Today, Mitt Romney gave a speech in Texas. His campaign said it would be about religious liberty — but everyone knew it would be about Mormonism and why Evangelicals and Catholics shouldn’t rule out Mitt Romney as a presidential candidate just because he belongs to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormonism).
I’m a Catholic priest. After hearing this speech, would I vote for a Mormon as president of the United States of America? Maybe.
I would vote for a Mormon who has the integrity and courage to explain what his church really teaches (not many people know) and how this would affect his policy proposals and execution.
But, I wouldn’t vote for a Mormon who sidesteps or otherwise obscures what the Mormon Church believes — especially as it differs from mainline Christianity—or who suggests that his unique religious belief would in no way affect his action.
It’s the same three-pronged test I would apply to Catholics, Unitarians, Jews, Muslims and Evangelicals: what do you believe in, how will this affect the carrying out of your office, and do you have the strength of character to live up to what you profess?
I’m afraid today’s speech will go down in history as Mitt Romney’s last hurrah. I wish it wouldn’t, because I don’t think there is anything in Mormon belief that, per se, should eliminate someone from the office of president. And, I happen to think Mitt Romney is a man of character.
But, if today becomes the unraveling point of his candidacy, it will be because Mitt Romney did not have the courage or wisdom to say what he, as a Mormon, actually believes — all of it, without pretending his creed is no different than the Christian creed.
Don’t get me wrong. His speech would have been excellent had it been given by any other candidate. It was deep, passionate and presidential. He even ended with, “God bless America.”
The problem is that the much-hyped speech did nothing to achieve his goal of convincing doubting Evangelicals and Catholics that his Mormon beliefs will not hinder him from being a good president. Instead, for the most part, he pretended he wasn’t Mormon, or that being Mormon was so strange it is in his interest to keep it secret. In this speech about Mormonism, he uttered the word “Mormon” just once, while saying “Jews” and “Muslims” two times each and “Catholic” three times. Still more abrasive to Christian sensibilities was the attempt to pass off Mormon doctrine about Jesus Christ as equal to that of Christianity. He said, “What do I believe about Jesus Christ? I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and the savior of mankind.”
OK, Mitt. But do you really want to get into what that means for you?
I admit explaining the peculiarities of Mormonism to his southern audience would have been a daunting task. There would have been a lot of nodding of heads — all side to side.
Mitt Romney would have had to say that his church teaches that in 1820 an angel appeared to a man from Vermont named Joseph Smith and told him to go to the town of Manchester in upstate New York where he would find plates of gold upon which there were engravings only Joseph could understand and translate. Miraculously, from the three plates came a 500 page book, now called the Book of Mormon.
Then, he would have needed to say he believes the Book of Mormon is a volume of Holy Scripture comparable to the Bible, that it is a record of God’s dealings with the ancient inhabitants of the Americas, and contains, as does the Bible, “the fullness of the everlasting gospel.”
The Christian audience wouldn’t have liked that.
In the spirit of full disclosure, he would then have had to explain that Mormons believe Jesus was a "spirit brother" of Lucifer.
The head-nodding would have likely turned into breast-beating.
Finally, he would have needed to mention that the Mormon Church does not believe in the Christian doctrine of the Trinity (three persons — Father, Son, and Holy Spirit — and one God). A daunting task, yes, but this is exactly what he should have done.
Had he said all of this, the head-nodding and breast-beating would have come to a screeching halt because the audience would have eventually got it. “The man in front of us may be wrong,” they would say, “but he is unapologetically religious. Like us, he believes! And his beliefs have nothing to do with social security, health care, radical Islam, national security, or economic policy.”
The auditorium would have gone silent.
Then Mitt would have done well to smile, his all-American smile, and to make a promise that would have rocked the house: “But, as president of the United States, I have no intention of showing up at your door in a white shirt and black tie.”
He then could have continued with the same refreshing honesty:
“I won’t ask you to call me ‘Elder Mitt’ [more laughter, then dramatic pause] — 'Mr. President’ will do just fine! And as the nation’s first Mormon president — who admittedly believes some rather hard-to-swallow doctrine — I will defend your right to believe in the virgin birth of Jesus of Nazareth, and that the only way to go to heaven is by being a born-again Evangelical, and that the Pope in Rome is the Vicar of Christ on earth, and that the Messiah is yet to come, and that Muhammad is Allah’s prophet. Yes, precisely because I am Mormon — not in spite of it — I will defend religious liberty, including the right not to believe in anything.”
This, I’m sure, would have produced authentic, though still bated, applause. It would have been the perfect setting for Mitt Romney to separate himself from the pack.
“Unlike other candidates in this race, I actually agree with the church to which I belong. That’s why I’m a member. I trust the American people get where I’m coming from. What they don’t get is when someone professes one thing and does another, or when a politician says (as the Washington Post recently quoted Senator John Kerry) that his religion in no way influences his stance on public policies. That kind of person is deeply divided from within. Some days he must be Dr. Jekyll and other days Mr. Hyde. That’s not me. If you want to know what I, as a Mormon and American believe about politics, just look at my platform. When you look at my policy, you are looking at me, all of me.”
(Imagine here a pause for spontaneous applause, now much louder.)
“Of course, if the president of the United States were also supposed to be a kind of national chaplain, I wouldn’t be your guy. I wouldn’t be in this race, because I don’t see masses of Evangelicals moving to Utah anytime soon. But the American president is not a chaplain, he’s not a preacher; he’s the principle defender of our national security and of all of the rights guaranteed in the Constitution of the United States of America. I’m not asking you to vote for me because I’m a Mormon. I’m asking you to vote for a Mormon who has the best plan for America. I wanted to be transparent with you today about my religion, because I am sure America can look beyond our theological differences and see that I am the best candidate to beat Hillary Clinton and be the next President of the United States of America.”
(Now witness a standing ovation of Evangelicals and Catholics who don’t care any longer that Mitt Romney is a Mormon.)
Okay. No more dreaming. That didn’t happen. Instead he gave a fabulous speech that ignored the eight hundred pound gorilla dancing in the corner: Mormonism.
Tonight Mike Huckabee, Rudy Giuliani and Fred Thompson should be dancing too.
It looks to me like we’ll have to wait for another man or another woman to show the world exactly why being Mormon should never exclude a good candidate from holding the highest office of the land.
Unless, of course, Mitt Romney is willing to write another speech.
God bless, Father Jonathan
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P.S. Sorry for my virtual absence last week. I am now back on a Monday and Thursday writing schedule for this column!
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