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In Speech, Romney Attempts to Define Lines Between Religion, Politics

December 6, 2007 at 6:35 PM EDT
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Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney confronted the issue of his Mormon faith in a speech Thursday, saying that as president he would "serve no religion." Newsweek editor Jon Meacham offers analysis of the role religion plays in politics.
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JIM LEHRER: Now, Romney on his religion. Ray Suarez has our story.

RAY SUAREZ: Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney delivered his much-anticipated speech at the George H.W. Bush Presidential Library in College Station, Texas. The remarks, titled “Faith in America,” were seen as Romney’s attempt to ease concerns of Christian conservatives who might be reluctant to support a Mormon for president.

FORMER GOV. MITT ROMNEY (R), Massachusetts: When I place my hand on the Bible and take the oath of office, that oath becomes my highest promise to God. If I’m fortunate to become your president, I will serve no one religion, no one group, no one cause, and no one interest. A president must serve only the common cause of the people of the United States.

RAY SUAREZ: Just three weeks ago, Romney dismissed the idea of having to deliver such a speech, saying, “There’s no particular urgency because I’m making progress in the states where I’m campaigning.”

But recent polls show former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, an ordained Southern Baptist minister, moving ahead of Romney in all-important Iowa. Huckabee has used his faith to attract voters, with campaign ads such as this.

FORMER GOV. MIKE HUCKABEE (R), Arkansas: Faith doesn’t just influence me; it really defines me. I don’t have to wake up everyday wondering, “What do I need to believe?”

RAY SUAREZ: Romney’s decision to address his faith drew immediate comparisons to remarks John F. Kennedy delivered to a group of Protestant ministers two months before the 1960 presidential election. Kennedy downplayed the influence Catholicism would have on his policy decisions.

JOHN F. KENNEDY, Former President of the United States: 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.

RAY SUAREZ: But in his speech today, Romney argues religion and civic life should be connected.

MITT ROMNEY: 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. 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.

RAY SUAREZ: And Romney sought to reassure Evangelical Christians his faith does not conflict with theirs.

MITT ROMNEY: Any believer in religious freedom, any person who has knelt in prayer to the almighty, has a friend and ally in me. And so it is for hundreds of millions of our countrymen. We do not insist on a single strain of religion. Rather, we welcome our nation’s symphony of faith.

RAY SUAREZ: It’s estimated Christian conservatives will comprise more than a third of Iowa’s Republican caucusgoers January 3rd.

Appeal to religious voters

Jon Meacham
Newsweek
I think, in a larger sense, he had, as the first Mormon to make a serious bid at this level, he need to attempt to explain to the country what his view of faith was in relation to politics.

RAY SUAREZ: And joining us for some analysis of what Mitt Romney said today about religion, we're joined by Jon Meacham, editor of Newsweek magazine and author of "American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers and the Making of a Nation."

Jon Meacham, it's been said many times over the past several weeks that this is a speech that Mitt Romney, quote, "had to give." Why?

JON MEACHAM, Editor, Newsweek Magazine: Well, I think there are two reasons. One is a tactical reason in the Republican primaries, in which a number of conservative Christian, orthodox Christian voters have been skeptical of Romney's Mormonism, have been skeptical of Romney's flip-flops on other issues, but very much worried about whether his values were their values, because his sectarian label was different.

I think, in a larger sense, he had, as the first Mormon to make a serious bid at this level, he need to attempt to explain to the country what his view of faith was in relation to politics.

RAY SUAREZ: OK. If that was the assignment, how did he do today?

JON MEACHAM: Well, I think he did very well if one were a person of faith. If one is an Evangelical Republican primary voter, I think this was a very reassuring speech.

I think that he clearly defined religious liberty in his terms, which was that you are free to choose whatever denomination, whatever faith tradition you wish, and not have it proscribed or dictated to you by the state.

One issue with that is his sense of religious liberty seemed more limited to that than to including those who choose to have no faith at all. And in that sense, I think that was very effective primary speech, but not so effective in terms of the general election audience reaching out to swing voters.

On the second point, I think that he did some good in demystifying Mormonism with his confession of faith in Jesus as the son of God and a human atoning sacrifice. And that really is the threshold question for a number of people in the Christian community around the country, and I think in that sense he was quite clear and quite compelling.

