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On Romney's Speech

By Jay Cost

There are two ways to evaluate Romney's speech. The first is as a matter of political theory: is the logic of the speech sound? The second is as a matter of public opinion: will its logic have any force with the voters?

As a matter of public opinion, a few voters who watched the speech were surely swayed -- but it will not have a direct, mass effect. Not enough people will have watched it -- even in Iowa. What it might do is change the media narrative. Romney can't have people in Iowa and New Hampshire continuously hear that he is slipping in the polls. This speech can change that story, at least for a while.

As a matter of political theory, I have mixed feelings about it. Romney's basic thrust was the following. There is a common faith in this country, a "great moral inheritance" derived from the shared belief in a divine, benevolent Creator, that translates into universal political ideals: equality, service, and liberty. The American position therefore recognizes that faith is an important aspect of civil society, but that at the same time society must allow for the multiplicity of religious sentiments. This creed is what has fostered a dynamism that "has kept America in the forefront of civilized nations even as others regard religious freedom as something to be destroyed." Accordingly, what is needed is a president who appreciates and shares this basic faith. Furthermore, citizens have a duty to recognize both the importance and the limitations of the role of faith in public life: candidates should be judged on the basis of the fact that they have faith, but not on its particulars.

I think Romney has hit upon one of the original premises of American religious toleration. I thought he did the Founders' views justice -- and he also made them relevant to today. On the question of how to integrate religion into the basic structure of civic life, I think Romney's reasoning was sound.

But this is the view from 30,000 feet. The purpose of this election is not to design a new constitutional system. Its purpose is to elect a president to govern over a divided nation. Romney offered a rigorous defense of the foundation of American civil society -- but he never addressed the concern that induced him to give this speech in the first place.

And what is that concern? It is the same concern that always turns American unity into partisan division -- the transition from questions about how to structure the government to questions about what to do once the government has been structured. Here -- we are confronted with divisions, many of which have their derivations in differing religious opinions. While it is true that religious similarities yield similar political ideals -- it is also true that religious differences yield different political preferences.

And herein lies Romney's essential problem. He has taken issue positions that many voters take because of specific religious beliefs. This is not to say that there are not other ways to derive those positions - but it is to say that many people who adopt those positions justify them by their particular theological beliefs. They are not, cannot, be justified by a shared religious creed. If they could, everybody who holds to that creed would be in agreement, and there would be no political issue. You can justify trial by jury or "guilty until proven innocent" by reference to this shared American religious creed. But you cannot justify opposition to embryonic stem cell research, abortion, or homosexual rights by referencing that creed (unless, of course, you want to argue that the creed is not shared by all - in which case you are just begging the question).

Romney has taken very clear positions that most who agree derive from their particular religious beliefs. He has also said very clearly that his faith informs his issue positions. However, by not discussing his religion in anything but the broadest terms - he is demurring from explaining to voters why he agrees with them. Reference to the hackneyed proposition that "every person is a child of God" does not suffice. We all think that. That does not connect with the particular campaign that he has chosen to run.

I would also note that it is not just the positions he has taken - it is the positions he has chosen to emphasize. If Romney were running a campaign akin to those of John McCain, Fred Thompson, or Rudy Giuliani -- one that does not emphasize the political positions that often stem from particular religious beliefs -- this speech would probably be superfluous. But, by running on the issues that animate Christian conservatives -- Romney is signaling to them that he is animated by those issues in a way that his competitors are not.

Above all, he has made fuller use of the language of evangelicals than any candidate except Mike Huckabee. It is not just that he agrees with evangelicals on the issues. Through his word choices, he is intimating that he thinks in the same terms. For instance -- look at his response to the question about the literal truth of the Bible in the YouTube debate:

You know -- yes, I believe it's the word of God, the Bible is the word of God. I mean, I might interpret the word differently than you interpret the word, but I read the Bible and I believe the Bible is the word of God. I don't disagree with the Bible. I try to live by it.

Here's what he had to say about his faith in yesterday's speech. This was the one specific point he made:

What do I believe about Jesus Christ? I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and the Savior of mankind. My church's beliefs about Christ may not all be the same as those of other faiths. Each religion has its own unique doctrines and history.

