Mitt Romney reached back almost half a century to align himself with John F. Kennedy in reassuring the nation that he stands by the separation of church and state. But unlike Kennedy, Romney doesn't have the luxury of setting religion off to the side, nor would he want to. He's running in a very different religious climate, and to the extent that his Mormonism is a problem, he did a masterful of job turning it to his advantage in the speech he delivered Thursday on the subject of faith.
If Romney gets the nomination, this is the moment that lifted him above the others and made him a plausible and pluralistic leader. He pledged that if elected president he would serve "no one religion, no one group, no one cause and no one interest." For the first time in his richly endowed quest, he rose above the day-to-day jabs on the campaign trail to deliver a speech that inspires. It was billed as a message for white evangelical Christians, who have been reluctant to embrace Romney because they're wary of his religion. But it was really a vision speech for a broader Republican Party adrift in the wake left by George W. Bush and searching for its moorings.
It's ironic that Romney, arguably the most robotic of the candidates, is the one to give an inspirational speech that places religious thought in a broader social frame of activism. "Whether it was the cause of abolition or civil rights or the right to life itself, no movement of conscience can succeed in America that cannot speak to the convictions of religious people," he said. That's a line that any of his rivals would have liked to deliver. For too long the presidential campaign on both sides has been more prose than poetry, a compilation of tactical maneuvers that have numbed even the most committed political junkie. Even Barack Obama, whose candidacy rests on his ability to inspire, has not spelled out a vision other than that he represents something new. Hillary Clinton, struggling to maintain a narrow lead in New Hampshire, scores highest on strength, experience and electability, but when asked who inspires them, the voters in this key primary state say Obama by a 2-to-1 ratio, according to the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll.
Hillary's campaign has always been more about perspiration than inspiration, as though she could will herself to the nomination through hard work and policy doctrines. She needs a speech like Romney's—in the sense of presenting a higher order of politics. We really don't know any more about what Hillary Clinton thinks or believes than when she started running almost a year ago. She says she is the most famous person nobody knows. Well, there's a reason for that, and a mighty campaign machine can't compensate for her unwillingness to reveal herself. Hillary's politics were forged in the war room that served her husband well but may be out of step with the transformational politics that Obama personifies. The Clinton camp thinks if they hammer Obama enough he'll just wilt. So far he's let his bemused smile do most of the talking.
For Romney, who has the reputation of being a flip-flopper, standing by his religion gave him an opportunity to look like a man of conviction. "I believe in my Mormon faith, and I endeavor to live by it," he said. "Some believe that such a confession of my faith will sink my candidacy. If they're right, so be it. But I think they underestimate the American people. Americans do not respect believers of convenience. Americans tire of those who would jettison their beliefs even to gain the world." Should he reach the White House, this speech will be as significant as the one JFK delivered all those many years ago.
Romney needed to frame his Mormon religion within the mainstream of religious thought and practice. It didn't hurt that he had former president George H.W. Bush introducing him in a setting that made him look presidential. He said he believes faith has a role in public policy and informs our values, a statement few would disagree with. He believes religion is discriminated against in the public square, rationalizing yet another tirade about Happy Holidays replacing Merry Christmas. But on balance Romney wove together faith and politics in a way that isn't offensive to a more secular population, while reassuring social conservatives that he shares their values. Editorial page writers can debate whether religion is essential to liberty and freedom, as Romney asserted, or whether he should have amended the line to include the freedom not to worship. Either way, Rush Limbaugh, the high priest of the right wing, seemed satisfied, playing and replaying sound bites from Romney's speech. In Republican politics that's an A-plus.