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What Evangelicals Heard in Romney's 'Faith in America' Speech
It is no secret that Mitt Romney's Mormonism has so far served as a liability rather than an asset with important segments of the Republican electorate.
According to a Pew poll, 36 percent of evangelicals say that they are less likely to vote for a candidate who is a Mormon (compared to 25 percent of all Americans). Republicans know that this kind of evangelical resistance must be overcome in order to win a presidential election.
In a speech this morning at the George H. W. Bush Library, Mitt Romney tried to put voters' fears to rest. He declared that the authority of the Latter-Day Saints leadership was restricted to church matters. He promised that he would "put no doctrine of any church above the plain duties of the office and the sovereign authority of the law."
"When I place my hand on the Bible and take the oath of office," Romney continued, "that oath becomes my highest promise to God."
Will such assurances in this morning's speech change voter unease?
Let's begin by saying that Romney said a number of things that should be welcomed by evangelicals.
First, he criticized candidates who distance themselves from their religion when it becomes politically expedient. After promising, "I will put no doctrine of any church above the plain duties of the office and the sovereign authority of the law," Romney resisted those who would want him to put distance between himself and his faith. "That I will not do. I believe in my Mormon faith and I endeavor to live by it. My faith is the faith of my fathersI will be true to them and to my beliefs. Some believe that such a confession of my faith will sink my candidacy. If they are right, so be it. But I think they underestimate the American people. Americans do not respect believers of convenience."
Like Romney, evangelicals are suspicious of wishy-washy religion. That is part of our historic dispute with mainline Protestantism. We have little regard for the kind of liberal Christianity that plays down the Christian faith's "scandal of particularity" by reducing it to a series of values ("the universal Fatherhood of God and the universal brotherhood of man" in Adolf von Harnack's famous phrase).
If we are going to engage in interreligious conversation, we want to do it with people who believe what they believe. Just as we know that our historic Christian faith cannot be separated from all its historical details, we want those of other faiths to believe and practice robustly.
Second, evangelicals will welcome Romney's appeal to common values in the political sphere. "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 latteron the great moral principles that urge us all on a common course." He spoke of a common human dignity and the principles of freedom.
As evangelicals have fought for international religious freedom and against sex trafficking, we have learned how to work with others who do not share our faith, but who do share a commitment to human rights, especially as they extend to vulnerable women and children and to religious minorities.
Romney seemed to say that all religions teach principles of freedom and human dignity, but I don't for a moment think that Romney really believes that. Nor do I believe that he really thinks, as he said, that every faith "draws its adherents closer to God." It is just too easy to find exceptions to these rules. But I think he does mean that all the major faiths that participate fully in American life share those things. Or at least that there are robust versions of those faiths that hold to those values.