It was a powerful speech powerfully delivered. I don’t do political endorsements but am on record as saying that I think Mitt Romney is in many ways well qualified to be president. There is nothing in the speech that prompts a change of mind on that.

Note the title “Faith in America.” That has an obvious and, I expect, intended double meaning: Faith as it is practiced in America, and faith in America , i.e., America as an object of faith. The entire address is a skillful weaving together of those two themes.

Along with the American Founders, Romney strongly affirms the role of religion at the creation and through the history of this constitutional order. There is repeated reference to liberty, freedom, and tolerance—the terms sometimes being employed interchangeably. There are, he says, legitimate questions to be asked about a candidate’s religion, “And I will answer them today.”

Mention is made of Lincoln’s use of the phrase “political religion”—a phrase that, in other contexts, has had a rather checkered history. Those familiar with the discussion of these questions might say that the entirety of Romney’s address is an exercise in “civil religion.” That is closer to the truth of the matter. Civil religion is not another religion but is a mix of convictions about transcendent truths that are held in common and refracted through the particular religious traditions to which Americans adhere.

Very notably, Romney did not do a JFK at Houston. He did not distance himself from his faith. “Some believe,” he said, “that such a confession of my faith will sink my candidacy. If they are right, so be it.” A bold statement—almost Luther-like in its “Here I stand” resonance.

He is delicate in playing the tolerance card, but he plays it. America and Americans are being tested by whether they admit Mormons into “our nation’s symphony of faith.” Mormons are placed within a narrative of earlier American intolerance. Ann Hutchinson and Roger Williams were banished, “and two centuries later Brigham Young set out for the West.” In their intolerance, those early Americans were acting “much like . . . the European nations they had left.” But everything changed in Philadelphia, and especially with the first freedom of the First Amendment, the free exercise of religion.

The story line doesn’t quite hold up, of course, since Brigham Young was almost a century after the constitutional founding. The implication is that, in the exclusion of the Mormons, we have an instance of America backsliding. In this way, America is being tested by the candidacy of Mitt Romney. I am sure that Mr. Romney would not say that his candidacy puts America on trial, but many others are saying that his candidacy does just that.

I was earlier taken to task for writing that someone who declines to vote for Mr. Romney because he is a Mormon is not necessarily guilty of the civic sin of intolerance. I then explained that, in making that argument, I was not agreeing with those who oppose him because he is a Mormon. Rather, I would simply note the undeniable fact that a substantial number of Americans, mainly evangelical Christians, believe that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is a false religion, and that a Mormon in the White House would give a substantial boost to that religion, with the consequence of imperiling the salvation of souls. We may not agree with that view, but to deride it as bigotry is itself a form of bigotry. Those who condemn that view are saying, in effect, that politics trumps religion. For the very reasons that Mr. Romney affirms in his speech, most Americans reject that claim.

Few Catholics believe that a candidate is disqualified by being a Mormon. The reason is obvious: Catholics are accustomed to having heretics in the White House. Jews likewise are not offended that the president is not one of their own. This is and always has been a dominantly Protestant country. With the exception of JFK, who, sad to say, was not much of a Catholic, Catholics are accustomed to having presidents who are, in their view, religiously wrongheaded. Evangelicals, by way of contrast, are accustomed to thinking of America as a Christian nation, meaning a Protestant nation. For many who lack a fully developed ecclesiology, America is something very much like their church. You don’t want a heretic as the head of your church.

In this evangelical perspective, a Jewish president is less threatening than a Mormon. Jews are not poaching on their religious territory. Sociologists speak of the propinquity factor in social animosity. Someone who falsely claims kinship is a greater threat than a stranger. Mr. Romney said, “I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and the Savior of mankind.” The threatened evangelical responds that that is precisely the problem: He claims to believe what we believe, but, as a Mormon, he is using our language to say something very different.

My essay ” Is Mormonism Christian? ” has received a good deal of attention. The answer to the question is that Mormonism is not part of historic Christianity as defined by Scripture and the early councils of the Church, but neither is it explicable apart from Christianity. A different question is whether many Mormons are Christians, and I believe the answer is yes. Moreover, if Mormons are admitted into “our nation’s symphony faith,” it may well encourage the rapprochement of the LDS with what is, broadly construed, the Christian mainstream.

Such are among the complicated questions attending the Romney candidacy. His speech yesterday addressed these questions with intelligence and frequent eloquence. His understanding that the naked public square is not neutral toward religion but is a project of the quasi-religion of secularism is entirely on target. His sharp contrast between America and a secularistic Europe, on the one hand, and jihadist fanaticism, on the other, is well stated.

It is too much to say, as he did, that Americans “share a common creed of moral convictions.” It is not a creed, just as America is not a church, but there is an undeniably Judeo-Christian moral ambiance within which we engage and dispute how we ought to order our life together. And, however much we may argue over particulars, Mr. Romney is surely right in saying that “no movement of conscience can succeed in America that cannot speak to the convictions of religious people.”

As for David Brooks’ thoughtful column in the New York Times today, I don’t know what others told him, but I would not say I was “enthusiastic” about the speech, never mind “wildly so.” And Mr. Brooks is right to complain that “there was not even a perfunctory sentence showing respect for the nonreligious.” There should have been more than a sentence explaining why such respect is mandated precisely by the Judeo-Christian tradition Romney so strongly affirms. I also share Mr. Brooks’ aversion to the “bland, smiley-faced God” invoked by Mr. Romney. But then Mormonism is a smiley-faced religion, which is one among many reasons for not being a Mormon.

Mr. Brooks says that Romney “asked people to submerge their religious convictions for the sake of solidarity in a culture war without end.” That’s not quite right. He was making a bid for the support of people who find themselves on one side of a culture war that they did not declare. If you wonder who did declare the war, you need go no further than the facing page of the Times on the same day, with its typically strident editorial attacking Mr. Romney and his argument about religion in American public life.

Mr. Romney has delivered one of the more remarkable political speeches of recent American history. It would seem to put Mr. Giuliani on the spot with the obvious theoretical, practical, and personal contrasts between the two candidates. Presumably Mr. McCain and, even more so, Mr. Huckabee could make the same substantive arguments about religion and public life, although their doing so at this point might appear to be an exercise in me-too-ism. And, since they are not Mormons, they may not feel the need to do so. In any event, I believe Mr. Romney has rendered a significant service in advancing the understanding of religion and public life in the American experiment.

A candidate for president should be judged, I suggest, by four criteria: (1) his declared values and proposed policies; (2) his character and credibility; (3) his competence to deliver; and (4) his prospects of winning nomination and election. (Or “her,” as the case may be.) On all four scores, I expect that, with yesterday’s address on “Faith in America,” Mitt Romney has also significantly advanced his candidacy.

Articles by Richard John Neuhaus

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