Why Romney's Mormon Speech Fell Flat

Mitt Romney's speech on faith and freedom was well written, well delivered and contained some nice rhetorical flourishes. I personally found little in it with which to disagree. But it was hardly a speech for the ages. To my ear it was a political speech in the narrowest sense, aimed at reassuring evangelical primary voters, especially in Iowa, who are wary of his Mormon faith.

Once again Romney asserted his belief in Jesus Christ as "the Son of God and Savior of mankind." And he went on to acknowledge obliquely that what his church means by that "may not be the same" as other faiths. Evangelicals probably wanted more, but Romney wisely avoided parsing differences. Fair enough.

But the most obvious omission was Romney's failure to follow up on his promise to "offer perspectives on how my own faith would inform my presidency, if I were elected." True, he did tell us—as he had to—that he would not allow the authorities of his church to "exert influence on presidential decisions," that "I will put no doctrine of any church above the plain duties of the office," and again that "I will serve no one religion…" But there was absolutely nothing in his speech that told us what he would bring from his Mormon faith to benefit his responsibilities as president. None of the other candidates, Democrat or Republican, has been good at answering that question either. But why promise what you do not intend to deliver?

On the other hand, there were numerous points throughout the speech designed to appeal to the party's evangelical base. For example, in his list of "challenges" foreign and domestic, Romney included "the breakdown of the family." Since Mormons believe that family bonds continue for all eternity, concern for family breakdown in this life is one area where Mormons and evangelicals share a common concern. But he failed to mention what he as president might do to strengthen the family unit.

Among his citations from the Founding Fathers, Romney shrewdly led with a quote from John Adams—"Our constitution was made for a moral and religious people"—that is evangelicalism's favorite proof-text for religion's role in public life. He connected with evangelicals again by pledging not to disavow his Mormon tradition and then wisely asked tolerance from them. His best political dart, aimed it seemed especially at Rudy Giuliani, was: "Americans do not respect believers of convenience."

Romney hit evangelical pay dirt when he included "the right to life itself" with abolition and civil rights in his short list of "movement(s) of conscience." And he hit it again by denouncing "the religion of secularism." Evangelical leaders have long insisted that secularism is a religion.

For me, the least persuasive part of the speech was his appeal to a "common ground" of American values. The three he listed—"equality of human kind, the obligation to serve one another and a steadfast commitment to liberty"—are fine, but they codify the moral side of American civil religion in its most banal form. His embrace of the current president's favorite slogan, "liberty is a gift of God," was particularly unfortunate. Perhaps Romney was only paying his respects to George W. Bush, but in doing so he aligns himself with the president's theologically shaky justification for the mess in Iraq.

But then, of course Romney was speaking in the library built for the first President Bush, a choice of venue that gave the event the aspect of a Republican rally, and at a morning hour that assured him of a minuscule television audience. Who were those people in the audience who applauded so loudly and so often? One can only gather they were not the conservative evangelicals Romney was trying to woo. There were no questions from his listeners, as there were when Catholic John F. Kennedy took his own plea for religious tolerance to an auditorium of Protestant ministers.

This was a speech to a Republican choir but one aimed at moving pew sitters far away in primary states. And until their votes are cast we won't know if any of them were listening.