The first time a Mormon was running for US president, in 1844, a mob killed him. Fortunately for Mitt Romney in the 2008 race, he's only been mugged in the polls. Still a viable candidate, he tried to disarm anti-Mormon critics in a speech Thursday, looking at what unites Americans.
To his credit, the fact that Mr. Romney, as a Mormon, has become a strong GOP contender shows just how far the US has come in living up to the constitutional requirement of not imposing a religious test for public office.
Americans, however, have a long history of questioning the private faith of those in public life. It is an inherently losing proposition. The leaders of the Massachusetts Puritan colony discovered that problem when Anne Hutchinson questioned the sincerity and authenticity of their inner religious experience. She could be banished in 1638, but not the public theological struggle. So the Puritans created the idea of America as collectively, if not individually, "a holy people," or "they which the Lord hath blessed."
But what kind of holy people? That question persists, and manifests itself still in the desire to impose certain types of religious tests on public servants, especially when political parties align themselves with particular religious groups.
In 1927, the US crossed a threshold when former New York governor Alfred Smith was the first Roman Catholic to win a presidential nomination of a major party. But he, as well Catholic John Kennedy in 1960 and now Romney, were forced to give speeches to answer the doubts of fellow Christians.
Sadly, Smith's words of 80 years ago still go unheeded by many who try to impose a type of a "Christian nation" on America that fits their reading of the Bible. He said: "I join with fellow Americans of all creeds in a fervent prayer that never again in this land will any public servant be challenged because of the faith in which he has tried to walk humbly with his God."
Romney wisely didn't use his speech to justify his religious beliefs to those who oppose his candidacy simply on those beliefs. Rather, he noted the values and morals that flow from them in his life. And he focused on the civic ideals that have proven that religious liberty can be as protected by government as much as citizens can be protected from the tyranny of a government influenced by one theological perspective.
Yet he did define a role for religion in public life, even venturing to say that freedom "requires religion." Many people may disagree that liberty rests solely on an understanding of God. Romney, however, seems to be saying that the nation has a history of deriving its moral actions – abolition of slavery, advancing civil rights – from the religious experience of individuals. He wants to continue that tradition, and hopes others will acknowledge that religion has a role in "the public square" as long as it does not lead to coercion of those of other faiths or no faith.
Romney's main contender in Iowa, former Baptist minister Mike Huckabee, knows well the sting of being publicly cornered for certain personal beliefs that many Christians dislike. Like Romney, he has tried to set limits on such public scrutiny of personal conscience.
Between the two of them, voters might get the message.