Mitt Romney and the Mormon Moment

With Huckabee's surge, the candidate faces a tall order in appealing to conservative Christians.

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The speech that Mitt Romney will deliver in Texas tomorrow is the speech that he has long wanted not to make. But Mike Huckabee's recent gains among Republican voters—and Huckabee's unsubtle ads declaring that he is a "Christian leader"—have all but pushed the former Massachusetts governor to address the delicate issue of his Mormon faith. The question, of course, is whether what Romney says will do for his campaign what John F. Kennedy's famous 1960 Catholic speech did for that other Massachusetts politician.

The different challenges facing these two men have by now been thoroughly analyzed. Kennedy had to convince voters—particularly conservative Protestants—that his Roman Catholic religion would not influence his decisions in the Oval Office, that he would not, to put it crudely, be taking orders from the pope. And the nation, by and large, was reassured.

Romney's challenge is in some ways more difficult. The voters that he most wants to reassure are white conservative evangelical Christians, the kind of voters who now want religious values, particularly conservative Christian values, to influence a politician's agenda. Yet those Republican voters are also, according to a recent Pew Forum poll, the very people who are most likely to be troubled by his Mormon religion. (That's 41 percent of that group, to be precise.)

So what's Romney to do? He has already said that he doesn't want to go into technical details about theology, meaning most likely those details to which some Christians allude when they assert that Mormonism is not a Christian religion. In other words, don't expect him to discuss the Book of Mormon or the Mormon take on the Trinity. But if Romney eschews all specifics about the Mormon faith and talks only about religious liberty in general, then he may come across as being as elusive and wishy-washy about his faith as he has been about many of the big issues, including abortion and gays in the military.

"He needs to come out and say something serious that will mix things up," says Michael Cromartie, vice president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center and director of its Evangelicals in Civic Life program. By that, Cromartie does not mean a deep theological treatise but a frank acknowledgment of some of the Mormon differences as well as a little talk about where the Mormon religion has come from. (Fifty-one percent of Americans know little or nothing about Mormonism, the Pew poll shows.)

"He can say how his religion has evolved," Cromartie explains. "He can point out that it dropped polygamy a long time ago and that it has moved beyond racism. He can talk about its social success. He can say, 'We make great neighbors, and I will make a great president.' "

One observer who has been calling for Romney to make this speech for a long time is historian Richard Bushman, an emeritus professor at Columbia University and a practicing Mormon whose many books include a biography of Joseph Smith, the founder of the religion. Bushman has dubbed this the "Mormon moment" in American history, a moment in no small part precipitated by the presidential candidacy of Romney. Like Cromartie, he thinks that Romney should acknowledge that Mormons are different from other kinds of Christians on certain points.

More important, Bushman says, "he ought to talk specifically about how the church has influenced his life, how it shaped him. He should talk about his mission experience and his leadership role in the church. If he just tiptoes around the subject and talks about religious liberty, he won't convince anyone about his authenticity."