Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, handled a no-win situation as well as could be expected in a speech Thursday at the George H.W. Bush Presidential Library in Texas.
Romney is facing a tough challenge from religious-right candidate Mike Huckabee in the Iowa Republican caucuses and decided to deal head-on with nagging questions about his Mormon religion — believed to be a cause of softening support among the evangelical Christians who dominate the Iowa GOP base.
Although his explanation for avoiding a theological discussion was weak (he said doctrinal discussions would amount to a religious test that the founders warned against), he was right to avoid that dangerous path.
Americans are not voting for a pastor in chief, but for a political leader. Theological debates are best left for other forums. But Romney did reassure the public, similar to John F. Kennedy’s remarks 47 years ago, that his presidential decisions would not be influenced by his church’s leaders:
“Let me assure you that no authorities of my church, or any other church for that matter, will ever exert influence on presidential decisions. Their authority is theirs, within the province of church affairs, and it ends where the affairs of the nation begin.”
And he made a strong case for a unity of moral purpose among all religious people:
“It is important to recognize that while differences in theology exist between the churches in America, we share a common creed of moral convictions. And where the affairs of our nation are concerned, it’s usually a sound rule to focus on the latter — on the great moral principles that urge us all on a common course.”
He also argued that while the idea of a separation of church and state is vital, that some secularists have taken that idea to an extreme by trying to strip any acknowledgment of religion from the public square. He accused them of trying to establish “a new religion in America — the religion of secularism.”
The best portion of his speech echoed America’s founders:
“Americans acknowledge that liberty is a gift of God, not an indulgence of government. … I’m not sure that we fully appreciate the profound implications of our tradition of religious liberty. … The establishment of state religions in Europe did no favor to Europe’s churches. And though you will find many people of strong faith there, the churches themselves seem to be withering away.”
There Romney recognized the key point: Government sanction and approval of something often leads to the opposite result. He compared our nation’s upholding of religious freedom with another extreme: the “theocratic tyranny” that exists in a good bit of the Muslim world. He said our nation faces “no greater danger.”
Romney delivered his words in typical, presidential style. We would have preferred to hear a speech detailing his commitment to the U.S. Constitution, given that the best way to ensure social peace is to keep government out of most matters, especially religion.
Nevertheless, we think Romney succeeded at his task, although Iowa’s voters will ultimately be the ones to decide.