When Mitt Romney gave his "Faith in America" address last Thursday, observers wondered how "Mormon" it would be. "Not very," is the understandable consensus. Mormonism 101 it was not, and he said very little about his personal religious beliefs, sticking to his announced topic.
Still, in the way he talked about religious diversity, the nation's symphony of faiths, the way religious liberty stands at the heart of the American constitutional system, and how religion belongs in the public square, this was a consummate Mormon speech. Moreover, despite its political agenda, it is possible to read what Mr. Romney said as being in harmony with a major effort his church has been making since the 1970s: to be included in the American religious mainstream.
An intriguing element running through Mormon history is its tension with American culture. The faith's founding prophet, Joseph Smith Jr., emphasized the unique character of Mormon teachings. He produced a new sacred text, the Book of Mormon, and his revelations inaugurated a new dispensation in which the ancient priesthoods and the authentic New Testament Church of Christ were restored to earth. Such claims implied that all other churches were in error.
The first reaction was ridicule and charges that Mormonism is heresy, with hostility and frightful persecution following thereafter. Smith's revelations led to the added claims that Mormonism was the restoration of Israel in the new world and that the restoration of the ancient order of things had commenced. Among much else, this meant the inauguration of plural marriage (polygamy).
After 50 years, the resulting conflict between Mormonism and the nation's churches and federal government reached such an impasse that the Mormons were compelled to suspend polygamous practice.
What happened next is a genuine paradox. Instead of reacting negatively to this government pressure, the Mormons began to venerate the nation. A half century later, they were archetypal Americans. The Mormon Tabernacle Choir became "America's choir," and during the 1960s, the contrast between straight-arrow, neatly dressed, and well-behaved Saints (Mormons) and hippie culture heightened the perception that Mormons are as American as motherhood and apple pie.
In the 1980s, however, superconservative Evangelicals turned their attention to Mormon theology. Along with some articulate ex-Mormons, they tried to convince the world that Mormonism is a cult whose members are not Christian.
In response, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS) added "Another Testament of Jesus Christ" as a subtitle to the Book of Mormon. And the church changed its logo to place more emphasis on the Jesus Christ part of its name. Additionally, Christendom's founding stories became standard fare in virtually all materials published by the church.
For well over a half century, common cause in Christ has been the leitmotif in the Mormon song to Protestant and Roman Catholic America. It was heard again in Romney's speech. "I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and the Savior of mankind," he declared. Going further, the candidate moved beyond his own faith tradition to envision a capacious religious tent.
The tent image is familiar in Mormon circles. Local Mormon congregations (known as wards) are gathered into stakes "in Zion's tent." Lay clerics serve as the bishops (pastors) of Mormon wards; lay clerics who administer Mormon stakes are called stake presidents.
Romney has served his church both as bishop and stake president. As a husband, father of five sons, and rising star in the corporate world, he became very familiar with the formidable multitasking that such church callings involve. That means he is very familiar with the stakes in the tent of Zion metaphor. Romney did not use this particular expression Thursday. But the notion of Zion's tent was manifested in his description of a religious tent supported by a Catholic stake; Evangelical and Pentecostal stakes; a Lutheran (hence Protestant mainstream) stake; a Jewish stake; and even a Muslim stake. Naturally, his Zionic pavilion has a place for Mormons, as well as for all the faith communities that are a part of the Abrahamic tradition.
In fashioning this image, Romney positioned the LDS church as a part of the American religious mainstream as well as an important stake in Zion's tent. This is smart politics, both for Romney and for his church. And it's a long way from the "one true church" talk of the 1830s.
Since he made it clear that secularists have no place in his big tent, many commentators have questioned the exclusivity of the Republican candidate's vision. They charge that the candidate left no place for the substantial proportion of the nation's population without a connection to a religious body of any kind, the group sociologists of religion call the "nones." Romney, however, was thoroughly inclusive when he said that what really matters in America is whether a person stands for the equality of humankind, the obligation to serve one another, and a steadfast commitment to liberty.
Even before his robust confession of his Mormon faith, Romney made another equally powerful confession of faith. He committed himself to what Abraham Lincoln called "America's political religion," pledging to defend the rule of law and the Constitution.
Note clearly that Romney spoke to a dual audience. He spoke directly to the members of the evangelical community in Iowa and elsewhere. At the same time, he had to speak to all the people of the United States about his position with regard to religion and politics.
His assertion that "freedom requires religion just as religion requires freedom" was obviously intended for the ears of the Evangelicals who are pouring into former Baptist minister Mike Huckabee's political camp. But there was more in this speech than an appeal to Evangelicals. Romney also warned the nation that a clear and present danger to the Constitution exists. Its prohibition of a "religious test" for office is under assault in this year's political campaign.
This assault comes primarily from people who are excessively attentive to what makes the Mormon faith different from other Christian traditions. Romney's rebuttal was spot-on: "Each religion has its own unique doctrines and history. These are not bases for criticism," he said. They "test our tolerance," as does the presence in the Republican primary campaign of a Mormon who doesn't flaunt his faith and a Southern Baptist who does.
• Jan Shipps is a professor emeritus of history and religious studies at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, and the author of "Mormonism: The Story of a New Religious Tradition."