Mitt Romney gave an eloquent defense of the positive and crucial rule that religion has played in our nation's history from the first settlements down to the present day. In that regard, Gov. Romney performed an important service to the nation, because this speech was even more important for the country than it was for Gov. Romney and his presidential prospects. Why? Because he reminded Americans, in a high profile venue with the focused attention of the media and millions of citizens listening, of our priceless heritage both of religious freedom and religious diversity.
I had been urging Gov. Romney to give such a speech for more than a year, ever since I was among several Evangelical leaders who met with him at his home in Massachusetts in October 2006. During that meeting, I gave him a copy of JFK's September 1960 speech and urged him to use it as a guide to addressing the issue.
Sitting on the second row in the auditorium of the George Bush Presidential Library at Texas A&M, as I was, one could clearly see the heart-felt passion with which Gov. Romney delivered this address. Two of his senior staff members assured me that Gov. Romney wrote the speech himself, not speech writers. He was clearly speaking from his heart, and from the second row, you could feel the emotion, not just see it. One staff member told me that he had worked for the Governor for six years and he had "never heard him be more eloquent." I responded, "Nothing generates more eloquence than heart-felt conviction."
And he followed the JFK script on some crucial issues. Referencing Kennedy, he said near the beginning of his remarks: "Almost 50 years ago another candidate from Massachusetts explained that he was an American running for President, not a Catholic running for president. Like him, I am an American running for president. I do not define my candidacy by my religion. A person should not be elected because of his faith nor should he be rejected because of his faith."
Like JFK, he reminded the American people we have a constitutional prohibition of a religious test for office. Also like Kennedy, he addressed concerns that the officials of the church might dictate, or interfere with, his presidential decisions. In 1960, President Kennedy said that he would be guided by his conscience in his presidential decision-making "without regard to outside religious pressures or dictates" and that "no power or threat of punishment could cause me to decide otherwise," clearly referencing the Vatican's power of excommunication.
In 2007, Romney said, "Let me assure you that no authorities of my church, or of any other church for that matter, will ever exert influence on presidential decisions. Their authority is theirs, within the province of church affairs, and it ends where the affairs of the nation begin."
Also, like Kennedy, who said that he would not "disavow my church in order to win this election," Romney said he would be true to his faith even if it cost him the nomination.
Romney then made a statement which has been largely misunderstood by the secular media. He said, "I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and the Savior of mankind." Then he said, "my church's beliefs about Christ may not all be the same as those of other faiths. Each religion has its own unique doctrines and history." In the first statement he was taking care not to offend fellow Mormons by avoiding the issue of their beliefs about the Son of God. The second statement, following immediately upon the first, offered Evangelicals and other conservative Christians an acknowledgement of an important "degree of separation" of their theological understanding of Jesus Christ and that of his Mormon faith. It was also significant that he used the phrase "other faiths," not other denominations, acknowledging yet another degree of separation. He then underscored this by immediately saying the term "religion" in referring to "different faiths." "Each religion has its own unique doctrines and history." In other words, for those Evangelical and conservative Christians who believe his faith is not Christian, he acknowledged and respected their right to maintain the distinction between their faith understanding and his, and he wasn't going to pick a fight about it.
Like Kennedy, Romney spent no time trying to define, describe, or defend Mormon beliefs, just as Kennedy similarly did not do so for Catholicism. Instead, he said, his faith shapes his character and conscience, informs his public policy positions, guides his performance in public service and inspires his vision for America's future. He asked Americans to judge him on his character, his record, his public policy views and his vision for the nation's future—not on his person religious beliefs—that would be un-American, unconstitutional—and unfair.
All Americans of religious faith have a significant stake in the principles Gov. Romney articulated and defended in his speech. As JFK reminded us 47 years ago, while then it was a Catholic who was the victim of "suspicion," "in other years, it has been, and may some day be again, a Jew—or a Quaker—or a Unitarian—or a Baptist." Indeed, as JFK reminded the nation, it was persecution of Baptists in 18th century Virginia which inspired Thomas Jefferson's "statute of religious freedom." In other words, discrimination against a person of any faith opens the door to discrimination against people of all faiths.
Whatever the outcome of the 2008 election process, and I do not endorse candidates as a matter of policy, Governor Romney helped himself yesterday. More importantly, he helped the country and the cause of religious freedom even more.
Dr. Richard Land is president of The Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, the Southern Baptist Convention's official entity assigned to address social, moral, and ethical concerns, with particular attention to their impact on American families and their faith.