The radio host interviewing Romney in this video, Jan Mickelson, raises some of the same objections to Romney’s “wall of separation” logic that I assumed conservative Christians would be making all along. Here you have someone who wants to run as a religious conservative, but who won’t talk about his religion, and who explicitly denies that his religion is connected to his candidacy (except insofar as it allows him to portray himself as a “person of faith”). When Romney endorses Kennedy’s handling of his Catholicism, Mickelson responds: “the pro-life community here in Iowa call him [Kennedy] a cafeteria Catholic.” In other words, you aren’t likely to win over religious conservatives by running away from or ignoring your religion (even if it is a religion that said conservatives may not care for). Romney then goes on to say that he isn’t there to talk about “a religion or the principles of a religion,” but at the same time he wants to trade on the points of agreement that he has with religious, particularly Christian, conservatives, who hold the views on life that they do, at least in part, because of their religious teachings. Romney wants to make distinctions that make it possible for him to maintain this balance, while the religious conservatives whose votes he needs and whose votes he is presumably trying to win don’t accept the validity of these distinctions. Indeed, to the extent that they think they are real distinctions and not merely rhetorical dodges, they believe them to be misguided or perfidious.
During one of the ad breaks (while the camera kept rolling), Mickelson says: “I think you’re make a big mistake when you distance yourself from your faith.” (As it happens, I agree with Mickelson’s point here.) Part of Romney’s response: “There are Mormons in the leadership of my church who are pro-choice.” I’m not sure why he feels compelled to mention this, since it clouds the issue for his potential supporters. If Mormon church teaching permits the possibility of Mormons being pro-choice (and I’d grant that it does), Romney’s fidelity to his Mormonism will hardly reassure pro-life conservatives, since it is no way guarantees that he would remain pro-life as a matter of policy, but his awkward handling of questions pertaining to his religion gives the impression that he doesn’t think it should even be part of the debate. He could turn this to his advantage by saying, “My church’s teachings do not require me to be politically pro-life, but I have taken this position anyway (or at least made a mildly convincing pander to that effect), so you should look at the political position I have taken and not dwell on what my church does or does not permit.” That would be the smart way to handle it, but this is not how he handled it. Instead, he seems offended that people keep talking about his religion. He continues to give the impression that he finds it embarrassing or unsuitable for public conversation, as if to say, “The public square has nothing religious in it, and that’s the way I’d like to keep it, thanks very much.”
Mickelson catches him on this and, it seems to me, nails him to the wall as far as many religious conservatives are concerned: “When you bifurcate politics from religion, and you have this hermetically-sealed….you make a political category over here and a spiritual one over here.” Shortly after this, Romney said, “My religion is for me and how I live my life.” Perhaps that is a view of religion that most Americans share, but it is not a popular one among religious conservatives.