Anyone looking for a Big Mormon Reveal in Mitt Romney’s acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention Thursday night was surely disappointed. Romney spoke very little about the faith in which he was raised, its prayers, rituals and Scriptures, and their sustaining meaning in his life. He mentioned his Mormonism only in passing, and as if with a shrug.
He said, first off, that growing up Mormon in Michigan (not known, as Utah is, as a stronghold of the Latter-day Saints) was no big deal. “That might have seemed unusual or out of place, but I really don’t remember it that way,” he said. As young marrieds and new parents, he and Ann, like so many Americans, relied on their church community for “kinship,” he said; as they prospered, they found joy in helping others through church. Indeed, so intent was the Republican nominee to show how lightly he wore his faith, that Romney — not known even in relaxed circumstances for his comic timing — delivered a scripted Mormon joke, saying he considered asking the LDS pension fund to invest in Bain Capital, but didn’t want to run the risk of going to hell. Romney’s delivery was stiff and unfunny, but the message was clear. Catholics make Catholic jokes. Jews make Jewish jokes. Yeah, I’m a Mormon, he seemed to say. So what?
And as if in rebuttal to anyone who continued to see in the Romney candidacy a “Mormon problem,” he mentioned the First Amendment. Twice.
Earlier in the week, Romney’s best surrogates, his wife and his running mate Paul Ryan, also approached the religion question with a calculated nonchalance. “When Mitt and I met and fell in love, we were determined not to let anything stand in the way of our life together,” said Ann. “I was an Episcopalian. He was a Mormon. We were very young. Both still in college. There were many reasons to delay marriage, and you know? We just didn’t care.” (She didn’t mention her conversion or her LDS wedding at all.)
Ryan, a Catholic, argued that in any case, men of faith have much in common. “Mitt and I also go to different churches. But in any church, the best kind of preaching is done by example. And I’ve been watching that example. The man who will accept your nomination tomorrow is prayerful and faithful and honorable,” he said. “Not only a fine businessman, he’s a fine man, worthy of leading this optimistic and good-hearted country.”
In different ways, the speakers are all saying the same thing: It shouldn’t matter that the candidate is Mormon. (And of course it shouldn’t.) But their collective insouciance on the religion question shows just how much the party worries that it does.
But if this convention changed anything (and I think it did, though Romney’s performance was predictably smug and stilted), it achieved more than a deflection of the Mormon question. It presented Romney as something else entirely: a devoted disciple of a much more mainstream and sympathetic American faith – the religion of success. Over and over, in every speech, speakers spoke of Romney’s achievement in business as not just a personal virtue, and a sign of Romney’s inherent goodness, but as the highest dream shared by every patriot. The robotic pol was displaced, if momentarily, with everyone’s retrograde fantasy Dad, a trustworthy leader who would sacrifice of himself to do right by the people in his care.
Taken together, this week’s convention speeches could be read as a gospel of success. “I want America to succeed,” said Romney near the beginning of his speech, and then near the end, he drove the point home: “In America we celebrate success, we don’t apologize for success.” After explaining that her husband was motivated every day by “family, faith and love for his fellow man,” Ann, in what was perhaps the convention’s greatest moment, became her husband’s best evangelist: “No one will work harder,” she said. “No one will care more. And no one else will move heaven and earth to make this country a better place to live.” And then, her gospel almost finished, she made a promise: “This man will not fail.”
Now, as the race enters its final lap , the Republicans have forced Democrats to explain why material success, that integral component of the American dream, has in certain provinces of the left become recently regarded as a sin.
To read Lisa Miller’s previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/onfaith.
Related links from On Faith: