Mitt Romney almost never gets emotional. He doesn’t like to lose control. He is, in all the good ways as well as some of the bad, a political machine, a campaigning robot. He will raise his voice or act indignant, but it almost always seems calculated and preplanned. His smiles and chuckles can come off as just another PowerPoint slide.
But on Thursday something happened that Romney could not control. At the end of his speech in Texas on his Mormon faith and his view of religion in public life, he got emotional. He lost it in the tiniest way.
He was recalling the early days of the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, on the brink of the Revolutionary War, when the early Americans from various faiths were gathered together. They wanted to pray, Romney said, but they did not know whose prayer to use.
“Then Sam Adams rose, and said he would hear a prayer from anyone of piety and good character, as long as they were a patriot,” Romney said, reading off the teleprompter. “And so together they prayed, and together they fought, and together, by the grace of God, they founded this great nation.”
The crowd began to applaud, and Romney’s chin appeared to tense. In the slightest way, his eyes seemed to moisten. For an instant he looked vulnerable, like a young man who had been moved by his own words, by his own hopes for his country. The preselected crowd, sensing this, rose to its feet with a standing ovation. There were only three sentences left in the speech, but the whole event was put on hold. After a few more seconds, Romney collected himself and finished the speech.
There is no way to know what exactly Romney was thinking in those seconds as the crowd stood and applauded. But it is not hard to guess. There is no candidate in either party who has put in more traveling hours, made more campaign appearances, spent more of this own money or committed more of his family time to winning the presidency than Romney. After months of leading in the Iowa polls, he now finds his lead evaporating, largely because of the rise of Mike Huckabee, a former Baptist pastor who can brag about being a “Christian leader.”
In so many ways, Romney, a former missionary and church leader, has been as molded by his faith as has Huckabee. But the nation’s political dynamics put Romney on the defensive. Huckabee can leverage his Christianity, but Romney must tread delicately. He is a Mormon, and a significant share of the Republican Party thinks Mormonism is weird, if not dangerous.
So here was Romney, a man who clearly loves his faith and his country, explaining the nation that he believes in, which is different from the nation that he lives in. Romney would like to live in an America where his speech on religion would never have been necessary, where Mormonism was treated with as much popular regard as Baptism or Catholicism. He would like to live in a nation where he could act like Sam Adams and gather together all the believers from all the faiths, and ask them to pray together.
But he doesn’t. In this nation, it is politically dangerous for him to even describe the precepts of his church. In fact, there is a very real chance that skepticism of his Mormon faith could prove decisive in Iowa, sinking the dream he has worked for all his life.
As expected, the speech itself was a delicate tightrope walk. He evoked the patriotism of the Founding Fathers, and the clear message of John F. Kennedy in 1960, when Kennedy rejected the idea of a religious test for the White House. Romney pandered to the Republican Party’s evangelical base, which wants more Nativity scenes and public references to God. And he alienated, to some extent, a vast portion of secular city dwellers by asserting that “freedom requires religion,” effectively dismissing the worldviews of those who do not source their meaning — or their morality — to a higher celestial power.
But for the moment, Romney can lose those voters. The voters he needs will gather in their churches on Sunday in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. And because of Romney’s speech, and the news coverage that follows, a significant portion of those churches are likely to hear sermons or hold discussions about the Mormon faith and what it would mean to have a Mormon president. In many ways, Romney’s candidacy now lies in the hands of the nation’s evangelical leaders and their flocks.
There are plenty of good arguments against a Romney presidency. But the fact of his Mormon faith is not one of them, at least not in the nation that we learned about in fourth grade, a land where all religions could practice in freedom, and where all people were united by their common humanity. It is a nation that Romney clearly still believes in, even as he denigrates the idea of secularism. It is a nation that can still choke him up a bit. It also may be a nation that does not yet exist.