Mitt Romney’s attendance at the funeral of Gordon Hinckley, the recently deceased president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, may mark a turning point for his presidential campaign, if not his political fortunes.
Until now, Romney has assiduously avoided talk about his Mormon faith, bristling whenever anyone brings up the topic. “I’m not a theologian,” he would say testily. “I don’t speak for my church.”
Even his so-called JFK speech, in which he sought to allay voters’ fears about his religion, was a disappointment. Romney mentioned Mormonism only once. And, because he was pandering after the support of the religious right, Kennedy’s two central arguments—unequivocal affirmation of the separation of church and state and the promise not to use taxpayer funds for religious schools—were unavailable to Romney. Leaders of the religious right reject both of those fundamental American principles.
Romney’s refusal to engage the issue of his faith has made him appear evasive, which only exacerbates the impression that he’s a wind-sock politician who expediently changes his political positions—on abortion or gay rights, for instance—depending on his audience. His unwillingness to talk about his faith has had the paradoxical effect of calling attention to the matter and stoking popular suspicions about Mormonism itself.
I’m in no position to offer Romney political advice, and I have no particular desire to see him succeed in his quest for the presidency. But it has long seemed to me that his policy of being coy and evasive about his religion is precisely the wrong approach.
Romney would be better served by owning up to his faith and his religious heritage. He could explain that Mormonism has been central to his family for generations and that it provides for him an essential anchor to his identity, helping him understand his place in the world and his responsibility toward others. He might even acknowledge that not all Americans recognize the validity of Mormonism, but he should be unapologetic and own up to his convictions.
The voters, I think, would prefer that direct and unapologetic approach to Romney’s earlier evasions. The historical precedent for this, even more relevant than John F. Kennedy, is Joseph Lieberman. When Al Gore named Lieberman, an observant Jew, as his running mate in 2000, Lieberman faced a flurry of questions about his faith. What does it mean to be an observant Jew? Is “observant” different from Orthodox? Why don’t you campaign on the Sabbath?
Lieberman patiently answered the questions, but he did so directly and without apology, equivocation or evasion. After a couple of days, the issue died, and it turned out not to be a factor in the fall campaign.
True, many voters, evangelicals especially, view Judaism as less exotic than Mormonism. But Lieberman’s willingness to confront the matter directly went a long way toward defusing the issue. Romney should take a lesson from Lieberman.
Indeed, the real lesson of presidential politics over the past half century is that Americans expect some expression of faith from their presidential candidates—think of Michael Dukakis, whom Garry Wills identified as America’s first truly secular candidate for president, as a counter-example—and we don’t really care very much about the particulars of the faith. “Our form of government makes no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious faith,” Dwight Eisenhower reportedly declared in 1952, “and I don’t care what it is.”
Mitt Romney should take notice. And perhaps his presence at Hinckley’s funeral in Salt Lake City signals a change of course. His willingness to acknowledge his faith may also mark a turning point in his political fortunes.