Romney Must Address His Mormonism Now

Why the candidate should follow the lead of Kennedy and Eisenhower when it comes to religion

He is Republican, pro-defense and hawkish on the War. He is also an unabashed Christian, although his particular sect is viewed with suspicion and prejudice. Oh, and he’s running for president. Based on the recent firestorm that erupted when a pastor called a presidential candidate’s religion a “cult,” it seems clear that we’re talking about Mitt Romney and his Mormon faith. But we’re not. The above description referred to none other than Dwight D. Eisenhower—a Jehovah’s Witness for 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 deliberately 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 on the religion issue. It wasn’t that he didn’t address his Mormonism, because he did. The problem was his timing. And he seems about to make the same mistake.

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In the run up to the 2008 primaries, there was an intense battle inside Romney’s camp over whether Mitt should address the Mormon issue head-on. That the debate even took place demonstrated political naiveté on Romney’s part, as well as a lack of historical knowledge.

Romney and some of his advisers actually thought they could avoid discussing his Mormonism. Since he was the frontrunner, how could they have believed that the “Mormon issue” would disappear?

Romney finally made his Mormon speech, but it was too late. Had it been delivered three months earlier, he would have been ahead of the curve, proactively talking about Mormonism on his terms. But that didn’t happen.

Instead, it looked like an act of desperation.

Romney, who had been leading in the early states (in both money and polls) suddenly found himself trailing the surging 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 that had long been swirling about his faith. The result was that he looked desperate and disorganized.

Apparently, Romney’s staff thought they could put the issue to rest by emulating Kennedy’s famous Texas speech to Protestant ministers, where he adamantly stated that he would not be taking orders from the Pope. That was a miscalculation on several counts. 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 largest single religion in the nation, and Catholics made up a substantial and powerful voting bloc in many key states. Conversely, Mormons make up just a fraction of the electorate, and a significant number of voters, especially evangelical Christians, view Mormonism as a non-Christian “cult.”

Romney’s unexpected slip in the polls four years ago was his first major crisis, and how he reacted—some say over-reacted—led to questions about the candidate. Were people put off by a potential commander-in-chief who seemed to panic at the first sign of trouble? Could America afford a president who was seen as indecisive? And just how much of Mitt Romney’s “strong faith” was believable, since his former positions on abortion and gay rights stood in contradiction to the tenets of his religion?

As we know, Romney failed to win the nomination that many experts said was his to lose. Now he’s back in the same frontrunner position, yet is again choosing to remain silent on the Mormon issue.

He sidestepped Rev. Robert Jeffress’s cult remark made at the Values Voter Summit, and failed to directly address another evangelical leader who questioned whether Mormonism was even a Christian faith. A Romney spokesman said he 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 on this matter will undoubtedly cause history to repeat itself.

Like all religions, Mormonism has some tenets that seem quirky to non-adherents. As the primaries draw near, expect those aspects to become front and center on the national stage, both directly and indirectly. With all of Romney’s crisis-management experience in business, he ought to know that it’s always better to take the bull by the horns to define a difficult issue—and being the first to do so. If you allow the issue—or your opponents—to define you, you’re always playing catch-up.

By refusing to address an issue that clearly isn’t going away, Romney is playing with fire. No one remembers his speech from four years ago, but even if they did, he should innately understand that addressing an issue—any issue—just once is meaningless. In the same way that he hammers home his economic plan time and again, so too should he proudly discuss both Mormonism and his personal thoughts on how it affects his life. Not doing so only raises more questions and, by default, gives credence to unsubstantiated hearsay about “strange” Mormon beliefs.

Interestingly, but not unpredictably, several of Romney’s GOP competitors had the opportunity to state that Mormonism was a Christian religion. They took a pass. Why? Because they believe they’ll lose part of their evangelical base, some of whom view Mormonism with animosity.

That’s proof-positive that this issue isn’t going away. All the more reason for Romney to address it, and turn the tables on his competition.

Romney would be wise to study how Kennedy handled the religion issue. By consistently hammering away, JFK made it seem that voting against a Catholic was bigotry, plain and simple. Kennedy smashed a religious barrier that many said would never be broken, 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 both 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.

Chris Freind is an independent columnist, television commentator, and investigative reporter who operates his own news bureau, FreindlyFireZone.com. Readers of his column, “Freindly Fire,” hail from six continents, thirty countries and all 50 states. His work has been referenced in numerous publications including the Wall Street Journal, National Review Online, foreign newspapers, and in Dick Morris’ recent bestseller Catastrophe. Freind also serves as a frequent guest commentator on talk radio and state/national television, most notably on FOX Philadelphia. He can be reached at [email protected]