Campaign 2008, Politics

Romney’s Faith In America Speech

I happened to catch most of Mitt Romney’s “Faith in America” speech and was quite impressed by it. Apparently, others have had the same reaction. (NRO’s The Corner has plenty of other reactions.)

Romney could have easily hurt himself with this speech, but at the very least he’s no worse off than he was before—and now that he’s delivered a speech that shows real passion, I have a feeling it will give him a decent boost. Perhaps not enough to keep Huckabee from winning in Iowa, but enough to keep him in the race.

His rhetoric was excellent, and I also appreciated his metaphor of the loss of Europe’s Christian heritage and the rise of radical Islam. However, the part that really got to me was the end:

Recall the early days of the First Continental Congress in Philadelphia, during the fall of 1774. With Boston occupied by British troops, there were rumors of imminent hostilities and fears of an impending war. In this time of peril, someone suggested that they pray. But there were objections. “They were too divided in religious sentiments,” what with Episcopalians and Quakers, Anabaptists and Congregationalists, Presbyterians and Catholics.

Then Sam Adams rose, and said he would hear a prayer from anyone of piety and good character, as long as they were a patriot.

And so together they prayed, and together they fought, and together, by the grace of God … they founded this great nation.

I have to admit, in terms of American political rhetoric, I think that part of Romney’s speech was the best of 2007 by a long shot. It was delivered with real passion and conviction, and the message was strong: religious convictions do matter, but they matter in terms of the common principles we all share. There will be those whose theological differences with the Latter-Day Saints will never allow them to support a Mormon for public office—and while I find that attitude perilously close to requiring a religious test for office, there is nothing in the Constitution which prevents individual voters from exercising their individual consciences in picking a Presidential candidate. However, for those wondering just how Romney’s faith will or will not influence his job as a President got their answer.

Romney did exclude atheists and agnostics from his speech, which was a notable and lamentable omission. Still, they’re not the audience that Romney is going for at this point in the race. He’ll have to recognize those groups later and more fully explain how they fit into his vision of America, but that is a task for another day. This was a speech that was directly primarily at Evangelical Christians, and Romney spoke convincingly to his intended audience in language they could understand and appreciate.

In the end, I don’t think Romney will get the nomination, and if he loses Iowa I think he’ll be sunk. Still, today’s speech was a masterwork of American rhetoric, a great speech about our shared values as a society, and it was delivered very well. This was Romney at his best, and he looked and sounded like someone who could do justice to the Office of President. It may not be enough to win the race, but it’s still a speech that will be remembered as one of the best political addresses of the year and perhaps one of the better ones of our times.


Romney’s Key Moment

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.