Romney deserves credit for understanding the superficiality of the public and targeting that majority in his speech.
As political theater, Mitt Romney touched all the bases and sounded all the alarm bells necessary to staunch the bleeding of his lead over Mike Huckabee in Iowa. Whether planted or not, the public applause rose when the governor voiced the clichés that are in the US political toolkit. “I believe Jesus Christ is the Son of God, Savior of mankind;” “The president needs the prayers of all faiths;” “Our freedom comes from God.” These are the one-dimensional statements that serve both as the pabulum and main course in US politics today. He deserves an “A” for the material.
A bit less satisfying was the use of “man” and “mankind” without gender sensitivity. Most Catholic and mainline Protestant churches have adopted more inclusive language. But once again, knowing the narrowness of the targeted public for the primary season, Romney made a wise choice. Better to cater to the evangelicals who have doubts about you than worry about the more tolerant believers who probably won’t punish you for gender insensitivity. Overall, he looked “presidential:” the navy blue suit and matching tie, the crisp white shirt, the gray at the temples, all out of a movie casting guide. Another “A” for delivery.
There were two missed opportunities, however. These could come back to haunt Romney, once the talking heads begin the endless parsing of the speech. He misused the concept of “secularism,” conflating it with “atheism.” Atheists believe that God does not exist and conclude that religion is therefore not rational. Secularism, on the other hand, is the original creation of the founders of the nation who were indifferent to personal beliefs and were concerned about the non-religiously defined common good. The citation about “self-evident truths” made in defense of religious tolerance at the birth of the nation is actually taken from the medieval concept of natural law. The natural law allows reason alone without faith to understand certain basic truths, all of which are in harmony with religious teachings. Thus, it lays the foundation for modern secular governments. A government like that of the US can be secular, i.e. building upon rational consensus, without resorting to religion as a basis for public morality. Religion prospers in such a setting, as the governor pointed out. By making secularism the whipping post, however, Romney actually undermined his own call for tolerance and for a focus upon values shared among people of good will.
More worrisome was Romney’s characterization of religious extremism only as “jihad,” squarely making this abuse Islamic alone. How can he have omitted including the Crusades as violent religious oppression? History shows not only that Muslim jihad caused the Crusades, but that the First Crusade was itself a jihad. Nor should Romney have left off the 16th century religious wars in which Catholics and Protestants killed each other. Most tellingly, he omitted the savage reprisals taken by Mormons against other faiths and even against their former believers trying to escape from Utah. There is enough blame to spread out among all faiths and categorizing it as jihad was wrong.
Ultimately, and perhaps wisely, Romney left out the nettlesome public points of Mormon theology that continue to plague ecumenical relations of the Latter Day Saints with other religions. Doesn’t the practice of baptizing the non-Mormon dead offend the rights to privacy? I resent the notion that the LDS church would cull the name of a Jewish ancestor of mine from a newspaper, put it in the hands of one of their believers and baptize that person in absentia. How would Romney react as president if a bill were passed to protect the privacy of non-Mormons against such temple baptisms of Jews and Muslims?
I also believe that while masterful in comparing himself to Catholic John Kennedy, Romney has not answered the issue about obedience to religious tenets. While JFK as a Catholic layman could separate himself from the bishops, the pope and the church magisterium, Romney comes from a church of lay bishops – including himself. The LDS Church allows revelation to flow from God to its followers with considerably greater frequency than with Christians who teach that revelation was closed with the death of the last apostle. As recently as June 9, 1978, a lay Mormon bishop pronounced the new revelation from God that black people could become priests, contradicting a previous revelation to Brigham Young that they could not, which itself contracted the practice of Joseph Smith who earlier had ordained a black man as priest.
Religions are always adapting (for instance, many hope that the Catholic Church would ordain married men and women). But there is a clear difference in Catholicism between divine revelation and church practice. So also in Judaism and Islam, there are boundaries drawn between the revelation in the scriptures and the various theological interpretations given to those words by commentators on the contemporary practices. The issue many believers have with Mormons is how the LDS faith uses (some would say “abuses”) divine authority in direct revelation in making decisions. What would Romney do if he had a divine revelation one night in the White House that the United States should withdraw from the United Nations? What would he do if the head of the LDS Church had this revelation? While the politically correct answer would be, “That would never happen,” the theological issue is that it might. Sadly, I didn’t hear this issue addressed by the governor and I still have my doubts.