Drawing on founding fathers

Jon Meacham
Newsweek
He was quite successful in laying out how religion has always been a part of the American tapestry.

RAY SUAREZ: He talked to you while he was preparing this speech, before he gave it?

JON MEACHAM: Well, he called me last night on his way to Houston or College Station. It had been reported that he had read my book, which you kindly mentioned, which is really a history of the idea of religious liberty. And it was more a "thank you" call than a consultation. It was not a consultation at all.

My sense is he wanted to draw on the historical tradition of religious liberty, of tolerance, of the founding fathers, to make the point that, while one can separate church and state, one cannot separate religion from politics.

And religion and politics are both about people. They're about what motivates them, what drives them, what they hope for, what they fear sometimes. And I think, in that sense, he was quite successful in laying out how religion has always been a part of the American tapestry.

If he had asked for my advice -- which he did not -- I would have argued that he needed to explain a bit more clearly that religion is one force among many in the American experience and that what Thomas Jefferson and James Madison were doing was trying to create a world in which religion could be like commerce, like partisanship, like geography, a force in the republic that would be subject to checks and balances and would be something that, instead of trying to drive it out of politics -- which can never be done -- or letting it dominate politics -- which it should not do -- it put it on a level playing field with other considerations.

Explaining Mormonism

Jon Meacham
Newsweek
I think to vote against him because of his religion, to vote against him because of the label, of the sign outside the church he goes to, is quite un-American. It's as un-American as trying to coerce faith or make someone go to any kind of church.

RAY SUAREZ: You alluded to this a little bit earlier, but I want to get you to go some way further. If you are an American who was worried, curious, mystified by Mormonism, would you come away from this morning's speech with the reassurance that you were seeking from a candidate for a major party nomination for president?

JON MEACHAM: Well, I think you could take away that reassurance from the totality of the speech. I thought he sounded reasonable. Again, I thought he was a bit too focused on speaking only to religious people.

But in terms of explaining Mormonism or trying to make people comfortable with that particular faith -- you know, to some extent, the American voters are on trial here more than Romney is. Part of the American tradition is that sectarian labels should not matter. And he explained that he believes -- the core of his belief, as far as one can tell, and I think we have to take him at his word.

He has a record as governor of Massachusetts. And my sense is that he did enough to explain how his faith would affect his public conduct. To me, that's all he has to do.

He said he wasn't going to take direction from church elders. He said that he would govern according to the Constitution and the plain duties of the office, in an elegant phrase. And so my sense is that, as long as he makes those assurances, we can then judge, yea or nay, on whether one should vote for him.

I think to vote against him because of his religion, to vote against him because of the label, of the sign outside the church he goes to, is quite un-American. It's as un-American as trying to coerce faith or make someone go to any kind of church.

RAY SUAREZ: People looking for historical parallels have reached back to John Kennedy in 1960, but we heard John F. Kennedy say a little bit earlier this hour that he believed that the separation between church and state was absolute. And Mitt Romney this morning was very careful not to go even close to there.

JON MEACHAM: He did. This was also -- again, if one were not a person of faith, if one is not a person of faith, this was not a reassuring speech.

Governor Mitt Romney was quite strong on saying that secularism should not replace more traditional religious faith. That tends to overlook the grand and important role of moral tradition of secularism, Robert Ingersoll. There are many, many moral people who are not religious, in the same way there are many religious people who are immoral.

One cannot overlook the secular sources of morality and strong social conduct, righteous social conduct. My sense is that Romney did not want there to be any kind of sound bite that would play in Iowa to affirm to evangelical voters who may be skeptical of him that he was in any way separationist, as you say.

You know, again, if I'd been consulted, I would have suggested perhaps quoting Thomas Jefferson, who once said that, "It doesn't matter to me whether my neighbor believes in one god, 20 gods, or no god. It neither breaks my leg nor picks my pocket."

And I think that is the kind of American tradition that we need to vigorously embrace and promulgate.

RAY SUAREZ: Jon Meacham, thanks for being with us.

JON MEACHAM: Thanks so much.

JIM LEHRER: You can watch our candidate interviews and follow the 2008 campaigns with our reporters' notebooks on our Web site. To do so, just go to PBS.org.