Recent Speech Regarding His Presidential Candidacy and His Religion,
and the Press's Anemic Coverage of the Topic

Thursday, Dec. 13, 2007

Republican presidential contender Mitt Romney's recent speech entitled "Faith in America" supposedly was intended to address the issue of his Mormon faith. However, the speech was not at all about his faith, but rather about his decision to make his faith look like others' faiths. No one came away from that speech with more information, and the fault is not only Romney's. The press has not filled in the gaps, either.

It appears to be the general consensus that Romney decided to deliver his speech (and to deliver it at this moment in particular) in order to stall or halt the recent rise in the Iowa polls of his evangelical Christian opponent, Mike Huckabee. Setting aside its motivation and timing, however, the speech is a masterful dodge on the facts of Romney's faith.

The Speech's Reference to Christ as Savior: Misleading, But At Least Qualified

Here are the three most important sentences in the speech, for my purposes:

"There is one fundamental question about which I often am asked. What do I believe about Jesus Christ? I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and the Savior of mankind. My church's beliefs about Christ may not all be the same as those of other faiths."

This is, of course, a curious set of statements for someone who wants to be President of the whole United States (not just the Christian parts). Some say that Romney was prompted to declare his belief to ease the concerns of evangelical Christians. Thus, he chose to highlight his belief in Jesus Christ in a bid to make his faith acceptable to them. That is troubling, however, as it would appear that the evangelicals are now demanding the very kind of religious test oath that the Constitution explicitly forbids. (It is worth noting, too that the Religious Test Oath Clause is the only provision of the main body of the Constitution that deals with religion in any way.) It is also troubling, because Romney seemed to be willing to shape his faith to others' demands and fell for their trap, by making his public declaration of his faith the mirror image of theirs.

One has to give Romney some small credit, though, for conceding in the very next sentence that his "beliefs . . . may not be the same as those of other faiths." Presumably, his hope was that his statement about Christ would satisfy evangelicals, who then would not dwell on the next sentence. But what about Romney's own beliefs? What, exactly, are they? You would have no idea from reading the speech.

The Vague Press Coverage of What, Precisely, Romney's Religious Beliefs Are

Press coverage and the punditry class have been all over the place on the speech itself. Some (basically, Republican radio talk show hosts) hail it as a magnificent speech. Others (basically, liberals) have sharply criticized both the speech's content and the decision to give it in the first place. But the American press has not provided a clear answer to the inevitable and crucial follow-up question: How do Mormon beliefs differ from those of evangelical Christians and others?

This lack of clarity and focus only provides further evidence of the compromised quality of much religion reporting, which so often worries about niceties long before it asks factual questions. As a result, instead of jumping onto that sentence and publishing factual accounts of the beliefs of the Mormon faith, the media focused on the abstractions - religion and politics, and church and state.

So what, exactly, is the difference between the Mormons and other Christians? At a conference on Mormonism and American Politics at Princeton University in November, Richard Land, President of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, stated more than once that evangelicals are often hostile to Mormons, because Mormons compete with them in proselytization. Thus, one reason evangelical Christians may tend to distrust the Mormons is because of territoriality.

However, the two groups also simply believe very different things.

Why the Comparison to JFK Rings Very False

When John F. Kennedy delivered his historic speech, declaring that the Pope would not dictate public policy to him, he was responding to specific questions about whether his faith would hamper his ability to serve as President. There were those in the voting public who wanted to know whether the Pope would have any capacity to dictate to the President public policy. This was neither a stupid nor a bigoted question; it was a factual question.

The frequent, but misleadingly glib, analysis of the Kennedy era is that the impetus for the speech was simply anti-Catholicism. However, that reductive label dodges the much harder and very important question of whether a believer within a hierarchically-constructed religious organization can or will lead all Americans, independently of the commands or influence of that religious organization's demands or leadership. If the answer is "No," as it was with Kennedy, great. But that does not mean the question itself must be verboten.

In contrast, Romney's speech was not responding to specific questions like those that faced Kennedy. Rather, he was responding to a culture that knows very little about the facts of Mormonism, no thanks to the press. From the language of the speech, however, Romney has no intention of further educating the public - and many important questions remain.

This is not the place for an extended study of Mormonism, but let me just pose a few that have occurred to me, while noting that, like many other Americans, I am a rank amateur on the religion.

The Questions about Mormonism that Americans Are Entitled to Ask Mitt Romney

First, Mormon temples are open only to the proven faithful. Their doors are closed to outsiders, as I learned when, one day, I toured only the parts I was permitted to see of the tabernacle complex in Salt Lake City. Why is that? This is an unusual practice within the universe of faiths that believe in Jesus Christ. The Roman Catholics do not permit non-Catholics to receive Communion, but they do welcome all comers to their services, while Protestants usually permit anyone to attend, and anyone to take communion. Romney painted himself as though he was "one of the gang" in the Christian universe. Yet, his faith actively excludes all those who are not fellow believers. Would this signal the attitude Romney would exhibit toward other faiths as President? If not, why not?

Second, what about polygamy? It is a common misperception among Americans that Mormons either practice polygamy, or recently did. That is not so. The television show "Big Love" has done nothing to further understanding, as those who watch it often assume it is about the general church. In fact, it is about the Fundamentalist branch of Mormonism. (Indeed, "Big Love" is inaccurate in other important respects as well. It is the "Father Knows Best" of fundamental Mormonism, depicting often abusive relationships as though they are just like everyone else's, with a narrow range of ups and downs.) The Mormons did believe in polygamy at one point, but then their leaders rejected the practice on earth. The theology was not fully changed, though, meaning that the afterlife still features polygamy, or so I've been told. So what exactly do Mormons (and Romney, in particular) believe about polygamy, here on earth or elsewhere? Perhaps the point is utterly irrelevant to Romney's candidacy, but it would be nice to have enough facts for the American people to reach that conclusion with some confidence.

Third, why have lawyers representing or advising the Church of Latter Day Saints concentrated so heavily, to the point of obsession, upon obtaining the adoption of a so-called theory of "Church Autonomy"? Autonomy means that the entity or individual is free of the law. Where does Romney stand on the relationship between church and state when it comes to the laws that attempt to equally govern secular and religious entities? His talk played to the evangelicals by implying, like them, he thinks that the separation of church and state need not be very separate, but this question he did not address. And why does the Mormon Church need autonomy? Which laws does the Church want to avoid, and what is Romney's position on such avoidance? Surely, these are legitimate questions for any public servant.

Romney has made an issue of his faith. As he has opened the door, it is only fair for us to now ask two important questions: What are the facts of his faith? And, how do these facts relate to his presidential ambitions?

Marci A. Hamilton is a Visiting Professor of Public Affairs and the Kathleen and Martin Crane Senior Research Fellow at the Program in Law and Public Affairs at Princeton University. An archive of her columns on church/state issues - as well as other topics -- can be found on this site. Professor Hamilton's most recent work is God vs. the Gavel: Religion and the Rule of Law (Cambridge University Press 2005), now available in paperback. Professor Hamilton's forthcoming book, which will be published this spring is entitled Justice Denied: What America Must Do to Protect Its Children(Cambridge 2008).

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