The speech Mitt Romney made on Dec. 6 about his religion was not one he wanted to make-and throughout 2007 he had put it off. But last week, with his poll standings dropping in the face of Mike Huckabee's surge, the former Massachusetts governor tried to rescue his campaign with a Kennedyesque statement that "no authorities of my church . . . will ever exert influence on presidential decisions."
Romney has a problem, though. John F. Kennedy's famous speech to Houston's Protestant ministers in 1960 worked because Kennedy could be honest about his lack of interest in religion. His Catholic label helped him win Catholic votes, but he was a secular liberal by belief, not a Catholic. He could honestly say, "the church does not speak for me."
Furthermore, Washington reporters familiar with Kennedy's womanizing knew he was not faithful to his wife, so they believed his vow that he would not be faithful to his church.
Romney, though, is a former Mormon bishop and stake president (a stake is like a diocese). By all accounts he is faithful to his wife and to his church. He said on Dec. 6, "I believe in my Mormon faith and I endeavor to live by it. My faith is the faith of my fathers-I will be true to them and to my beliefs." That means he can pledge not to take orders from top Mormon leaders, but he doesn't have to: His faith is imbedded in him.
Should voters feel guilty if they object to Romney's Mormonism? The Constitution bans a "religious test" for federal office. That means it would be unconstitutional for a Mormon to be elected and then not seated because of his religious belief, or for Rep. Keith Ellison, a Muslim, to be forced to swear his oath on a Bible rather than on the Quran.
The Constitution does not say that voters should cast their ballots in ignorance of what candidates believe. If a secularist votes against a defender of Intelligent Design because he thinks support for that view signifies a faulty brain, the proper response is not to say "shut up" but to explain why ID makes sense.
If Mitt Romney wants the votes of those who think Latter Day Saints are out to lunch, he may have to answer questions about some of the curious beliefs of his faith-or he may decide to forgo those votes. That's his choice, and it's a hard one, but when a person decides to run for president, there is no free lunch.