By David S. Broder
Sunday, December 9, 2007
Forty-two years ago, when he was preparing to run for president, George Romney, the Republican governor of Michigan, told reporter Wallace Turner of the New York Times, "I am completely the product of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints."
His son Mitt Romney could say with equal conviction that he has modeled his life on his father and built it on the foundation of his Mormon faith.
He did say that in his personally written address at the George H.W. Bush Presidential Library at Texas A&M University last week -- and in doing so addressed a major threat to his own presidential candidacy that was an echo of his father's experience in another era.
I had forgotten that George Romney had also been called on to explain his religion. Back then, the vexing question was racial; the Mormons had not yet dropped their ban on African Americans entering the priesthood, and the elder Romney had to cite his own strong civil rights credentials as a way of rebutting any implication of racism.
As Mitt Romney recalled in his address, his father was able to remind people that he had marched with Martin Luther King Jr. (through upscale Grosse Pointe, Mich., in support of open-housing legislation).
But it was not until I reread what Stephen Hess and I had written about the elder Romney in a 1967 book that I was reminded that he, too, had to explain his religion to voters. In the end, it was Vietnam and his difficulties with the war issue that sank Romney, but before that, he had managed to identify his religious belief with the deepest kind of patriotism.
We quoted George Romney's 1966 Lincoln Day speech in Boston: "I believe that the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution are divinely inspired documents, written by men especially raised up by their Creator for that purpose. I believe that God has made and presented to us a nation for a purpose -- to bring freedom to all the people of the world."
We commented that this is "purest Mormon teaching. . . . Thus a paradox in Romney turns out to be a paradox in Mormonism itself. These people, whose beliefs and practices are so idiosyncratic, and who actually took arms against the United States government, are also as hyper-American as a rodeo or county fair."
At the Bush library, Mitt Romney camouflaged the "idiosyncratic" in his religion, affirming his faith in Jesus Christ as Savior, and wrapping his speech in layers of patriotic rhetoric.
The loudest applause came when he quoted patriot Sam Adams and reminded his audience that when circumstances seemed most dire in the Revolution, "together they prayed, and together they fought, and together, by the grace of God, they founded this great nation."
If Mitt Romney was true to his father's tradition, he also nodded in the direction of John Kennedy's famous 1960 declaration to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association that his obligation as a Catholic would never come before his allegiance to the Constitution.
Romney, too, said, "I will put no doctrine of any church above the plain duties of the office," and that he would brook no interference from an ecclesiastical official in his work.
But equally, he said, he would not abandon his faith in the quest for office -- an important rebuttal to those who think he has been all too willing to shift his position on abortion and other social issues.
Whether Romney has been able to diffuse the suspicion of his Mormonism among the fairly large number of Americans who apparently regard it as a cult that is alien to their own religious background is beyond my capacity to judge.
For me, with a lifetime of nothing but very positive relationships with Mormons, Romney's religion is as much of an asset as his family heritage. He was raised right by a couple I greatly admired, and the values they gave him are exactly those I would hope a leader would have.
The way Romney has used his talents -- and the choices he has made as a politician -- are things I have sometimes questioned. But his religion is not an issue. And the Constitution means what it says: No religious test for public office.