Former Massachusetts Governor and current Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney is going to give a speech on “Religion in America” tomorrow in Texas.
I have been encouraging Governor Romney to give such a speech for over a year now, since I first met with him at his home in Massachusetts. He had invited approximately a dozen evangelical leaders to meet with him to have a free-wheeling discussion about his presidential candidacy and to allow us to ask him questions–and to allow him to ask us questions as well.
I took that opportunity to tell him that while I, as a matter of long standing policy, do not endorse candidates, I felt that if he desired to have the kind of appeal he would want to have among evangelical voters he needed to give a speech similar to the one then- Senator John F. Kennedy gave to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association in September 1960. I even gave him an advance copy of my latest book, The Divided States of America?, which has the complete text of JFK’s speech printed as an appendix. As I handed him the book, I told Governor Romney that President Kennedy’s speech was included in the manuscript and was a tone-perfect speech and a great example of what he should try to achieve in a similar speech.
I believed then (October, 2006), as I believe now, that such a speech by Governor Romney is even more important for our nation than it is for Governor Romney. Why? Because our nation needs to be reminded in such a high profile speech that we are a country that believes so deeply in religious freedom that we enshrined the prohibition for any religious test for office in our Constitution (Article VI).
We have been a nation that cherishes religious freedom and protects every citizen’s right to believe and worship as he or she pleases, or not to believe or worship at all, with no governmental preference or prohibition for any particular faith.
What kind of speech should Romney give? Should he seek to describe and define his Mormon faith? I would hope he does not do that. John F. Kennedy did not spend one sentence of his 1960 speech describing or defending the doctrines of Catholicism. He defended the right of a Catholic to run for president.
I would hope that Governor Romney would first talk about the positive and crucially significant role religion has played in our society from the earliest settlements through the era of the founding of the nation, continuing through the Civil War era down to the present day. We Americans have been, are, and give every indication of continuing to be, a very religious people with a multitude of differing religious allegiances with a common commitment of defending every person’s right to worship according to the dictates of their own consciences.
I would hope that Governor Romney would summarize the pivotal role that religious conviction has played in eradicating great evils such as slavery and racial segregation in our nation. Both the Abolitionist and Civil Rights Movements are inexplicable apart from the religious convictions that inspired them and the religious leaders who led them.
Then, I would hope that Governor Romney would turn his attention to the matter at hand, namely the question of his Mormon faith and whether it should impact the viability of his presidential candidacy.
I would hope that Governor Romney, invoking the spirit of JFK’s speech, would point out that when Democratic candidate John F. Kennedy came to Texas 47 years ago to address the issue of religion in a presidential campaign, he did not defend his Catholic faith nor should he have been expected or required to do so.
Then, I hope Governor Romney would say something like this:
“Just as then Senator and presidential candidate John F. Kennedy defended the right of someone of his religious faith to run for president, so I now seek to defend the right of someone of my religious faith to run for that high office.
“To paraphrase President Kennedy, I am not the Mormon candidate for president. I hope to be the Republican Party’s candidate for president. I do not speak for my church on religious matters and they do not speak for me on public policy matters. In other words, if you want to know what my church believes, call Salt Lake City. If you want to know the public policy positions and platform of the Romney campaign, call my campaign headquarters.
“As President Kennedy said those many years ago: ‘whatever issue may come before me as president … I will make my decisions … in accordance with what my conscience tells me to be the national interest and without regard to outside religious pressures or dictates. And no power or threat of punishment could cause me to do otherwise.’
“Let me be clear however, that as John F. Kennedy said in 1960, ‘I do not intend to disavow my views or my church in order to win this election.’ And, I might add, it would be both un-American and unconstitutional to ask me to do so.
“I do not intend to discuss my religious beliefs today or in this campaign. My relationship with God is personal and private. I ask that you respect that personal, private, and constitutionally protected space. I do not believe that questions about religious and theological beliefs belong in a presidential campaign and I don’t think the vast majority of Americans do either.
“Now, my faith does inform my conscience, shape my character, and guides me as I formulate the policy positions which I believe are best for our nation and our people.
“I ask that you, the American people, judge me based on my character and my record as a public servant and Governor of a great state, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. While serving as Governor, followers of my faith tradition received no special favor or consideration from me. I evaluated people on their record and their performance, not their religious faith, and that is how I ask you to judge me.
“Evaluate me on my character as a husband, father, businessman, citizen, and public servant. Judge me on my public positions on the issues that face our great nation–not on my personal religious faith.
“As President Kennedy said in 1960, ‘What kind of church I believe in … should be important only to me’ – it is ‘what kind of America I believe in’ that should be important.
“I believe in an America that understands its great religious heritage and cherishes both its religious freedom and its religious diversity. I believe in an America that is committed to continuing its quest to live out the ideals espoused in its founding documents.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
“May God bless you and may God bless America.”
For more on Romney’s “religion speech” and his Mormonism, check out New Testament scholar Ben Witherington III’s essay on how Mitt Romney’s ‘Mormon speech’ could connect with evangelicals, our What Do Mormons Believe? Guide, and Political Editor Dan Gilgoff’s Casting Stones post on whether Romney has blurred the lines between Mormonism and traditional Christianity.