Jonah Goldberg has a good column on tomorrow’s speech by Mitt Romney on “the Mormon issue.” Romney will speak from the George H.W. Bush Presidential Library in College Station, Texas and the speech is widely viewed as being the same sort of speech that President Kennedy gave during the 1960 campaign to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association in which he explained why his Catholicism should not be a political issue.
The problem for Romney is that he wants his faith to be relevant. He’s basically trying to do two things at once: convince people that being a Mormon isn’t a political issue, but that because he’s a Mormon he’s a man of conservative values. Those two goals are in tension with each other, as Goldberg points out:
Still, Romney is marching into a theological head wind the other candidates aren’t. It’s not his or any other Mormon’s policy positions that are at stake. Some of the most effective conservatives in Washington are Mormons. What rankles is the widespread characterization — mis-characterization in their eyes — of Mormonism as merely another “denomination” of Christianity. Phrases like “a stronghold of Satan’s” (applied to Utah) and “false prophecy” (applied to the “cult” ) get bandied about in some circles. Others are coldly analytical; a Mormon president, they correctly adduce, would only aid the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ remarkable success at proselytizing in the U.S. and around the world.
How can Romney address this concern? It’s not like he could — or should — say he’s no Mormon role model. And talking theology at all is only likely to exacerbate his problem with the voters who care about it, and those are the voters he needs.
Some people believe that Mormonism is incompatible with Christianity—Romney isn’t going to win them over. Others think that Mormonism isn’t particularly relevant to a person’s ability to hold the office of President so long as that candidate isn’t going to use the Oval Office for evangelization. (I’m in the latter category.) The problem with Romney’s speech is that it doesn’t help either. Those who reject Mormonism as a “cult” aren’t going to vote for Romney. Those who want to look beyond Romney’s Mormonism are going to have to confront it head-on. Either way, Romney’s “opening the door” to attacks against his religion and politicizing his faith.
Could Romney pull it off? If he delivers a truly great speech, it could revitalize his campaign. But it’s a major risk, especially with Huckabee doing so well with the evangelical vote. Romney’s campaign is in serious trouble: he needed the momentum from Iowa, New Hampshire, and Michigan to carry him into the later contests. Now with Huckabee surging, he might not even get that. He doesn’t have the strength nationally to compete without the boost of winning Iowa, and with the expectations game he’s set from himself, to not win Iowa convincingly could be a death blow to his campaign.
Romney may not have much of a choice but to reassure skittish conservatives that his Mormonism isn’t an issue but his faith should be—but if he doesn’t deliver it could spell the end of his campaign. The eyes of the nation will be on him tomorrow, and this will be the greatest test of his campaign. Pull it off, and he could stay in the race and has a shot at the nomination. If he fails, he could end up losing it all. In a race that’s so far up in the air, a moment of consequence like this could have major impacts on the shape of the race.