Seeking to appeal to Religious Right voters and quell concerns about his membership in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Republican candidate Mitt Romney delivered a major address on religion and public life Dec. 6.
Romney said he supports religious liberty but separation of church and state has been taken too far.
“We separate church and state affairs in this country, and for good reason,” Romney said. “No religion should dictate to the state nor should the state interfere with the free practice of religion. But in recent years, the notion of the separation of church and state has been taken by some well beyond its original meaning. They seek to remove from the public domain any acknowledgment of God. Religion is seen as merely a private affair with no place in public life. It is as if they are intent on establishing a new religion in America – the religion of secularism. They are wrong.”
He continued, “The founders proscribed the establishment of a state religion, but they did not countenance the elimination of religion from the public square. We are a nation ‘Under God’ and in God, we do indeed trust. We should acknowledge the Creator as did the Founders – in ceremony and word. He should remain on our currency, in our pledge, in the teaching of our history, and during the holiday season, nativity scenes and menorahs should be welcome in our public places.
“Our greatness would not long endure without judges who respect the foundation of faith upon which our Constitution rests,” he continued. “I will take care to separate the affairs of government from any religion, but I will not separate us from ‘the God who gave us liberty.’”
Elsewhere in the speech, Romney affirmed his belief in Jesus Christ as “the Son of God and the Savior of mankind.” He added, “My church’s beliefs about Christ may not all be the same as those of other faiths. Each religion has its own unique doctrines and history. These are not bases for criticism but rather a test of our tolerance. Religious tolerance would be a shallow principle indeed if it were reserved only for faiths with which we agree.”
Some of Romney’s supporters had been urging him to deliver an address about his Mormon faith for months. Reportedly, some of his advisers opposed it, but Romney decided to go ahead as he started slipping in the polls. Although Romney had been a strong GOP contender throughout much of 2007, he started to lose ground to Mike Huckabee, the former governor of Arkansas, in November.
Huckabee has spent months speaking in evangelical churches and mobilizing Religious Right leaders on his behalf. The emergence of Huckabee as a serious rival may have led Romney to deliver the speech, which reflected the Religious Right’s view on church-state relations.
Although he claimed to be endorsing the views of the founders, during the speech, Romney did not quote Thomas Jefferson or James Madison, who strongly supported separation of church and state. Instead, he cited a quote from John Adams asserting that “Our Constitution was made for a moral and religious people.”
The Romney speech had been billed as a “JFK moment” for the candidate, a reference to a famous speech John F. Kennedy gave on Sept. 12, 1960, to address concerns that as a Roman Catholic, he would take direction from the Vatican.
Unlike Romney, Kennedy used the speech to wholeheartedly endorse church-state separation.
Said Kennedy, “I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute – where no Catholic prelate would tell the President (should he be Catholic) how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote – where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference and where no man is denied public office merely because his religion differs from the president who might appoint him or the people who might elect him.”
Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United, said he found the Romney speech disappointing.
“The founders of our Constitution meant for religion and government to be completely separate,” said Lynn. “Romney is wrong when he says we are in danger of taking separation too far or at risk of establishing a religion of secularism.”
Added Lynn, “I was also disappointed that Romney doesn’t seem to recognize that many Americans are non-believers. Polls repeatedly show that millions of people have chosen to follow no spiritual path at all. They’re good Americans too, and Romney ought to have recognized that fact.” (Lynn stressed that Americans United is a non-profit group that may not endorse or oppose candidates.)
Reaction from the Religious Right was generally favorable, but most leaders said Romney still has work to do.
“His delivery was passionate and his message was inspirational,” said James C. Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family. “Whether it will answer all the questions and concerns of evangelical Christian voters is yet to be determined, but the governor is to be commended for articulating the importance of our religious heritage as it relates to today.”
Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, told The Washington Post that Romney’s remarks were “well-delivered and he offered many compelling thoughts,” but he was quick to add, “[It] would be an illusion to think that any single speech could assuage every concern or end the thriving discussions Americans have about these issues.”
Richard Land, a lobbyist with the Southern Baptist Convention who has been closely identified with the campaign of Fred Thompson, told the Dallas Morning News that Romney’s speech “won’t hurt” the candidate’s efforts to win evangelical support and added, “He certainly helped himself with some evangelicals.”
Not surprisingly, Religious Right leaders who are already in the Romney camp offered unqualified praise.
Jay Sekulow, chief attorney at TV preacher Pat Robertson’s American Center for Law and Justice, insisted that the speech will change “the direction and tone of the debate” about whether a Mormon can be president.
The Rev. Lou Sheldon, chairman of the Traditional Values Coalition, hailed the speech as “a defining moment” for the campaign and said, “I now have enough ammunition to silence the criticism of an unbelievable number of these friends of mine.”