The Reuters headline said: "Mitt Romney Vows Mormon Church Will Not Run White House." Unfortunately, this time Reuters got its story right. In his long-awaited speech designed to win over conservative evangelicals, Romney actually did say something to this effect, making many people wonder why he needed to make such a vow in the first place. It's a bit like hearing Giuliani vow that the mafia will not be running his White House—it is always dangerous to say what should go without saying, because it makes people wonder why you felt the need to say it. Is the Mormon church itching to run the White House, and does Romney need to stand firm against them?
It is true that John Kennedy made a similar vow in his famous 1960 speech on religion, and Romney was clearly modeling his speech on Kennedy's. But the two situations are not the same. When John Kennedy vowed that the Vatican would not control his administration, he was trying to assuage the historical fear of the Roman Catholic Church that had been instilled into generations of Anglo-Saxon Protestants. Kennedy shrewdly didn't say that the Vatican wouldn't try to interfere—something that his Protestant target audience would never have believed in a millions years anyway; instead, Kennedy said in effect, "I won't let the Vatican interfere." And many Protestants believed him—in large part, because no one really thought Kennedy took his religion seriously enough to affect his behavior one way or the other.
The Mormon church is not Romney's problem; it is Romney's own personal religiosity. On the one hand, Romney is too religious for those who don't like religion in public life—a fact that alienates him from those who could care less about a candidate's religion, so long as the candidate doesn't much care about it himself. On the other hand, Romney offends precisely those Christian evangelicals who agree with him most on the importance of religion in our civic life, many of whom would be his natural supporters if only he was a "real" Christian like them, and not a Mormon instead.
To say that someone is not a real Christian sounds rather insulting, like saying that he is not a good person. But when conservative Christians make this point about Romney, they are talking theology, not morality. Anyone with even a passing familiarity with the Mormon creed will understand at once why Romney felt little desire to debate its theological niceties with his target audience of Christian evangelicals, many of whom are inclined to see Mormonism not as a bona fide religion, but as a cult. In my state of Georgia, for example, there are Southern Baptist congregations that raise thousands of dollars to send missionaries to convert the Mormons to Christianity.
Yet if Romney was playing it safe by avoiding theology, he was treading on dangerous ground when he appealed to the American tradition of religious tolerance to make his case. Instead of trying to persuade the evangelicals that he was basically on their side, he did the worst thing he could do: he put them on the defensive. In his speech Romney came perilously close to suggesting: If you don't support me, you are violating the cherished principle of religious tolerance. But such a claim is simply untenable and, worse, highly offensive.
The Christian evangelicals who are troubled by Romney's candidacy do not pose a threat to the American principle of religious tolerance. On the contrary, they are prepared to tolerate Mormons in their society, just as they are prepared to tolerate atheists and Jews, Muslims and Hindus. No evangelical has said, "Romney should not be permitted to run for the Presidency because he is a Mormon." None has moved to have a constitutional amendment forbidding the election of a Mormon to the Presidency. That obviously would constitute religious intolerance, and Romney would have every right to wax indignant about it. But he has absolutely no grounds for raising the cry of religious intolerance simply because some evangelicals don't want to see a Mormon as President and are unwilling to support him. I have no trouble myself tolerating Satan-worshippers in America, but I would not be inclined to vote for one as President: Does that make me bigot? The question of who we prefer to lead us has nothing to do with the question of who we are willing to tolerate, and it did Romney no credit to conflate these two quite distinct questions. There is nothing wrong with evangelicals wishing to see one of their own in the White House, or with atheists wishing to see one of theirs in the same position.
Romney's best approach might have been to say nothing at all. Certainly that would have been preferable to trying to turn his candidacy into an issue of religious tolerance. Better still, he might have said frankly: "My religion is different and, yes, even a trifle odd. But it has not kept Mormons from dying for their country, or paying their taxes, or educating their kids, or making decent communities in which to live."