Mitt Romney, Republican candidate for President, doesn't like to mention the "M-word": Mormon. Photo credit: Gage Skidmore via flickr
Orson Welles once observed that politics was, in essence, an act. Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney’s recent commencement speech at Liberty University – the largest Christian University in the world - was certainly a kind of act: A balancing act on how to talk about his religion.
Or rather, to not talk about his religion while still talking about religion – because Romney did not use the word “Mormon” once in this speech. And he made just one glancing reference to Salt Lake City, Mormonism’s home, when he spoke of his role in rescuing the “2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City.”
Romney has a big problem getting people to vote for a Mormon, so he doesn’t mention the Mormons. But equally he knows that he has to find a way to connect with the massive mainstream Christian vote. At Liberty University, he did this by reaching out to what is shared not what is different: “People of different faiths, like yours and mine, sometimes wonder where we can meet in common purpose, when there are so many differences in creed and theology. Surely the answer is that we can meet in service, in shared moral convictions about our nation stemming from a common worldview.”
“We can meet in service” is a brilliant phrase – playing on the joint connotations of religious service and public service, say, of an elected official. By bringing these two ideas together in a single phrase he brings them together in his audience’s minds: the connection suggesting that voting him in as president has a Christian outcome – because he will do what a good orthodox Christian would do. (Note too that Romney addressed his university audience in a black academic gown, with its broad white strap drawn up high– which made him look like a very well dressed clergyman).
So this important speech was all about proving his “orthodoxy”. Route One to orthodoxy is the family. So for instance Romney quoted C. S. Lewis ( a favorite Christian professor) as saying: “The home is the ultimate career. All other careers exist for one purpose, and that is to support the ultimate career.”
Of course, most critically of all, orthodoxy rests in marriage. Romney alluded to this when he remarked that fundamental principles of faith may become topics of democratic debate: “So it is today with the enduring institution of marriage. Marriage is a relationship between one man and one woman.” This was in sharp contrast to President Barack Obama endorsing same-sex marriage during an interview with ABC News this week, albeit while recognising that some people would have a big problem with this.
In these speeches it seemed that both candidates are heading out on the Christian campaign trail – and finding it a narrow and tricky one. Both are only too aware that religion and the religious vote is going to have a profound effect on the outcome of the presidential election. Romney observed: “Religious liberty is the first freedom in our Constitution.”
In fact, he could have said it is the first thing on the electorate’s subconscious. Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign theme was “It’s the economy, stupid.” For Romney, 20 years on, “It’s the religion, stupid.” – whether that refers to his own Mormon faith, or the overwhelming influence of heartland Christians in determining the vote.