So Mitt — while you're all in a sharing mood, which is it? Boxers, briefs, or Magic Mormon Underpants?
Yes, it's Mormon week out there in primary land, and on Thursday, Romney took The Pledge, declaring Jesus Christ his Lord and Savior and saying that freedom and religion can be, like, friends with benefits but can't actually be a couple-couple ... or something like that. Actually, what he said was that while the government can't, and he wouldn't, pre- or proscribe a specific denomination, everybody should get religion.
The quote was that "freedom requires religion," and that's a bold statement, even coming from a guy who was for abortion rights before he was against them. I'd argue that Romney got it exactly backward: Religion certainly can exist in the absence of freedom — ask one of those monks in Myanmar, or a Catholic in China — but it flourishes when it is freely expressed and shared. And while the Founders certainly gave "their Creator" his propers, the problem is in deciding whether his existence in their lives equals not just an endorsement of, but the requirement of, religion — not just God — in this country. On that point, the candidate couldn't have been clearer.
It was an important speech for Romney, and with so many people either suspicious of or clueless about Mormonism, it was an address he was going to have to deliver — and absolutely nail — at some point. But after weeks of putting it off, why serve it up now, when the question itself isn't even new?
It's not just about allaying the fears of those who think Mormonism is kooky and suspect, or that leading an LDS life is all about "the garment" and toothy Osmonds, or that the faith is really some quasi-Christian cult, like Scientology with braids. Besides, many Catholics would say you've got to go a long way to beat crying statues and stigmata when it comes to kooky and suspect. And for all but the most extremist Christians, Romney's clear testimony of his belief in Christ, and his declaration that Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints wouldn't interfere with his governance is something people are either going to trust him on, or not. So why now?
Well, let's just say it's a long three weeks until Jan. 3, caucus day in Iowa, and Romney's speech opens up just the kind of debate to ignite conversation at holiday dinner tables during the long news cycles until then. Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee had been sucking up all the airtime since positively killing it at the CNN/YouTube GOP debate with a combination of down-home clarity and more one-liners than a Borscht Belt comic. And the resulting press coverage — a solid seven days of it — delved far more deeply into Huckabee's former flab and how he delivered those zingers than it did into how he believes the earth was created in seven days or his Willie Horton problem. Clearly, the far more precious aim of Romney's speech at the George H.W. Bush Presidential Library was to wrest the spotlight away before "Huckamania" becomes the story of the Iowa caucuses.
In the hours since the speech, however, the consensus seems to be that while Romney finally delivered an address so obviously polished as to leave threadbare the elbows of his jacket, he didn't really say a whole lot. Certainly, it wasn't for Romney to give the country a primer on his church's history — there are plenty of Mormons who'll be glad to do that for you — but a peek into his heart might have gone a long way. Romney invoked John F. Kennedy's own "finger of suspicion" religion speech from back in 1960, a time before TMI (Too Much Information), in which the first Catholic president spoke about broad religious acceptance, but specifically not about what impact Catholicism had on him as a person. (Though given what we now know about JFK's personal history, count on guilt playing a role.) Less than 24 hours later, they're already calling it Romney's "JFK speech," and maybe that's appropriate, because like Kennedy, Romney touched all the political bases while not actually telling us anything about himself or his religion.