What Mitt Romney Did

Let's pause and take a moment to appreciate what Mitt Romney has done today for his campaign. Looking presidential, speaking at a lectern with the presidential seal on it, speaking before the largest press corps ever assembled to hear him speak, speaking just 28 days before the Iowa caucuses, speaking -- reading -- a text that he wrote, giving a complex and nuanced argument about faith in America -- he may accomplished the improbable: giving a speech that actually moves hearts and moves, a speech that actually persuades, a speech that may have succeeded in moving the public's perception of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints from outside the circle of "normal" to a few lengths inside it.

With this speech, Romney may have mainstreamed Mormonism and injected a fresh dollop of energy into his presidential campaign.

To be sure, the notion that theology and doctrine don't matter in politics is just plain wrong. It has mattered and has always mattered; of course voters consider belief -- and not just belief as a vessel, but belief as a vessel full of specific messages -- when they vote for politicians. Where government refuses to impose religious tests, voters always have. And religion -- not faith, but religion -- informs how politicians vote on issues and how voters feel about them. Opposition to same-sex marriage or support of same-sex marriages isn't explicitly rational; it's a gut judgment to which we append our rational arguments. More often that not, if you consider yourself pro-life, you cannot explain your beliefs in the public square without specific reference to a tenet of your religion. Nor should you be forced to. Evangelicals, Catholics and conservative Jews; liberal Catholics, liberal Christians, secular humanists, have formed coalitions and found common cause on certain issues. To the ire of small-c-catholics, they've sublimated doctrine to consensus. But most believers aren't so orthodox and the principle of pluralism is enough to paper over differences so long as the differences aren't that profound, so long as there is social pressure to tolerate.

For most non-Mormons, the social pressure to tolerate the quirks and vicissitudes of that faith has been absent. Pre-Romney. Post-Romney, that pressure is there. Opponents of the LDS church ought to be forced to respond to Romney's argument and explain why the LDS church ought to remain outside the circle of tolerance.

If Romney's speech hit a false note, it was only in its conflicted view about the wisdom of bracketing the content of one's religious views when making political arguments. Again, this is plainly impossible and it's not how humans work out these things. But maybe Romney was making a normative statement: we "ought" to bracket those parts of our belief system that aren't consonant with the common civic creed. Philosophically, two ideas are in tension. Where do we draw the line? How do we preserve the contours of our religion without permission -- or social consent -- to argue vociferously on behalf of that religion in public?

Back to politics. Universal praise (from Dobson, Colson, Dick Land, bloggers). Excellent television coverage. Excellent visuals. Unadulterated, unfiltered Mitt Romney, direct to camera. Romney aides are ecstatic.