As someone of deep faith and a political junkie, I'm fascinated by the convergence of faith and politics. Though I'm far from those on the right who think God and politics should be inseparable, I also don't agree with those who say politicians shouldn't talk about their faith and how it would guide them.
So, when I heard that Mitt Romney was going to talk about his faith, I held out great hope. Unfortunately, Romney laid a giant, poll-tested egg.
While many tried to equate his speech last week with JFK's in Houston during the 1960 campaign, the only similarity I saw was that Romney was also a Massachusetts politician speaking about religion in Texas.
Kennedy's speech was a seminal moment for Catholics in America, finally bringing about a greater acceptance where they had all too often been demonized. But rather than just talk about how he believed in the same God as Protestants, he challenged America to think about whether the God a candidate follows is as important as the values he brings to public office.
Kennedy said, "I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute - where no Catholic prelate would tell the president (should he be Catholic) how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote - where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference - and where no man is denied public office merely because his religion differs from the president who might appoint him or the people who might elect him . . . where religious liberty is so indivisible that an act against one church is treated as an act against all."
Romney, in contrast, didn't explain his religion, but did make clear his intention to bring God into his White House, saying, "We should acknowledge the Creator as did the Founders - in ceremony and word. He should remain on our currency, in our pledge, in the teaching of our history, and during the holiday season, nativity scenes and menorahs should be welcome in our public places. Our greatness would not long endure without judges who respect the foundation of faith upon which our Constitution rests. I will take care to separate the affairs of government from any religion, but I will not separate us from 'the God who gave us liberty.' "
It's no coincidence that this is the language that consultants say Republican primary voters want to hear. It also wasn't lost on the candidate that he, a Mormon, finds himself lagging behind a Baptist minister, Mike Huckabee, in the polls. Kennedy's speech took people's conventions head-on and challenged them, Romney simply pandered.
It was an opportunity lost. Like Kennedy, Romney could have challenged religious voters to look past a specific faith to who best practices the values they hold dear. His speech was actually insulting to religious voters, amounting to him saying he can talk about God as well as the next guy, and that he'd keep "God" on all of our money and in the Pledge of Allegiance.
THOSE AREN'T the things faith voters put at the top of their list. Like most Americans, they are concerned about the lives we give our children and the world we leave them. Yes, they feel like their values offer the best hope for the world, but those values aren't focused as much on Nativity scenes in town squares as on taking care of those less fortunate, allowing all children to be free to live up to their full capability and being good environmental stewards of God's earth.
Romney could have talked about how his faith believes in those things, as well, despite some of the nasty rumors that have spread about Mormonism in our recent history.
And about those rumors, this was his time to have a "Sister Souljah moment," taking on some of the hatemongers of the far right, the same way Bill Clinton took on rapper Sistah Souljah and those on the left who defended her anti-cop lyrics.
Romney could have given a speech on how we need to stop pitting religions against each other, how the party of Lincoln has lost its bearing, and now must lead the way on a national reconciliation among all faiths because there's far more that unites them than divides them.
Instead, he dumbed down the moment, trying to convince primary voters that he loved Jesus and Christmas trees as much as Mike Huckabee. The worst part for Romney is that the speech isn't likely to convince anyone who wouldn't have voted for a Mormon to begin with. The worst part for America is that we're still looking for a public servant to inspire a national reconciliation among those of differing faiths. *