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Recapping the Romney Speech (Updated)

December 6th, 2007 | 5 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

Let’s be clear about one thing: Mitt Romney gave an excellent speech. It was well written and, for the first time that I have seen, decently well-delivered–particularly at the end.

You can read the whole thing here.

Philosophically, I have lingering questions about his understanding of the relationship between church and state (but then, I have questions of my own regarding that relationship). The lines that were of interest to me:

Given our grand tradition of religious tolerance and liberty, some wonder whether there are any questions regarding an aspiring candidate’s religion that are appropriate. I believe there are. And I will answer them today.

Unfortunately, Romney failed to mention which questions might be appropriate (though it’s interesting that he thinks some questions should be on the table). Later in the speech, he said:

Let me assure you that no authorities of my church, or of 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.

This is where my hang-up is, and articulates, it seems, the position I criticized last night. Robert Sirico, President of the Acton Institute, articulates the concern better than I could:

The idea of authority is inescapable. If public officeholders are not to obey religious authority, what authority do they submit to? Perhaps we can say the Constitution but the signers of that document too held fast to religious convictions. More likely the authority to which they submit is legislation and its enforcement arm, meaning that to the extent that they brush off their religious institutions, they will tend to become obsequious toward the state.

For my part, I find it strange that American culture should require someone running for president to make a break with his or own religious authority. This strikes me as an attack on the conscience. The right question we should be asking: What does the religious authority teach about the role of the state?

However, the Good Doctor Reynolds disagrees:

Romney is not privatizing his faith here, but showing the broad outlines of where personal faith and the civil religion intersect.

The civil religion allows men and women of strong particular faiths to serve without compromising their conscience. Of course, there are some faiths (a tradition that demands theocracy for example) for which the civil religion has no room.

Any faith tradition that demands obedience to the Church authorities in areas where the Constitution would demand disobedience will not be able to have members in good conscience serve. This is why civil government should be as limited as possible in his scope to avoid as many as possible irresolvable conflicts of conscience that would exclude people from service.

In fact, Mike Huckabee should (attempt) to match this speech to show why his integration of faith and government does not go too far. Does it exclude too many people by expanding the states “care” of others so far that it would make too many decisions that would contradict too many other religious traditions?

Romney is in a church and in a state where he does not have to choose between his duty as a patriot and his duty as a Mormon. We can be sure, given the history of his religion being persecuted, that Romney will, in the end, favor a limited government and a the traditional American civil religion.

Romney is not saying Caesar is Lord, because America has not Caesar.

If there must be a Caesar, then as a Christian I will need him to be a Christian. The American genius was to proclaim: “No King, but King Jesus” and so allow those who will not (yet!) bow the knee to King Jesus to be full citizens of civil government with small ambitions.

The fact Romney gets this is remarkable today, but would have been commonplace in past generations.

Do the other Republicans share his sophisticated understanding?

Do some go too far in privatizing faith, making it utterly irrelevant to the external world, or do they go too far the other way unintentionally sowing seeds of intolerance?

While I agree with much of Dr. Reynold’s articulation of the interaction between faith and politics, the question seems to be what course of action a person would take when the two spheres of authority conflict. Dr. Reynolds is optimistic that given the structure of the government, such a conflict would never happen in the United States–and perhaps it won’t. But Romney’s hard and fast line between the two realms makes it hard to see how he wouldn’t bow the knee to the state in any and all circumstances.

Politically, I think Romney’s speech is the high-water mark for speeches this election cycle. He did what he had to do–of course, he did it in a way that made it seem like it was a last ditch effort to save his expensive campaign, which has mitigated its impact.

That said, I’d like to hear Huck give a speech on the topic, as my hunch would be that his command of the issues is easily as proficient as Romney’s. The question might be, however, whether the conversation in American society is still tolerant enough for reasonable people–including presidential candidates–to disagree on the role of faith in the public square. To me, that is still an open question.


Mark Byron has some good thoughts on Romney’s use of Article Six:

However, on the second paragraph, Romney is off on multiple points. Romney alludes to Article VI of the Constitution, which states that “no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office.” This isn’t Iran, where only folks who are sufficiently orthodoxly Muslim are allowed by the ruling mullahs to run for office; we don’t have James Dobson getting to veto folks who are insufficiently Christian or have the ACLU vetoing folks who are too religious.

Thus, Romney has a right to run for public office as a Mormon. Keith Ellison has a right to run as a Muslim and Pete Stark has a right to run as an atheist.

However, it is fair political game to ask how their faiths (or lack thereof) will impact their decision-making. For instance, Ellison’s view of jihad and how it applies to modern times would be something voters would want to hear from him were he to be in the Democratic presidential race in 2016.

In Romney’s case, there is little in heterodox Mormon doctrine that would manifest itself in public policy. The biggest difference might be in Mormon eschatology, which has Jesus coming back to the US, not Israel, to set up His Kingdom; that might make Romney a bit less pro-Israel. Other than that, a theological conversation over the various Mormon heterodoxies would bear little political fruit.

Romney’s Mormonism seems to me to be a non-issue on a policy level. However, future leaders with heterodox faiths might not be as benign and would deserve public scrutiny. Such folks wouldn’t be barred from office due to their heterodox faith, but their faith can and should be a factor in voter’s decisions about them.

Also, David Frum points out an interesting problem in the speech.

Update Again:  I got an email from Fora.Tv highlighting this discussion of Mitt, Mormonism, and the Media at Princeton University’s Center for the Study of Religion.  I haven’t had a chance to watch it all yet, but it seems like it could be a fairly sophisticated discussion on the pertinent issues of the day.