Yesterday, in College Station, Texas, ex-Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney gave his "Faith in America" speech. Designed to allay concerns among the mainly evangelical bloc of Republican voters nervous about nominating a Mormon for the presidency, the speech was the political equivalent of a base hit. Romney's speech will help him, at least in the short term, but it wasn't the home run he needed to vastly improve his chances of winning the Republican nomination.
Sure, the speech offered Romney a chance to look and sound presidential to an audience that was likely wider than for your average Thursday morning political address (all three cable networks carried it, plus C-SPAN 3). To boot, his near-perfect delivery and presidential manner will no doubt be noticed by voters watching the already-ensuing multiple replays of clips from the speech -- which help in other ways, too. Ultimately, Romney's timing looks designed to detract from the story of the week, ex-Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. Having risen to lead Romney in Iowa by at least three points, according to recent Rassmussen, Des Moines Register, and Strategic Vision polls, Huckabee has become the flavor of the month that Romney's hoping will go out of taste fast. Giving the speech Thursday may have helped with that, in addition to serving a broader purpose.
But while Romney's speech was successful on these notes, on others it may prove to be less so. Among other things, Romney asserted in the speech that "no authorities of my church, or of any other church for that matter, will ever exert influence on presidential decisions." That statement likely relieved more secular voters, but perhaps not some of the 44 percent of evangelical Iowans backing Huckabee, the ex-pastor putting his religion (as opposed to merely his positions on issues of concern to religious voters) front and center. It's likely that many of them in fact want not just evangelical leaders exerting influence on presidential decisions; they may actually want something of an evangelical leader himself making them.
But for the speech to be a success, it will need to have persuaded some voters suspicious of Mormonism that it's not so scary or different, after all. With Romney's single mention of the word "Mormon," and the only detail of his faith discussed being his belief "that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and the Savior of mankind," however, it's hard to see that objective having been achieved.
True, it is absurd for a candidate to have to explain and justify his religious faith in order to be eligible for the presidency -- and so, arguably, Romney got it right by avoiding discussion of the unique beliefs of the LDS faith. But then again, when a speech is being given because 25 percent of Republican voters (according to the Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion & Public Life) already view that candidate's faith as a disqualifier, some summary of theological differences and similarities is likely required in order to allay concerns and win over support. With Romney's speech, not only did he fail to offer such a summary. He also suggested that it is okay to ask some questions about his faith, but not others. In short, it's easy to predict that more theological questions will follow -- something that Romney cannot want.
Of course, to the extent those questions are asked, Romney will have the opportunity to staunchly defend his faith and refuse to disavow it, as he did yesterday. That could be a boon for a man all too often depicted as lacking in conviction and ready to change a position here or there for the sake of political expediency. In truth, one of the best things about Romney's speech was that it showed him sticking up for something in which he obviously does believe, and forcefully. But, by the same token, his inclusion of the sentence, "Americans tire of those who would jettison their beliefs, even to gain the world," will have struck some as ironic. Romney is, after all, the man accused with frequency of having changed his views on everything from abortion to immigration to Ronald Reagan to his favorite book.
But, while alluding to politically expedient change may not have been a good idea, on balance, giving the speech was. Clearly, some Republican voters needed to hear him discuss faith rather than dodge the topic. Some of them will have liked it, some will not have, but with those who did, Romney will undoubtedly have moved the ball forward -- perhaps just not by as much as he might have hoped.