For months, pundits twittered over "will he or won't he" give The Speech. Then when Mitt Romney (R-MA) found himself in second place to Mike Huckabee (R-AR) in IA, pundits worried, "should he or shouldn't he" give The Speech. He finally gave The Speech. It was ... A Yawn.
When John Kennedy spoke about the role his Catholicism would play in his decision-making as president he faced a vocal, well-organized campaign of opposition led by Norman Vincent Peale and other prominent Protestant pastors, notes Newsweek religion editor Kenneth L. Woodward. And when he delivered his speech before the Greater Houston Ministerial Association, some of them were sitting right there in the audience glaring at him. Romney, on the other hand, "faces no organized religious opposition he can allude to, no anti-Mormon campaign he can shame - as Kennedy adroitly did - for blatant religious bigotry" (there is evidence that those anti-Mormon push-poll calls in IA and NH Romney condemned as "un-American" were generated by the Romney campaign for some as-yet known dark purpose) and gave The Speech before a hand-picked audience at the George Bush Presidential Library and Museum in College Station, TX.
Romney spokesman Kevin Madden had billed The Speech, titled "Faith in America," as "an opportunity for Governor Romney to share his views on religious liberty, the grand tradition religious tolerance has played in the progress of our nation, and how the governor's own faith would inform his presidency if he were elected." There was no shortage of kibitzers advising Romney what to say – and what to steer clear of – in The Speech:
†Alan Wolfe, director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College told The Boston Globe that, "Kennedy's speech was actually an antireligion speech; it was a don't pay-any-attention-to-my-Catholicism speech. In the 2007 Republican Party you can't do that, because it's a party that essentially has a religious test for the nomination," adding "If he says something about Mormonism as his actual religion, it's not going to please evangelicals too much. But if he gives the kind of Jesus-is-my-personal-savior speech, evangelicals won't buy it and he's going to alienate his own Mormon friends." Wolfe advised that Romney explain the differences and similarities between Mormonism and mainline Christianity. "If I were in his shoes, I would take a more honest approach and say this what I am [sic], this is what Mormons believe, this is why we're Christians. He can't deny who he is."
† As The Stiletto has before him, Christopher Hitchens called upon Romney to stop the cynical game he's been playing with people who want to know what, exactly, he believes so they can make an informed decision about how, exactly, his beliefs will influence his presidency: "You encourage the raising of an awkward question in such a way as to make it seem illegitimate. You then strike a hurt attitude and say that you are being persecuted for your faith. This, in turn, discourages other reporters from raising the question. Yes, that's the three-card monte." Hitchens wrote that Romney needs to explain to voters the constitutional implications of the Mormon belief that "their leadership is prophetic and inspired and that its rulings take precedence over any human law."
† Maybe he can't – and that's why David Limbaugh argued that Romney should "can the speech," because "Romney would be better off relying on people's relative ignorance of other religions. ... Romney also runs a risk in giving a 'religious' speech that skirts all theological questions ... If Romney gives a speech that never gets past these generalities, it may prompt critics to probe further and discover there are major differences in Mormonism and mainstream Christianity of which they were unaware."
Romney must have read all the advice – and decided not to follow any of it. The Speech was platitudinous ("Freedom and religion endure together, or perish alone."), self-serving ("some ... 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") and gave the impression that Romney is hiding something ("My church's beliefs about Christ may not all be the same as those of other faiths."). Comparing Romney's and Kennedy's speeches, John Nichols, a columnist for The Nation writes: "Where Kennedy spoke frankly and in great detail about his Catholicism and about Catholics in politics, Romney eschewed a deep discussion of Mormonism or of his family's historic leadership role in the Church of the Latter Day Saints."
Romney wants Americans wishing to be true to the faith of their fathers to make the leap of faith (rather, the breach of faith) required to ignore the Pope, various Eastern Orthodox Patriarchs and leaders of every Christian denomination (not just evangelicals) who unanimously denounce Mormonism as heretical, while simultaneously accepting that the apostolic doctrines of their religions needed correction, as Mormons insist – "As the Bible was compiled, organized, translated and transcribed, many errors entered the text."
Kennedy's religion was regarded as hostile to the Constitution and the principals on which this country was founded, and Romney's religion is regarded as hostile to the beliefs of devout Christians. Kennedy reassured voters that he would not impose the tenets of his faith on anyone else, but instead of making the case that Christians wouldn't "jettison their beliefs" by supporting him Romney vowed that he wouldn't jettison his. Kennedy overcame the opposition to his candidacy. It remains to be seen whether Romney hardened the opposition to his.
On a related topic, Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen wrote two hostile anti-Huckabee pieces in as many weeks. In the first, he called upon Huckabee to "go first" and "give the speech that others have urged from Romney. Tell us how your religious beliefs, your rejection of accepted scientific knowledge, will not impinge on your presidency. We know your faith matters to you. We want to know whether it will matter to us." In the second, he writes: "It is absurd that Romney feels compelled to deliver a speech defending his beliefs and that Huckabee does not have to explain how, in this day and age, he does not believe in evolution."
Says who? At a recent news conference in Des Moines, IA, he was asked whether creationism should be taught in public schools, and gave an answer that most Americans would find perfectly reasonable: "I believe God created the heavens and the Earth. I wasn't there when he did it, so how he did it, I don't know." Reports The Associated Press:
[Huckabee] expressed frustration that he is asked about it so often, arguing with the questioner that it ultimately doesn't matter what his personal views are.
"That's an irrelevant question to ask me - I'm happy to answer what I believe, but what I believe is not what's going to be taught in 50 different states. Education is a state function. The more state it is, and the less federal it is, the better off we are."
The former Arkansas governor pointed out he has advocated for broad public school course lists that include the creative arts and math and science. Why, then, he asked, is evolution such a fascination?
It galls Cohen that more Americans find the tenets of Mormonism heretical (or, at the least, hard to swallow) than the tenets of intelligent design. And lest Cohen feel intellectually superior to those who do, Arizona State University physicist and astrobiologist Paul Davies made the case that "science has its own faith-based belief system" in a recent New York Times op-ed. He cites physics, in particular:
When I was a student, the laws of physics were regarded as completely off limits. The job of the scientist, we were told, is to discover the laws and apply them, not inquire into their provenance. The laws were treated as "given" - imprinted on the universe like a maker's mark at the moment of cosmic birth - and fixed forevermore.