When presidential candidate Kennedy addressed his Catholic faith in September 1960, he spoke directly to Protestant ministers about their worries related to papal control and political autonomy. Kennedy then faced their confrontational questions.
Presidential candidate Romney spoke before the first primary votes have even been cast to a family and friendly audience. He addressed neither the issue of Mormonism as a perceived cult, nor did he take grilling questions from clergy who hold that view.
The common geography of Texas does not make Romney’s speech similar to Kennedy’s. The later was direct; the former was more indirect. The later was courageous; the former was cover. The later was confrontational; the former was conciliatory. References of similarity between the two speeches surely run thin.
Make no mistake: Romney should not have had to give this speech. Religion should be neither a qualifier nor a disqualifier for public office. But his religion is and will continue to be an issue among practicing charismatic, fundamentalist and conservative-evangelical Christians, and those who are nominally involved in those churches.
Appeals to patriotism will not replace the suspicions of those who view Mormonism as a cult or at least as a strange American religion. Conservative churches have long taught that Mormonism is outside the boundaries of Christianity. Moreover, too few conservative adherents have had no meaningful firsthand experience with Mormon believers that would give them any reason to reconsider what has been pounded on pulpits for years.
Romney will not convert pious conservative Christians with appeals to patriotism, a value that they see in every other Republican candidate and more profoundly in John McCain and Rudy Giuliani.
Neither will he convince them with his statement that he believes Jesus Christ is the son of God and the savior of mankind. After all, they expect every Republican presidential candidate to make that kind of declaration, which is now akin to the anti-tax pledge.
The former governor did little to break the theological logjam blocking his candidacy. He would have helped himself by admitting that some find odd the doctrines of his faith. He then could have moved quickly to ask conservative Christians to judge him by his faith in action, beginning with his proven commitment to family.
Mental assent to right doctrine has always been more important to conservative Christianity than right praxis. Theological belief is more important than moral behavior, except at the point of family issues, thanks in no small measure to the advocacy of those religious leaders who oppose Romney.
Yet that appeal could have earned him support if he will capitalize on it. His phrase “a common creed of moral conviction” is a building block from which to address faith in action.
Likewise, he will gain the hearing of people of faith if he repeats often having watched his father march with Martin Luther King and his parents show compassion.
Romney will certainly gain admiration from the many Christians outside the fundamentalist castle with his interfaith statement: “I believe that every faith I have encountered draws its adherents closer to God. And in every faith I have come to know, there are features I wish were in my own: I love the profound ceremony of the Catholic Mass, the approachability of God in the prayers of the Evangelicals, the tenderness of spirit among the Pentecostals, the confident independence of the Lutherans, the ancient traditions of the Jews, unchanged through the ages, and the commitment to frequent prayer of the Muslims. As I travel across the country and see our towns and cities, I am always moved by the many houses of worship with their steeples, all pointing to heaven, reminding us of the source of life’s blessings.”
Acknowledging the hunger for God across faiths and God’s transcendence showed wisdom and courage.
Unlike Kennedy, Romney has much more time before the general election to sharpen the positives in his speech.
Robert Parham is executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics.