Romney's Terrible Speech

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The editors of National Review proclaim that "we suspect that most people who watched the speech were impressed, sympathetic, and sometimes moved." I had an instinct to respond in time, saying that I suspect the speech will fall flat, backfire, etc., etc., etc. But why go meta? In a first-order sense, I thought the speech was dumb, and made Romney look like a deeply dishonest, somewhat foolish person.

Romney rejected the counsel of those who "would have a presidential candidate describe and explain his church's distinctive doctrines." But he couldn't actually stick to that line. He felt he desperately needed to reassure Christians worried about his relationship with Christ:

There is one fundamental question about which I often am asked. What do I believe about Jesus Christ? I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and the Savior of mankind. My church's beliefs about Christ may not all be the same as those of other faiths. Each religion has its own unique doctrines and history. These are not bases for criticism but rather a test of our tolerance. Religious tolerance would be a shallow principle indeed if it were reserved only for faiths with which we agree.

It's hard to see this as anything other than an effort to trick people; the Mormon emphasis on Gethsemane rather than the crucification is not a trivial theological difference, nor is the fact that Mormons believe in "another," more important, Testament of Jesus Christ in addition to the Christian Bible. I don't personally have a stake in that quarrel but I paid enough attention in Bible class at Grace Church School to know that this isn't some nothing to be papered over.

Now if Romney had wanted to say that the nature of his beliefs about Jesus are irrelevant to the campaign, fine. Similarly, if he'd actually wanted to avoid discussing Mormon theology, fine. But he didn't stick to it. Instead, what he wanted to do was discuss just enough about Mormon theology to make it seem as similar as possible to orthodox Christianity while underscoring the idea that the nature of his belief in Christ is relevant to the campaign just insofar as his beliefs overlap with those of the Evangelical Protestants whose votes he's courting.

All of this meshes with Romney's disgusting efforts to unite all people of faith under the banner of excluding atheists entirely from his account of virtue. And this, in turn, combines with his ludicrous "say something nice about everyone" paragraph:

I believe that every faith I have encountered draws its adherents closer to God. And in every faith I have come to know, there are features I wish were in my own: I love the profound ceremony of the Catholic Mass, the approachability of God in the prayers of the Evangelicals, the tenderness of spirit among the Pentecostals, the confident independence of the Lutherans, the ancient traditions of the Jews, unchanged through the ages, and the commitment to frequent prayer of the Muslims.

For a passage in a speech dedicated to underscore the centrality and importance of religion, this seems like a pretty superficial understanding of what's going on. What's more "unchanged through the ages" isn't a notably accurate description of the "ancient traditions of the Jews," but I guess he couldn't think of anything else to admire about Judaism. At least it's not as dumb as commending Muslims for their "commitment to frequent prayer," which is just silly.

I've previously taken the view that Mitt Romney would be the least pernicious Republican were he to take the White House, but his entire campaign has been an insult to the collective intelligence of the American people (remember the Reagan Zone of Economic Freedom?) and with this speech he's just taking the trend one step further.

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Matthew Yglesias is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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