During Mitt Romney's four years as governor of Massachusetts, his religious
beliefs never once became an issue. For anyone who fears that a Mormon elected
to high office would somehow misuse his position for theological reasons,
Romney's gubernatorial record offers strong evidence that such concerns are
But prejudice about other people's religions doesn't yield easily to empirical
proof, and Romney's campaign for president has had to contend from the outset
with a handicap faced by no other candidate: More than 25 percent of Americans
say they would not vote for a Mormon.
"I'm amazed by how many people I know who won't vote for Mitt Romney because of
his Mormonism," e-mails a friend of mine, a conservative Southern Christian.
"My wife, for instance. She says, 'Anybody willing to believe things as crazy
as the things Mormons believe, I can't trust his judgment.' I pointed out to
her that we believe that a man was raised from the dead, that he comes to us
every week under the guise of bread and wine, and that we eat him up. 'That's
different,' she said."
It remains to be seen whether Romney's much-anticipated speech in Texas
tomorrow on religion and politics can allay the qualms of voters like my
friend's wife. It seems clear that Romney will not follow the example of John
F. Kennedy, who dealt with the "Catholic issue" in 1960 by saying in essence
that if elected president, he would leave his religious views outside the Oval
Office. Not only is Romney is too devoted to his faith to minimize it in that
fashion, he is concerned, as he noted in New Hampshire on Monday, "that faith
has disappeared in many respects from the public square."
But the former governor might want to quote JFK's warning about the risk of
imposing an unofficial religious test on office-seekers. "While this year it
may be a Catholic against whom the finger of suspicion is pointed," Kennedy
said, "in other years it has been, and may someday be again, a Jew or a
Quaker or a Unitarian or a Baptist. . . . Today I may be the victim
but tomorrow it may be you."
It was on Sunday that the Romney campaign announced the forthcoming speech,
saying the candidate would discuss how his "own faith would inform his
presidency if he were elected." On the same day in Britain, as it happened, the
BBC broadcast an interview with former prime minister Tony Blair, who said that
his Christian faith had been "hugely important" to him during his 10 years in
power but that he had felt constrained to keep it a secret for fear of being
thought a crackpot.
"It's difficult to talk about religious faith in our political system," Blair
said. "If you are in the American political system . . . you can talk about
religious faith and people say, 'Yes, that's fair enough,' and it is something
they respond to quite naturally. You talk about it in our system and, frankly,
people do think you're a nutter."
Apparently that was more than Blair was willing to risk. The fear of being
thought ridiculous was why his press secretary had snapped, "We don't do G-d,"
when an American reporter asked the prime minister about his religious views in
2003. It was why Blair's advisers vehemently protested when he wanted to end a
televised speech on the eve of the Iraq war with the words "G-d bless you."
American presidents routinely invoke G-d's blessing on the nation, but Blair's
spinmasters warned him against offending "people who don't want chaplains
pushing stuff down their throats." (Blair told his flacks they were "the most
unG-dly lot," but bowed to their demand and ended the speech with a limp "thank
By American standards, it is astonishing that a British prime minister should
be unable to acknowledge taking Christianity seriously without causing himself
political damage. Astonishing, and terribly sad. More than an ocean separates
the United States from its mother country and much of Western Europe. Here,
where any establishment of religion is barred by the Constitution, religious
faiths flourish, and every presidential candidate is a self-identified
believer. Across the pond, where a form of Christianity has been the
established religion for centuries, the church has become a hollow shell, and a
politician cannot "do G-d" without being scorned for his irrationality.
Mitt Romney knows that his speech isn't going to win over every voter who is
uneasy at the prospect of a Mormon in the White House. Some anti-Mormon
prejudice may be too entrenched to be dislodged by reason. But the very fact
that Romney can give such a speech and have it draw such close and respectful
attention is an indication of America's exceptional nature.