MITT ROMNEY gave a tactically astute speech yesterday about the importance of religion in American life, but he addressed it to a particular audience: those who believe in evangelical Christianity as deeply as he holds to the tenets of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. He left out a significant number of Americans, including those who accept no religion or are less than fervid in their faith. They believe just as strongly in freedom and tolerance as their fellow citizens who go to church every Sunday.
"No authorities in my church, or of any other church for that matter, will ever exert influence on presidential decisions," he said yesterday, echoing the Catholic John F. Kennedy's famous statement in 1960 that the Vatican would not sway his presidency. Indeed, nothing that Romney did in his four years as governor of Massachusetts would suggest otherwise.
Romney wasn't addressing fears about future presidential action, but a sense among some Christians that Mormonism is a mysterious cult. Some have said they would never vote for a Mormon as president. Mike Huckabee, Baptist preacher and former Arkansas governor, has overtaken Romney in a Des Moines Register poll tracking opinion in Iowa before the caucuses Jan. 3.
To those voters, Romney had a simple message: Be not afraid. "Freedom requires religion just as religion requires freedom," he said. And just to make sure they grasped which religion he was espousing, he added: "I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and the Savior of mankind."
Romney had a kind word for Jews and Muslims, but he was directing his speech to Christian voters. "As I travel across the country," he said ". . . I am always moved by the many houses of worship with their steeples, all pointing to heaven." And he contrasted these American scenes with the emptiness of cathedrals in Europe: "postcard backdrops to societies just too busy or 'enlightened' to venture inside and kneel in prayer."
Romney got applause when he criticized those who would supplant a faith-centered nation with "the religion of secularism." But given the amount of violence and intolerance that various religions have generated throughout history, it is unwise to insist that religious belief is a prerequisite for freedom.
Someone with ambitions to lead all the people in a pluralistic society should not identity so closely with any religion or religious figure, even one as revered as Jesus. When Kennedy addressed the Protestant ministers in Houston, he was careful not to engage in this kind of discussion. He drew attention to what he said were more important issues in 1960: "War and hunger and ignorance and despair know no religious barrier." The same holds true today, and the building of a just country and world, not religious fervor, should be the focus of the 2008 presidential campaign.