BY JOHN FEA
Now that the Romney's “Faith in America” speech is over, the opinion columns and editorial pages are buzzing. If the media coverage is any indication, yesterday had to be the most important day in Romney’s political life. It has certainly been the biggest story of the pre-primary season thus far.
Three of the four op-ed columnists in today’s Washington Post decided to tackle the speech (count 'em--three! And this is in addition to an editorial in the paper). Charles Krauthammer slammed Mike Huckabee for the subtle anti-Mormonism that forced Romney to give the speech in the first place. E.J. Dionne seemed to like the speech (even connecting parts of it to a 1992 speech by Bill Clinton), but chided Romney for pandering to the Christian Right by suggesting that freedom requires religion. Michael Gerson cautioned against taking the comparisons between Kennedy and Romney too far. After all, Kennedy’s speech to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association was designed to show that his Catholic faith would not impact his presidency. Romney, on the other hand, did not back down from his faith and suggested that it is compatible with American values. The historic significance of Romney’s speech was not lost on George W. Bush’s former speechwriter. Gerson ended his column by affirming that “Kennedy's speech remains a landmark of American rhetoric. But Romney's deserves to be read beside it.”
David Brooks, the lone conservative voice these days on the New York Times op-ed page, was somewhat critical of the speech for Romney’s failure to reserve a place for secularists in his understanding of freedom. One thing I like about Brooks’s columns is his attempts (and some are better than others) to decipher the intellectual roots behind politics. In this case, Brooks writes convincingly that Romney’s address falls somewhere between Jon Meacham’s argument in American Gospel (which Romney apparently read more than once in preparing his thoughts) and John Richard Neuhaus’s “Naked Public Square.” Read Brooks’s column and decide for yourself.
And speaking of Neuhaus, he loved the speech. Today on the First Things website he came just short of endorsing Romney for president. Like Gerson, he praised Romney for not backing away from the idea that religion needs to inform the "public square" (contra Kennedy). Meanwhile, over at the New Republic, David Kusnet, a former Clinton speech writer, “eviscerated” Romney’s address for the same reason that Neuhaus loved it. Kusnet took particular umbrage with MSNBC’s Chris Matthews for claiming to have “heard greatness” in Romney voice.
Finally (at least for now), the coverage at Christianity Today is worth a look. Editor-in-chief David Neff praises the speech, but is disappointed that Romney did not address Mormon theology. He is right to suggest that evangelicals who are suspicious of Romney are suspicious because of Mormon beliefs and history. Yet, politically, I wonder how Romney would have pulled that off without turning the speech into a discussion of the finer points of Mormon doctrine.
As I read all of these accounts this morning, I began to ponder:
1). Was yesterday a slow news day or was Romney’s speech that important (or historic)?
2). Romney is indeed a serious candidate for the Republican nomination despite the fact Giuliani still leads in most national polls. There is a legitimate chance that he may be our next president.
3). While the circumstances surrounding the need to deliver such a speech were relatively the same for Kennedy and Romney, the core message of their addresses could not have been more different. Kennedy wanted to let the nation know that his Catholicism would not impact his politics. Romney wanted to let the nation, but especially evangelicals, know that his faith matters, even if he did stop short of saying that it would influence his deicsions in the Oval Office. Here most of the commentators are correct. It seems to me that in today's political climate Democratic candidates, especially Obama, would find the Romney approach to such a speech more politically advantageous than the Kennedy approach.
4). The fact that a presidential candidate needed to deliver such a speech in order to win over evangelicals seems like something out of the nineteenth-century rather than the twenty-first century. Perhaps history really does run in cycles.