It is no secret that Mitt Romney’s Mormonism has so far served as a liability rather than an asset with important segments of the Republican electorate.According to a Pew poll, 36 percent of evangelicals say that they are less likely to vote for a candidate who is a Mormon (compared to 25 percent of all Americans). Republicans know that this kind of evangelical resistance must be overcome in order to win a presidential election.
In a speech this morning at the George H. W. Bush Library, Mitt Romney tried to put voters’ fears to rest. He declared that the authority of the Latter-Day Saints leadership was restricted to church matters. He promised that he would “put no doctrine of any church above the plain duties of the office and the sovereign authority of the law.”
“When I place my hand on the Bible and take the oath of office,” Romney continued, “that oath becomes my highest promise to God.”
Will such assurances in this morning’s speech change voter unease?
Let’s begin by saying that Romney said a number of things that should be welcomed by evangelicals.
First, he criticized candidates who distance themselves from their religion when it becomes politically expedient. After promising, “I will put no doctrine of any church above the plain duties of the office and the sovereign authority of the law,” Romney resisted those who would want him to put distance between himself and his faith. “That I will not do. I believe in my Mormon faith and I endeavor to live by it. My faith is the faith of my fathers—I will be true to them and to my beliefs. Some believe that such a confession of my faith will sink my candidacy. If they are right, so be it. But I think they underestimate the American people. Americans do not respect believers of convenience.”
Like Romney, evangelicals are suspicious of wishy-washy religion. That is part of our historic dispute with mainline Protestantism. We have little regard for the kind of liberal Christianity that plays down the Christian faith’s “scandal of particularity” by reducing it to a series of values (“the universal Fatherhood of God and the universal brotherhood of man” in Adolf von Harnack’s famous phrase).
If we are going to engage in interreligious conversation, we want to do it with people who believe what they believe. Just as we know that our historic Christian faith cannot be separated from all its historical details, we want those of other faiths to believe and practice robustly.
Second, evangelicals will welcome Romney’s appeal to common values in the political sphere. “It is important to recognize that while differences in theology exist between the churches in America, we share a common creed of moral convictions. And where the affairs of our nation are concerned, it’s usually a sound rule to focus on the latter—on the great moral principles that urge us all on a common course.” He spoke of a common human dignity and the principles of freedom.
As evangelicals have fought for international religious freedom and against sex trafficking, we have learned how to work with others who do not share our faith, but who do share a commitment to human rights, especially as they extend to vulnerable women and children and to religious minorities.
Romney seemed to say that all religions teach principles of freedom and human dignity, but I don’t for a moment think that Romney really believes that. Nor do I believe that he really thinks, as he said, that every faith “draws its adherents closer to God.” It is just too easy to find exceptions to these rules. But I think he does mean that all the major faiths that participate fully in American life share those things. Or at least that there are robust versions of those faiths that hold to those values.
Third, Romney offered a strong endorsement of the place of religion in American public life. “In recent years, the notion of the separation of church and state has been taken by some well beyond its original meaning. They seek to remove from the public domain any acknowledgment of God. Religion is seen as merely a private affair with no place in public life. It is as if they are intent on establishing a new religion in America—the religion of secularism. They are wrong.” Romney went on to allude to the ceremonial expressions of religion in our public life, including the references to God on our currency and in the Pledge of Allegiance.
Evangelicals disagree among themselves about just how important it is to fight for Nativity scenes and Ten Commandments monuments in public places, but they all agree that religion has a place in our public discourse. Our lawmakers cannot be value-free. And when it comes to topics of historically religious significance (marriage, for example), it is ludicrous to expect us to discuss such topics in purely secular terms—to pretend that such issues are not part of our religious vision of reality.
The judicial branch has been particularly crucial in dealing with these religion-laden issues, and evangelicals will welcome Romney’s affirmation that “our greatness would not long endure without judges who respect the foundation of faith upon which our Constitution rests.”
Fourth, Romney drew a strong link between religion and liberty. “Freedom requires religion just as religion requires freedom. Freedom opens the windows of the soul so that man can discover his most profound beliefs and commune with God. Freedom and religion endure together, or perish alone.”
That is part and parcel of evangelical understandings of self-government. Secularism offers a vision of freedom, but it is the freedom of a naked will, not the freedom of a disciplined and productive community. The one is mere libertinism, the other is true liberty.
Fifth, Romney emphasized the American heritage of religious liberty. “Any believer in religious freedom, any person who has knelt in prayer to the Almighty, has a friend and ally in me.”
Sixth, he sharply disapproved of the “conversion by conquest” practiced by the “theocratic tyranny” of “radical Islamists.” That sort of language is also welcomed by American evangelicals.
So if Romney said so many things that evangelicals will welcome, did he calm their fears and perhaps even win their votes?
Most evangelicals will still be suspicious of Mormonism as a religion, and despite the reassurances of Mitt Romney and others that they trust Jesus Christ for their salvation, the religion’s continued rejection of historic Christian truths feeds that suspicion. Arecent speech on the Trinity by Elder Jeffrey Holland of the LDS Quorum of the Twelve Apostles reinforced the sense of the deep divide between Mormons and classical Christians.
Because of the iconic quality of the presidency, many Americans will feel discomfort with the mainstreaming of a marginal faith that a Romney presidency would represent. It’s one thing to listen to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir or to elect Harry Reid or Orrin Hatch. It is quite something else to elect a Mormon President. Americans accept partisanship and diversity in our legislators. But the presidency is supposed to unite the nation, and for many, Romney’s reassurances can’t address the apprehension they feel in their guts.
Mormonism’s history as a secret religion compounds the problem. Historic Christianity has prided itself on being an open religion. When the early Christian fathers were fighting the Gnostic heretics, they contrasted the public nature of their faith and practice with the secret knowledge and covert rites of their adversaries. Because Mormonism continues to practice secret rites, it is a religion not well adapted to a society that thrives on transparency.
Romney refused to address the specifics of his religion. And he did so as a matter of principle: “To do so would enable the very religious test the founders prohibited in the Constitution.” But among those who are most suspicious or ill-informed or confused about Mormon belief and history, that does not help. They may want him to be a robust sort of believer, but they also need to hear him distance himself from key elements of Mormon history.
In fact, Romney did that in subtle ways. Mormonism has a reputation for being racist. Reversing the practice of Joseph Smith himself, Utah Mormons denied blacks the Mormon priesthood and the temple rites until 1978. Without mentioning that history, Romney spoke with pride about his father marching with Martin Luther King Jr.
Early Mormon history had some violent episodes in which Mormons were at times victims and at times perpetrators. In 1838, fear of violent takeover by Mormons led the governor of Missouri to issue the Extermination Order, which called on his militia to treat the Mormons as enemies and either exterminate them or drive them from the state. Romney distanced himself from that part of Mormon history by his condemnations of radical Islamist violence.
A few hours before the speech, Richard Land, a frequent spokesman for evangelicals told viewers of Good Morning America, “I don’t think his Mormonism is a deal breaker for most Americans, but only Mitt Romney can close the deal.” Governor Romney made a valiant effort. We’ll soon see if he succeeded.
David Neff is editor-in-chief of the Christianity Today Media Group of Christianity Today International