Politics & Policy

Mormon in America

Governor Mitt Romney has gotten a lot of advice over the last few months about how to handle some voters’ concerns about his Mormonism. Most of that advice has been bad. He was wise not to take it this morning. His speech did not focus on making the case that the Mormon Church is Christian, or that some of his opponents are bigoted. Those topics were addressed only in passing and by implication.

Instead he placed himself in the context of our national history. The Mormon Church was born in America, and it is to American tradition that Romney returned again and again. We have a government that protects religious liberty and allows churches to participate in public life, political leaders who respect religion, and a populace that has shown an ever-increasing tolerance for religious difference. Romney said that as president he would govern in accord with that heritage. He suggested that his faith would shape his governance not through its specific doctrines but through the values — “American values” — it instilled in him. He appeared to be a sincere and decent man of faith with a strong commitment to those values.

While America is a religious nation, it can be discomforting when a politician tackles the subject of religion. Even coreligionists can disagree about how to reconcile convictions of faith with the demands of a pluralistic public square. The reaction to Romney’s speech will no doubt include clarifying additions and criticisms of its omissions. We have a few small criticisms of our own.

The logic of his address was not always airtight. He said that for a political leader to describe his church’s teachings in detail “would enable the very religious test the Founders prohibited in the Constitution.” It may be unwise for many reasons for voters to expect political leaders to go into these details, but the Constitution has nothing to do with it: The religious-test clause prevents governments from barring people from running for office because of their religion; it lets voters make their decisions, and politicians try to influence their decisions, however they wish. Nor is the division between “church affairs,” where religious authority holds sway, and “the affairs of the nation,” where it does not, quite as sharp as Romney maintains: Most churches hope to form their members’ consciences, sometimes on matters of public concern.

Some of Romney’s themes were underdeveloped. What precisely did he mean when he said that “freedom requires religion”? He omitted any mention of atheists or agnostics in his paeans to the nation’s diversity of belief: Was this omission intentional? In stray remarks over the past year, he has said that “we need to have a person of faith lead this country” and cited the Bible in opposing same-sex marriage. If he continues to say such things, people are going to want him to go more deeply into the content of his faith.

Romney’s theoretical deficiencies do not, however, form the basis of a practical objection to him. He is a talented and accomplished man and we have no reason to think that his religion would keep him from governing the country well. And we suspect that most people who watched the speech were impressed, sympathetic, and sometimes moved. Romney delivered the speech well and showed some genuine emotion. It would be nice to see more of that Romney on the campaign trail.


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