It should never have come to this, but it probably was inevitable that it did.
Mitt Romney may have had a super-successful business career. He may have used some of these same business skills to turn around a 2002 Winter Olympics rocked by scandal and post-9/11 security concerns. He may have earned high marks for health-care innovation and no-new-taxes deficit reduction as the Republican governor of Massachusetts. He may have led a life without scandal. He may look and act as if he was born to be president. But Mitt Romney is also ... a Mormon.
And some people have a major problem with that.
We like to say we're beyond religious bigotry, but many people—many exquisitely educated people who pride themselves on their tolerance—think a Mormon in the White House is beyond the pale. This last acceptable religious bigotry in presidential politics shows up in polls. It's an ugliness that Romney foes hope to gain from and even Romney fans worry over into the night. In recent weeks, it's an ugliness that Mike Huckabee has worked to exploit with ads labeling the former Arkansas governor a "Christian leader," which is either a veiled shot at Romney or a blatant bid to boost Huckabee's stock among Evangelical Christians.
In either case, it's unseemly.
All this made a Romney "religion speech" inevitable.
His speech Thursday may or may not work politically. In the long run, however, it will hardly matter. Romney gave an American speech for the ages.
He didn't offer a defense of Mormonism and, thus, dignify Mormon-bashers, though he said he won't run from his faith, either. ("That I will not do. I believe in my Mormon faith and I endeavor to live by it. My faith is the faith of my fathers—I will be true to them and to my beliefs. Some believe that such a confession of my faith will sink my candidacy. If they are right, so be it.") Instead, he gave a majestic address on the importance of religious liberty and tolerance—and religion in general—in the public square.
"I am an American running for president," Romney said. "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."
In this, he reached back to John Kennedy's Houston speech to deliver a classy response to Huckabee, who has defined his candidacy by his religious faith. "No candidate should become the spokesman for his faith," Romney said after citing the Founders' opposition to religious tests. "For if he becomes president, he will need the prayers of the people of all faiths."
Of course, the speech won't appeal to those who think religion has no place in our politics, but he wasn't talking to champions of the naked public square. He was talking to Americans who understand that religious belief has always informed our laws and politics—and should—about the not-always-easy way we manage this in a pluralistic land. After quoting John Adams ("Our Constitution was made for a moral and religious people"), Romney said something future presidential candidates and presidents may someday quote: "Freedom requires religion, just as religion requires freedom. ... Freedom and religion endure together, or perish alone."
Very Kennedyesque. (What is it about these guys from Massachusetts?)
Yes, there was Romney's equally Kennedyesque declaration that, if he became president, he would not put the doctrine of any church above the duties of the office and Constitution. All well and good—bully stuff—though only religious bigots fear Romney would do anything less. What was most affecting, however, was Romney's thread-the-needle discussion of how religious belief should play out in the politics of a pluralistic nation. "It is important to recognize that while differences in theology exist between the churches in America, we share a common creed of moral convictions," he said. "And where the affairs of our nation are concerned, it's usually a sound rule to focus on the latter—on the great moral principles that urge us all on a common course."
Wise. Prudent. Elevated. Transcendent.
Romney's speech displayed much of what people have seen in him: the large-hearted decency, the tough-minded, clear thinking, the commitment to the common good, the rhetorical powers and the sunrise-side-of-the mountain optimism.
Will Romney's speech end his—or our—Mormon problem? He thinks those who fear religious bigotry will hurt his candidacy underestimate the American people. I wish I shared his optimism. What is clear after Thursday's speech is that Mitt Romney met his challenge. Will we meet ours?