Presidential candidate Mitt Romney will be doing something extraordinary today in Texas. And I really wish he had spent some time here in the East Valley before making his trip to the Lone Star State.
Before I go further, let me make something very clear: I am not endorsing, nor opposing Romney’s presidential bid. I have been watching Romney fairly closely since he became governor of Massachusetts in early 2003, and I find him to be an impressive leader. But if there was a primary election in Arizona tomorrow, I honestly don’t know who I’d vote for, and I am certainly not writing today as a partisan Romney supporter. That said, I am intrigued, and troubled, by what is on Romney’s schedule.
If things go as planned, Romney will deliver a speech today at the George H.W. Bush Presidential Library in College Station, Texas. The subject and purpose of the address is best described by Romney spokesman Kevin Madden, in this official statement: “This speech is an opportunity for Governor Romney to share his views on religious liberty, the grand tradition religious tolerance has played in the progress of our nation and how the governor’s own faith would inform his presidency if he were elected.”
The timing of this speech is significant for a couple of reasons.
First, there has been a growing drumbeat over the past few months from pundits, supporters and would-be supporters, saying that Romney needs to speak publicly about his Mormon faith. Many have made the comparison between what they believe Romney should do, and what John F. Kennedy did do during his presidential campaign in 1960, when he addressed our nation about his Catholicism.
Earlier in the campaign cycle, when questions would arise about his Mormonism, Romney seemed to make a practice of saying, essentially, “I’m not here to talk about my church or my faith, I’m here to talk about our country and about being president.” That seemed to work for a while. But eventually his polling numbers began to stall, particularly in certain sections of the southern U.S. At that point, Romney seemed to adopt an “I’m just like you” approach with religious conservative audiences, making references to himself as being “born again,” and that seemed to only make matters worse among people from certain religious groups.
And this leads to the second reason why Romney’s timing today is significant. Within the past week, former Baptist minister and Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee has emerged from relative obscurity, to being tied with Romney in the all-important primary state of Iowa. Despite the fact that Romney is objectively a more well-funded candidate, and by most accounts is a more viable and more “truly conservative” Republican, the Baptist credentials seem to be playing more favorably than the Mormon credentials with the socially conservative crowd.
So now, Romney will give his “religion speech,” and try to put Americans at ease with the idea of voting for a Mormon. And I’m sure Romney is doing what he believes is best for his campaign. But for a couple of reasons, I am troubled that this is happening.
For one thing, I don’t believe that Romney can change many hearts and minds about Mormonism. The theological divide between the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and historic Protestant and Catholic Christianity is significant. Anybody who is uncomfortable with the church, or it’s members, is probably not going to suddenly become OK with it all just because Mitt Romney is a great guy and delivers a top-notch speech.
Second, the fact that Romney needs to give this speech is symptomatic of an even greater problem: it illustrates the fact that many Americans are still unable to find common ground with those who don’t share their precise religious views. Apparently, some people aren’t satisfied to find that their neighbor shares their values, their worldview, their principles, or their hopes and aspirations for our nation. For folks like this, theology apparently trumps all other concerns, and values and principles don’t get much consideration.
But this is why I wish Romney were more acquainted with the East Valley. Our region is very Mormon, very Evangelical and very Catholic. Yet, we all seem to get along pretty well, and on a statewide level, legislators from the East Valley have forged a lot of alliances and have made quite an impact on Arizona politics over the years. The consensus that exists here might be inspiring to Romney, if he were more familiar with it.
In the meantime, I will refuse to look at Romney, or any other presidential candidate, to be my theologian. I will evaluate each candidate on their values and principles, and not on their theology.
And then I’ll make my choice.
Austin Hill of Gilbert is a host for Arizona Web TV (www.Arizonawebtv.com) and is heard on XM Satellite Radio. He is co-author of “White House Confidential: The Little Book of Weird Presidential History,” and is an editorialist for the national news and commentary site Townhall.com. Contact him via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.