The Wall Street Journal called it “laudable.” The New York Times called it “tragic.” So what do I think of Mitt Romney’s speech about religion in America last Thursday? As a Yale-educated Mormon woman raised in New York City, I might be expected to think something sophisticated and grand, like “historical” or “inspirational.” My word is actually quite simple: Relieving.
I’ve always trusted that Mitt Romney is a good man. As a member of the Church of Latter-day Saints in the same area where Romney himself goes to church, I’ve been privy to personal testimonials of his character and closeness to God. But his posing as the socially conservative presidential candidate has always bothered me, since his record as governor of the state I now live in suggests he feels more expansive on many policies that are important to me. I’m embarrassed the that man who is shaping the public’s perception of Mormons has been accused of the most ugly of religious crimes: hypocrisy.
My concern throughout his candidacy has been that he would he “flip flop” on his religious integrity to cater to the conservative voting bloc, just as he seemingly has on his policies. I can forgive his political re-positioning. The structure of the electoral primaries makes it difficult for a moderate candidate to win the Republican vote. But I would find it much harder to forgive his retreating from our shared faith because of its inconvenience or cultural unpopularity. Fortunately, now I won’t have to.
I am relieved that Romney understands our religious tradition enough to know that integrity is one of the hallmarks of our faith. I am relieved to know that our faith is more important to him than even the presidency of the United States itself. “There are some…who would prefer it if I would simply distance myself from my religion, say that it is more a tradition than my personal conviction, or disavow one or another of its precepts. That I will not do….Some believe that such a confession of my faith will sink my candidacy. If they are right, so be it.”
That statement, from his speech on December 6, was what I had been waiting to hear. In it, Romney invoked the spirit of thousands of Mormon pioneers—his ancestors and mine—who gave up their homes and loved ones to establish what they believed was the kingdom of God on earth. He honored their sacrifices and their own integrity in the face of persecution and murder.
Although no single speech can allay the questions about Romney’s shifting political policies, he was movingly sincere in this speech.
A distinctive Mormon custom is to “bear our testimonies” to each other and to others not of our faith: we say we “know” that Jesus is the Christ, we “know” the Book of Mormon is true, we “know” Joseph Smith saw Jesus Christ and our Heavenly Father. Our unequivocal knowledge is curious to some. Many faithful members of other religions can remain in good standing with their churches even if they openly express doubts about the veracity of scripture or specific doctrines. Not so in Mormonism. We are a church of absolutes: either Joseph Smith was a prophet or he wasn’t; either Christ died for our sins or he didn’t. We gain conviction of our positions through feelings of confirmation from the Holy Ghost. With his absolute statements—”That I will not do” and “If they are right, so be it”—Romney spoke in a language of faith that resonates with me. We either give our whole lives to Christ or we don’t. He will either be a president of faith or he won’t be president at all. I am relieved that he is absolute on the importance of faith—his faith—in his life.
No Spokesperson for Mormonism
I am also relieved that I will no longer have to rely on Romney to be the spokesperson of my faith. Up until this point in the campaign, the media has focused so intently on Romney’s religious views that he has been forced to answer questions about specific Mormon doctrines, on 60 Minutes, in Newsweek and Time and other places. I have often cringed when his explanations of complex and sacred doctrinal principles have been reduced to sound bites. But in his speech yesterday, Romney undisputedly distanced himself from being the representative of our beliefs: “There are some who would have a presidential candidate describe and explain his church’s distinctive doctrines. To do so would enable the very religious test the founders prohibited in the Constitution. No candidate should become the spokesman for his faith.” It has yet to be seen if the media will respect his new boundaries, but his effort showed a humility and reverence for our doctrine that I had not previously seen.
I’m still not convinced that I will vote for Romney. I’m sorting through his views on domestic issues, as well as his views on Iraq. Among some of my Mormon friends, my hesitancy is unimaginable. After generations of being the brunt of water cooler jokes and ugly stereotypes, we’re fiercely loyal to one another. But since Romney’s speech, I’m relieved that the man who is currently the face of my religion can in fact be admired. I am relieved that I can trust him to honor the thing most sacred to me: my faith.