DURING MITT ROMNEY'S four years as governor of Massachusetts, his religious beliefs never once became an issue. For anyone who had been concerned that a Mormon elected to high office would somehow misuse his position for theological reasons, Romney's gubernatorial record offered strong evidence that there was nothing to worry about.
But prejudice about other people's religions doesn't yield easily to empirical proof, and Romney's campaign for president has had to contend from the outset with a handicap faced by no other candidate: More than 25 percent of Americans say they would not vote for a Mormon.
"I'm amazed by how many people I know who won't vote for Mitt Romney because of his Mormonism," e-mails a friend of mine, a conservative Southern Christian. "My wife, for instance. She says, 'Anybody willing to believe things as crazy as the things Mormons believe, I can't trust his judgment.' I pointed out to her that we believe that a man was raised from the dead, that he comes to us every week under the guise of bread and wine, and that we eat him up. 'That's different,' she said."
It remains to be seen whether Romney's much-anticipated speech in Texas tomorrow on religion and politics can allay the qualms of voters like my friend's wife. Clearly Romney will not follow the example of John F. Kennedy, who dealt with the "Catholic issue" in 1960 by saying in essence that if elected president, he would leave his religious views outside the Oval Office. Romney is too devoted to his faith to minimize it in that way.
But the former governor might want to quote JFK's warning about the risk of imposing an unofficial religious test on office-seekers. "While this year it may be a Catholic against whom the finger of suspicion is pointed," Kennedy said, "in other years it has been, and may someday be again, a Jew - or a Quaker - or a Unitarian - or a Baptist. . . .Today I may be the victim - but tomorrow it may be you."
It was on Sunday that the Romney campaign announced the forthcoming speech, saying the candidate would discuss how his "own faith would inform his presidency if he were elected." On the same day in Britain, as it happened, the BBC broadcast an interview with former prime minister Tony Blair, who said that his Christian faith had been "hugely important" to him during his 10 years in power - but that he had felt constrained to keep it a secret for fear of being thought a crackpot.
"It's difficult to talk about religious faith in our political system," Blair said. "If you are in the American political system . . . you can talk about religious faith and people say, 'Yes, that's fair enough,' and it is something they respond to quite naturally. You talk about it in our system and, frankly, people do think you're a nutter."
Apparently that was more than Blair was willing to risk. The fear of being thought ridiculous was why his press secretary had snapped, "We don't do God," when an American reporter asked the prime minister about his religious views in 2003. It was why Blair's advisers vehemently protested when he wanted to end a televised speech on the eve of the Iraq war with the words "God bless you." American presidents routinely invoke God's blessing on the nation, but Blair's spinmasters warned him against annoying "people who don't want chaplains pushing stuff down their throats." (Blair told his flacks they were "the most ungodly lot," but bowed to their demand and ended the speech with a limp "thank you.")
By American standards, it is inconceivable that a British prime minister should feel unable to acknowledge taking Christianity seriously without causing himself political damage. More than an ocean separates the United States from its mother country. Here, where any establishment of religion is barred by the Constitution, religious faiths flourish, and every presidential candidate is a self-identified believer. Across the pond, where a form of Christianity has been the established religion for centuries, the church has become a hollow shell, and a politician cannot "do God" without being scorned for his irrationality.
Mitt Romney knows that his speech isn't going to win over every voter who is uneasy at the prospect of a Mormon in the White House. Some anti-Mormon prejudice is too entrenched to be dislodged by reason. But the very fact that Romney can give such a speech and have it draw such close and respectful attention is an indication of America's exceptional nature.
Jeff Jacoby's e-mail address is [email protected].