He is Republican, pro-defense, and hawkish on the war. He is also an unabashed Christian, although his sect is viewed with suspicion and prejudice. Oh, and he's running for president.
Based on the firestorm that erupted when a presidential candidate’s religion was called a “cult,” it seems clear we're talking about Mitt Romney and his Mormon faith. But we're not. The description above referred to Dwight D. Eisenhower — a Jehovah's Witness most of his life.
Eight years later, it was John F. Kennedy defending his Catholicism.
Now, it’s Romney’s turn. But he is taking a “leap of faith” by avoiding discussion about how his Mormonism influences his values, and how he views the relationship between religion and government.
During the last presidential campaign, Romney made a strategic mistake. It wasn’t that he didn’t address his Mormonism. The problem was his timing. And he seems about to make the same mistake.
In the run-up to the 2008 primaries, there was a battle inside Romney's camp over whether Mitt should address the Mormon issue head-on. That the debate even took place demonstrated political naiveté and a lack of historical knowledge. Romney actually thought he could avoid discussing his Mormonism. But as the front-runner, how could he have possibly believed the issue would disappear?
Yes, Romney finally made his Mormon speech, but it was too late. Had it been delivered three months prior, he would have been ahead of the curve, talking about Mormonism on his terms. But that didn’t happen.
Romney, who had been leading, suddenly found himself trailing Mike Huckabee in Iowa, who was also breathing down his neck in New Hampshire and South Carolina. It was only after losing momentum that Mitt decided to address the questions about his faith. The result was that he looked desperate and disorganized.
Apparently, Romney’s folks thought they could put the issue to rest by emulating Kennedy's famous speech to Protestant ministers, where he adamantly stated that he would not be taking orders from the Pope. That was a miscalculation. First, common perception is that Kennedy ended concerns about his Catholicism after that speech. Wrong. JFK felt obliged to address the issue on several other occasions.
More importantly, Catholicism was the nation’s largest religion, and Catholics made up a powerful voting bloc. Conversely, Mormons account for just a fraction of the electorate, and a significant number view Mormonism as a non-Christian “cult.”
Romney’s unexpected slip four years ago was his first major crisis, and how he reacted led to questions. Was he an indecisive leader who would panic at the first sign of trouble? And just how much of his “strong faith” was believable, since his former positions on abortion and gay rights stood in contradiction to his religion?
And as we know, Romney failed to win the nomination.
Now he’s back in the same front-runner position, yet again remains silent.
He sidestepped Pastor Rev. Robert Jeffress’ cult remark made at the Values Voter Summit, and failed to address another evangelical leader who questioned whether Mormonism was even a Christian faith. A Romney spokesman said Mitt would not address the Mormon issue because he did so four years ago.
Given that the memory span of the average voter is about three months, that’s ridiculous. Failure to act quickly will undoubtedly cause history to repeat itself.
Like all religions, Mormonism has some tenets that seem quirky to non-adherents. As the primaries draw close, expect those aspects to become front and center. Romney ought to know that it’s always better taking the bull by the horns when defining a difficult issue. If you allow the issue to define you, you’re playing catch-up.
Romney is playing with fire. No one remembers his speech, but even if they did, he should understand that addressing any issue once is meaningless. In the same way that he repeatedly hammers home his economic plan, so too should he proudly discuss his Mormonism. Not doing so raises more questions and, by default, gives credence to hearsay about “strange” Mormon beliefs.
Not unpredictably, several of Romney’s competitors took a pass on stating whether Mormonism was a Christian religion. Why? Because they believe they’ll lose part of their evangelical base, some of whom view Mormonism with animosity.
That’s proof positive the issue isn’t going away. All the more reason to address it and turn the tables on his competition.
Romney would be wise to study Kennedy. By hammering away, JFK made it seem that voting against a Catholic was bigotry, smashing a religious barrier that many said would never be broken. He did that not by remaining silent and taking the high road, but with a take-no-prisoners approach in his quest to become America’s leader.
As Eisenhower and Kennedy proved, it's the man, not the religion, who will carry the day. But that distinction doesn’t come from rolling over. It is earned. Time will soon tell whether Romney understands that lesson.
An accredited member of the media, Chris Freind is an independent columnist, television commentator, and investigative reporter who operates his own news bureau, www.FreindlyFireZone.com. He can be reached at CF@FreindlyFireZone.com
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