The Boston Globe has also noted Romney's frequent reference of Christ as his "personal savior" - a term not commonly used by Mormons, but rather by evangelical Protestants. Finally, this is what he said Wednesday on Greta Van Susteren's show in response to a question about whether the campaign is physically grueling:

Oh, it's physically grueling. But, you know, at the end of the day after a few speeches and a lot of campaign stops, I'm more energized than drained. I have to read for half an hour or an hour to fall asleep. By the way, thanks to the Gideons for giving me some good material at the end of the day.

More than any candidate except Huckabee - Romney has placed rhetorical emphasis on the divinity of Jesus Christ and the authority of the Bible. This is a signal to evangelicals.

I would suggest that the whole issue of Mormonism is actually a red herring in this campaign. The issue here is Romney himself. Remember that the Mitt Romney of 2007 is very different than the Mitt Romney of 2002 on many social issues. Five years ago, he had little to do with evangelical Christians. Now -- through his positions, his language, and his emphases -- he wants them to believe he is just like they are. That is all well and good -- and indeed he might be. But surely he must expect those voters to be wary of the systematic changes that a 60 year old man has undergone, to want to know more about this man and what he believes, and to frame those questions in terms of religious beliefs. Is it unreasonable for those whom he is openly courting (on their terms) to inquire a bit about the origins of his policy preferences, to want some insight into his inner being, to see whether he will remain faithful to his promises once in office?

Romney seems to think so. Not only did yesterday's speech provide no positive answer -- but, because it once again leaned so heavily on the non-sequitur of religious toleration, it placed the questioners on the same ash heap upon which have been placed the narrow-minded boors who drove Roger Williams to Rhode Island and Brigham Young to Utah. Romney is not the first major party candidate Mormon to run for President. He's not the second. He's not even the third. He's the fourth. Why is his religion an issue the fourth time around? It is because he has chosen to run an explicitly religious campaign that appeals to voters whose religion has political salience to them. Unsurprisingly, voters want to know a little bit more about his beliefs, but in response he transforms into the candidate of Lincoln's "political religion," deploring a religious "test," and arguing that we focus on the aspects of religion that unite us all.

The speech I would like to have seen would connect his religion to his particular political beliefs in a way that his rhetoric has been implying for a year. For instance, Mormons believe in the preexistence of the soul. They believe that families are divinely and infinitely connected. It seems to me that this forms a very sound basis for his pro-life and pro-family views. The voters he is courting are responding with questions about his beliefs. Why not answer them? He just finished saying that they are good, tolerant folk. He wants their votes. What's to fear? It seems to me to that the best antiseptic for the religious intolerance Romney fears is fresh air. He should bring his beliefs into the open -- proudly and forthrightly. Explain how they connect to his politics. Tell anybody who won't vote for him because of it that he doesn't want their votes, anyway!

The contrast to Romney is George W. Bush -- whose 2000 campaign is pretty clearly the model for Romney's. In 2000, Bush ran as the electable social conservative: he felt as passionately about these issues as Christian conservative voters did, and -- unlike Keyes or Bauer -- he could actually be elected. Romney is trying to do exactly the same. But Bush did something that Romney has so far refused to do. He explained himself to the voters. He gave them some of the particulars of the faith that informed those beliefs. He did not say much -- but he communicated to voters why he took the positions he did. They were convictions, rooted in his personal conversion to Christ after years of indulgence. Romney, on the other hand, adopts all of the positions that Bush adopted, has the same vim, uses the same language -- but won't explain why.

I am not arguing that government should be able to thwart the people's will and bar a duly elected person from taking office based upon his religious beliefs. I am arguing, however, that voters can vote for a person for whatever reason they choose. Furthermore, I am arguing that a candidate who has intentionally wooed a group of religious voters based upon a set of issue positions whose origin usually comes from a particular set of religious beliefs should not be surprised that the courtship breaks down because he refuses to detail his beliefs. Nor, for that matter, can he make implicit or explicit reference to bigotry as the explanation for the failed courtship.

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