“He’s going to have to give the speech,” says one well-known evangelical leader of Mitt Romney. “It’s going to be an issue until he deals with it.”
“The speech” refers to an address, modeled on John F. Kennedy’s 1960 talk to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association, in which Romney would discuss his Mormonism, as Kennedy dealt with what he called the “so-called religious issue” of his Catholicism. It’s a speech Romney has so far declined to give. But today, with the first votes of 2008 less than seven weeks away and a variety of polls showing that a significant number of Americans, many of them evangelical Christians, would hesitate to vote for a Mormon, a number of influential evangelicals believe Romney should make some sort of statement.
Romney and his staff have read Kennedy’s speech quite closely; they know what JFK did and did not say. He did not defend Catholicism or any particular Catholic doctrine, endeavoring instead to describe “not what kind of church I believe in, for that should be important only to me, but what kind of America I believe in.” He did defend his right to run for president, whatever his faith. And he did suggest that it was un-American for anyone to try to impose a religious test on his candidacy.
It was, by all accounts, a masterful speech, and it helped Kennedy win the White House. But does Romney, leading in polls in Iowa and New Hampshire, and moving up in South Carolina, need to do something similar? During a campaign swing through northeastern Iowa recently, I discussed the question with Romney, along with the issue of what such a speech would actually include. With a demeanor that ranged from confident and optimistic to defensive and testy, he gave me a look at what might lie ahead.
His first point: He has no plans to do anything, at least not yet. “Maybe a speech would be helpful at some point in some setting, but at this stage I don’t see a particular requirement or need or value to that,” he told me. Pausing for a moment, he added, “But that could change.” I asked whether, as some rumors have it, the speech is already written and is just waiting for the right time. “No, no,” Romney said. “If it’s going to be written, it will be written by me.” (Romney aides say a recent report that his advisers are dictating his decision was inaccurate; Romney has consistently said the decision will be made by him.)
If he chooses to give the speech, perhaps the most difficult issue Romney will confront is how to address, or whether to address, the main concern of many evangelicals: the question of whether a Mormon may rightly be called a Christian. Mormon leaders have long said the answer is yes, pointing out that their name is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. But the general public is divided. According to a recent Pew survey, a narrow majority of Americans — 52 percent — believes that Mormons are Christians, but 52 percent of weekly churchgoing evangelicals disagree.
That number includes some leaders who support Romney. “As a Christian I am completely opposed to the doctrines of Mormonism,” the Rev. Bob Jones III said recently in a statement endorsing Romney. “I’d be very concerned if he tried to make it appear in any of his statements that Mormonism is a Christian denomination of some sort. It isn’t. There’s a theological gulf that can’t be bridged.”
It was nearly an attack disguised as an endorsement. In our discussion, I mentioned to Romney a similar statement by Rep. Bob Inglis, a conservative Republican congressman from South Carolina, who recently recounted a meeting he had with Romney. Inglis told him, “You cannot equate Mormonism with Christianity; you cannot say, ‘I am a Christian just like you,’“ according to an account of the conversation by Bloomberg News. “If he does that,” said Inglis, “every Baptist preacher in the South is going to have to go to the pulpit on Sunday and explain the differences.” I wanted to know what Romney thought about that; Romney wasn’t eager to talk.
“Did Inglis say that to you?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” Romney said. “He may well have.”
“You don’t recall the conversation?”
“I have a lot of conversations. I don’t recall the exact words of people, but if he says he said that, I’ll take his word for it.”
“What was your reaction?”
“I don’t recall the conversation so precisely that I can describe my exact reaction to that.”
Recall precisely. My exact reaction. Sometimes one forgets that Romney was trained as a lawyer, but not on that day. I tried one more time. “Well, okay, if you have been told that by other people, what is your reaction to the substance of what they are saying?” “You know, the term ‘Christian’ means different things to different people,” Romney told me. “Jews aren’t Christian. That doesn’t preclude a Jew from being able to run for office and become president. I believe that Jesus Christ is the savior of the world and is the son of God. Now, some people say, well, that doesn’t necessarily make you a Christian because Christian refers to a certain group of evangelical Christian faiths. That’s fine. That’s their view. Others say, no, anyone who believes in Jesus Christ as the son of God and the Savior should be called Christian. That’s fine, too. I’ll just describe what I believe and not try to distinguish my faith from others. That’s really something for my faith to do and for the churches amongst themselves to consider.”
It seems likely that if Romney decides to give the speech, he might include words like that. What else would he put in? There would almost certainly be a strong general reaffirmation of his faith. “I know there are some people hoping that I will simply declare in some way that my church is all well and good but that I don’t really believe it and I don’t try to follow it,” Romney told me. “That’s not going to happen. I’m proud of my faith. I love my faith. It is the faith of my fathers and mothers. I do my best to live by its teachings. And it in every way would teach me to follow the Constitution and follow the rule of law and recognize that my duty is to my country.” (In the 1960 speech, JFK said he would not apologize for his faith, “nor do I intend to disavow either my views or my church in order to win this election.”)
But a Romney speech would likely include no discussion about the specific doctrines of the Mormon Church. Romney often says he is happy to answer any questions about his religion. “I was just recently on Bob Schieffer’s program [CBS’s Face the Nation], and in the first ten minutes he asked questions about my faith and I answered them,” Romney told me. “I didn’t duck any of them.” It’s true that he doesn’t duck questions, but he doesn’t always answer them, either. For example, in that CBS interview, Schieffer asked him, “I’m told that the Mormons teach that the Garden of Eden was in Missouri. Is that correct?” Romney answered: “You know, they’re probably the right folks to give you the answers to questions related to a bunch of Mormon teachings. So I’ll probably let them respond to questions about specific doctrines.” From there, Romney went on to explain that the values of Mormonism are “founded on Judeo-Christian principles.”
That answer, and dozens of others Romney has given in the last several months, suggest that any speech he might give would be based on the strategy of stressing the general similarities between his religion and others while not discussing discuss any doctrinal details.
The only time Romney has let down his guard on doctrinal discussions was in a radio appearance last August with an Iowa talk-radio host, Jan Mickelson, who seemed determined to prove that Romney did not fully abide by the tenets of the Mormon faith. (Mickelson is not a Mormon.) Off the air, but not out of range of a studio camera, Mickelson goaded Romney into an argument in which Romney not only defended himself (“Let me say that I understand my faith better than you do”), but abandoned his practice of avoiding doctrinal details. When Mickelson brought up the Second Coming, an exasperated Romney explained, “The Church says that Christ appears and splits the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem. That’s what the Church says. And then, over a thousand years of the millennium, that the world is reigned in two places, Jerusalem and Missouri…The law will come from Missouri, and the other will be from Jerusalem.” In spite of himself, Romney had been drawn into doctrine.
It was moment in which viewers saw a more human Romney than in dozens of campaign appearances. Romney was later surprised to learn that a camera had been running, but after seeing the video — his feistiness was more appealing than his more wonkish speeches and PowerPoint presentations — his campaign decided to post it on YouTube. It was perhaps a more telling example of his feelings about his religion than any speech would be.
“You don’t show many flashes of anger in public,” I said to him.
It’s not anger, Romney told me. “I call that intensity,” he said, laughing. “It’s just Romney intensity.” He told me the story of his father, George, the governor of Michigan, who had an “intense debate” with a state lawmaker. George Romney was holding the man by his lapels, which ripped in the grip of that Romney intensity. “It may be a bit of a family trait,” the son said, “to be very intense and very energized about things you believe very deeply.”