MItt's Mormon Dilemma  

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Terry Eastland Mon Dec 10, 10:53 AM ET


Washington (The Weekly Standard) Vol. 013, Issue 14 - 12/17/2007 - The question that has preoccupied the Mitt Romney campaign since its outset is whether voters will hold his Mormon faith against him.

The question assumed greater urgency in late November when polls showed Romney had lost his lead in Iowa--which kicks off the primary schedule with its caucus on January 3--to Mike Huckabee. These polls also indicated that evangelical conservatives, who may constitute upwards of 40 percent of the caucus goers, were breaking for Huckabee, the former Southern Baptist pastor. Evangelicals have tended to object more strongly than most other religious groups to the beliefs of Mormons, with some regarding Mormonism as a "cult." A fair reading of Iowa was that Romney's religion was not helping him with evangelicals.

The Romney campaign's strategy is based on winning in Iowa and then, five days later, in New Hampshire. The theory is that these victories would generate the momentum necessary to go all the way. With that strategy imperiled by the movement of evangelicals in Iowa toward Huckabee--a movement that could well presage similar developments in South Carolina and Florida--Romney gave a speech on religion last week at the George Bush Presidential Library at Texas A&M.

There was much in the speech that evangelicals and other religious conservatives will find to their liking. First, there was Romney's treatment of religious liberty. He said it is an inalienable right "with which each is endowed by his Creator." He implied it is, amongst all our liberties, the very first. Romney said he understood the religion clause of the First Amendment as being fundamentally about securing "the free practice of religion" and pointed out that while achieving religious liberty has been a long and arduous process, its benefits--"diversity of cultural expression" and "vibrancy of .  .  . religious dialogue"--are evident and contrast sharply with what you find in Europe, where established churches seem to be "withering away."

Second, Romney took a whack at those (unnamed) who take "the notion of the separation of church and state .  .  . well beyond its original meaning" by seeking "to remove from the public domain any acknow-ledgment of God." It is, he said, "as if they are intent on establishing a new religion in America--the religion of secularism. They are wrong." Romney called for public acknowledgments of God--"in ceremony and word." God "should remain on our currency, in our pledge, in the teaching of our history, and during the holiday season, nativity scenes and menorahs should be welcome in our public places." Romney even managed to work in a reference to judges, saying we need jurists who will stick to original meaning and let stand, for example, "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance.

Third, Romney affirmed that religion is a force for the nation's well-being. "No movement of conscience can succeed in America that cannot speak to the convictions of religious people," he said, citing as examples abolition in the 19th century and civil rights in the 20th. He also mentioned "the right to life itself," a movement not yet finished--and clearly of importance to many Republican primary voters.

These are points that, to one degree or another, the other Republican candidates would agree with. The unique challenge for Romney was to allay the concerns some people have about his church. One is whether as president he would take directions from the Mormon hierarchy in Salt Lake City. To this he said, drawing sharp lines of jurisdiction, "Let me assure you that no authorities of my church, or 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."

Nothing the current Mormon authorities have done suggests they would fail to stay within their churchly jurisdiction. Nor is there any aspect of Romney's tenure as governor of Massachusetts that suggests he failed to observe the distinction between church and state. The promise Romney made in his speech--that he would serve "no one religion, no one group, no one cause, and no one interest," but "only the common cause of the people of the United States"--is credible.

Romney raised the question of "how my own faith would inform my presidency, if I were elected," and his answer included nothing distinctively Mormon. Instead, as he explained, where Mormonism supports the same values as other faiths, those values--such as that of "compassionate care to others"--would inform his presidency.

Romney wanted his listeners to know, however, that the distinctions he draws between church and state do not mean that he only weakly believes. Indeed, he vigorously rejected the idea that he should distance himself from his 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." He continued: "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." Even, he said, if it costs him the election.

Here Romney came across as an authentic believer. For some voters, the issue, of course, is not that he believes but what he believes--i.e., what the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints teaches (such as that God has a material body and that there are other books of Scripture besides the Bible). LDS teachings are at variance with the basic beliefs of historic Christianity, held to not just by evangelicals, but also by mainline Protestants and Catholics.

But Romney firmly declined to go into LDS beliefs (though, in the course of stating that "my church's beliefs about Christ may not all be the same as those of other faiths," he did profess that "Jesus Christ is the Son of God and Savior of mankind"). He gave a reason for his position: To have a presidential candidate "describe and explain his church's distinctive doctrines would enable the very religious test" for office prohibited in Article VI of the Constitution.

This article states: "No religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States." The constitutional scholar Akhil Amar has pointed out that this provision was well ahead of its time: In 1787 no fewer than 11 states, following the practice in Europe, actually imposed religious qualifications on government officials. Article VI, wrote Amar, made possible the election of "presidents of various denominations and even some men with no explicit religious affiliation, such as Jefferson and Lincoln."

Americans are of course free to vote for any reason, including the religion of a candidate. Knowing this, a candidate might offer his faith as a reason to vote for him--and perhaps not for someone else.

Romney is evidently concerned that Huckabee is just that kind of candidate and that this explains in substantial part his changing fortune in Iowa. Huckabee has emphasized that his faith "defines" him--and by implication his candidacy. He presents himself as a "Christian leader." Thus, while Romney has sought to downplay his Mormonism--it is not an electoral asset in Iowa--Huckabee has played up his faith. Romney's statement in his speech that "I do not define my candidacy by my religion" may fairly be read not only as an effort to calm anxieties about the prospect of a Mormon in the White House, but also as a response to how Huckabee is offering himself to Iowa voters.

Romney hasn't directly challenged Huckabee on this, and chances are he won't. He is too risk-averse to do something so bold. He may wind up being the victim of a dynamic that he had no effective means of overcoming.

Terry Eastland is publisher of THE WEEKLY STANDARD.