What good will it do?

Romney faces a very different problem [than JFK] – and a very different set of questions. Nobody doubts that Mormons as a community and as individuals honor and respect the rules of the American constitutional system. But precisely because nobody does doubt it, Romney will get nowhere by explaining that Mormons do.

Romney rather faces much more purely religious questions – and any attempt to respond to it must draw him into a purely religious answer that will almost certainly do him more harm than good. Is Mormonism a Christian faith? Is it a plausible system of belief? What does it say about you that you accept as true something that most Americans regard as blatantly false?

These are the questions that lurk about the Romney candidacy. In my opinion, they are not appropriate questions to ask – and so they are not questions it is possible to answer. But if Romney does answer them, he is going to have to answer them all the way. Evasive tactics will buy him nothing. Yes, he can give a speech about how Mormons are good citizens. Or that stresses the commonalities between the Church of Latter Day Saints and the more established denominations. But those responses will not satisfy anybody for very long. He will have opened the door to the question: “Is it OK for somebody who believes what you believe to be president?” And he will not find that door so easy to shut.

That door’s already open, though. It sounds like Mitt’s planning the ode to religious pluralism that everyone expects: “The former governor does not plan to get into the nitty-gritty of LDS theology,” Politico quotes an aide as saying, but rather “to de-legitimize criticism and suspicion of his faith by stressing the broad themes of religious liberty, the grand tradition of religious tolerance, the role of faith in public life, and how his faith will inform his presidency.” Does he seriously believe voters who object to Mormonism are going to be swayed or feel “delegitimized” by a reminder that the Constitution forbids religious tests for office? At best he ends up reminding them of something they’ve already accounted for in their calculus on this issue, at worst he comes off hinting that they’re bigoted or un-American for holding his faith against him. Like Frum says, the question with JFK was essentially whether he’d take his marching orders from the Pope, an assurance easily given. In Mitt’s case, the question is how far outside the Biblical tradition can a candidate’s faith fall before it disqualifies him for office. Telling voters “you’re not supposed to look at it that way” is apt to be … unpersuasive.

That said, I’m glad he’s doing it. It shows some balls, and there are worse ways to use a national platform than to remind people that they have every right to vote their prejudices but they shouldn’t kid themselves that they’re following any constitutional value in doing so. I wonder, in fact, if this isn’t a sign of Mitt feeling a little desperate about his chances and deciding to go out with a bang. We’ll know in a month. Exit question: Assuming that he does stave off Huckabee and ends up in a showdown with Rudy, does this speech at least give some social cons who might have otherwise stayed home enough reason to come out and vote for him?

Update: NBC hears through the grapevine that Mitt will be recycling lines from his interview on Face the Nation in October. Follow the link for the transcript. The line about Harry Reid is cute but unconvincing and his deferrals of questions about LDS doctrine to church elders does seem evasive. It’s one thing to decline to answer a question on a subtle theological point, it’s another thing to duck when asked where you believe the Garden of Eden is. If you can’t or won’t answer a question that any Christian would and could answer about their own faith without needing a minister’s help, people are going to wonder why.

Update: An odd item, again from NBC. The pastor of the only megachurch in South Carolina says Mitt’s keen on coming there to speak — but the Romney campaign denies it. Brace yourself for this, though:

[Pastor Ron] Carpenter told me that he is still thinking and praying on allowing Romney to speak at Redemption World. Obama spoke there recently, and there was a huge backlash from white Christians and Republicans for letting that “Muslim” speak, although Obama is a Christian.