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Mitt Romney’s Boilerplate Mistake

So Mitt Romney, facing the rise of Mike Huckabee’s Christian-centric campaign in Iowa and judging that the Huckabee surge is related to discomfort with Romney’s Mormonism, gave his much-anticipated speech on faith this morning. It’s perfectly fine Republican boilerplate — faith must inform our views but it does not guide them, the public square should not be naked, our Founders believed in religion and yet even they had to deal with intolerance toward minority faiths, Martin Luther King was really very good, etc. etc. Many commentators on the Right are praising the speech, but I fear they’re grading on a curve; strictly as a matter of rhetoric, it tended toward the bland. The only genuinely novel aspect of it was the addition of the Mormon trail to a brief account of the history of religious intolerance in America (“Because of their diverse beliefs, Ann Hutchinson was exiled from Massachusetts Bay, a banished Roger Williams founded Rhode Island, and two centuries later, Brigham Young set out for the West. Americans were unable to accommodate their commitment to their own faith with an appreciation for the convictions of others to different faiths…”).

The key passage is this:

I do not define my candidacy by my religion. A person should not be elected because of his faith nor should he be rejected because of his faith. Let me assure you that no authorities of my church, or of any other church for that matter, will ever exert influence on presidential decisions. Their authority is theirs, within the province of church affairs, and it ends where the affairs of the nation begin….

If I am fortunate to become your president, I will serve no one religion, no one group, no one cause, and no one interest. A President must serve only the common cause of the people of the United States.

There are some for whom these commitments are not enough. They would prefer it if I would simply distance myself from my religion, say that it is more a tradition than my personal conviction, or disavow one or another of its precepts. 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.

That’s entirely fine. But there’s something oddly pointless about this protestation. Who is the audience for this speech, aside from people like me who make their living in part watching them and reading their texts and writing about them? No one thought Romney would say that Mormon elders would play a leading role in his White House counseling him on policy. Anyone inclined to believe such a thing won’t be convinced by Romney’s protestations in any case.

Romney has always had an uphill battle in this election, although you’re not supposed to say it, as it will occasion someone else delivering you a long speech about religious tolerance. As far as minority religions go, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints is one of the minority-est. There are, by at least one count, three times as many Jews in the United States. The number of Americans who openly profess to be Christian is around 74 percent; the number of those raised Christian is 84 percent. Americans are without a doubt the most tolerant people on earth, but religion is very important to them, and someone whose fellow believers number 1/55th of the population of the United States is someone who is going to have trouble closing the deal with voters.

For those who don’t know Romney is a Mormon, well, they sure will now. For the next two or three days, it’s all anybody will know about him. Chances are it is the word that people will most associate with him from here on out. I don’t think that’s a good direction for a campaign that finds itself in the fight of its life in Iowa against the most explicitly Christian candidate in the field. (The only response so far comparable to mine is David Frum’s, though his typically trenchant criticism has more to do with the underlying meaning of the speech.)



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