What would Mitt Romney have to do in his “Faith in America” speech this Thursday, short of announcing his conversion, to make evangelicals like me less worried about him as a Republican candidate for President? Several things come to mind. He could take the tactic of John F. Kennedy, who said the Pope didn’t speak for him, and that he didn’t pretend to speak for the Pope or for the Roman Catholic Church. Kennedy went on to suggest that the Catholic Church would not affect his political judgment on various matters.
The problem with this tactic is that it would make Romney seem as if his faith hardly made a difference to his politics, when in fact he has been playing the faith and family values card since first setting his sites on the White House. Indeed, he is giving a speech this week on his Mormon faith, or perhaps more broadly the role faith ought to play in a political candidate’s life.
A second approach would be for Romney to say that he believes the Bible is the Word of God, and he affirms the same essential doctrines that evangelicals affirm. The problem with this answer is that it, in various ways, sets him at odds with traditional Mormon theology, which doesn’t exactly affirm a variety of orthodox doctrines that are part of evangelical faith. (For example, evangelicals believe the Bible is the sole Word of God and requires no supplement from the Book of Mormon or any other book written after biblical times).
I am assuming that Romney would not be prepared to deny that the Book of Mormon was also the Word of God, which frankly would do the most to reassure evangelicals about Romney, but would get him in hot water with his fellow Mormons.
A third approach that would reassure some evangelicals is somewhat counterintuitive. He could play the pluralism card, by which I mean he could stress that America is a place where all sorts of Christians can accept and get along with other sorts of Christians, while not agreeing on the essential things one might hold dear. Here again the strategy of the only Catholic president might provide some precedent. Kennedy said he was not running to be a Catholic president, rather that he was a Catholic running to be president. I can imagine a variation on this very statement--only inserting the word Mormon at the appropriate junctures.
A fourth approach, and perhaps the safest, is to avoid making theological statements except of the broadest sort (“I believe in God and Jesus Christ”) and stick to his positions on ethical issues which he could claim were informed by his reading of the Bible. Evangelicals would rather be reassured about what Romney would say about abortion than get upset about what he might say about Native American Indians being part of the lost tribes of Israel. After all, as President, Romney would mainly be dealing with ethical, not theological, matters. He could rightly say that he would not be signing bills about particular theological views but would be signing bills that involved important ethical issues.
In the end, it needs to be stressed that most evangelicals have very severe issues with Mormonism, seeing it as a heretical sectarian split off from Christianity. Most of them believe the Book of Mormon is a gigantic mythological treatise concocted by Joseph Smith and not the Word of God at all. Faced with a yes or no question about the divine inspiration of the Book of Mormon, it is hard to see how Romney could reassure evangelicals without alienating members of his own denomination. Romney isn’t expected to face those kinds of yes or no questions in his speech on Thursday. But he must walk a very narrow tightrope between saying too little and saying too much about his theology.