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What was missing from the presidential candidates' campaign rhetoric?

What Romney Wouldn’t Say

By | December 5, 2012

(AP Photo)

During his long pursuit of the presidency, three M-words rarely passed Mitt Romney’s lips: Massachusetts, Mandate, and Mormonism. This first two silent M’s were, at least politically, understandable; the third perhaps less so.

Instead of uttering the word Massachusetts, Romney typically referred to “my state,” as in, “My state had the best . . . ,” or, “In my state, we . . .” On the face of it, this is a curious construction. If you’ve been governor of a state, why wouldn’t you be proud of that?

This was very likely a carry-over from the primaries, where red-state voters generally took a dim view of Massachusetts as a bastion of liberalism. Romney was, to say the least, reticent about his tenure as Massachusetts governor; according to published reports, aides went to extraordinary lengths to erase computer hard drives and sequester other documents when Romney left the office of governor of Massachusetts.

The second missing “M” was mandate, as in the employer mandate in the Massachusetts health-care law, the legislation crafted by Romney and the state’s Democratic legislature to expand health insurance to virtually all residents of the commonwealth (the percentage of those now covered is well into the 90s). This is virtually the same mandate that Romney criticized in Obamacare. The expansion of health insurance in Massachusetts, and in the nation more generally, would have been impossible were it not for the employer mandate, the efficacy of which Romney’s Massachusetts helped test.

As a student of American religious history, I find the third “M,” Mormonism, the most puzzling. Just as Romney referred to Massachusetts as “my state,” he referred to Mormonism—whenever he couldn’t find a way to avoid it altogether—as “my church.” The political calculus here, it seems, was that Mormonism is toxic to the average American voter. Therefore, it’s best to avoid talking about it at any cost. When asked about his faith on the campaign trail, Romney’s standard responses were, “I’m not a theologian,” and, “I don’t speak for my church”—thereby avoiding the M-word yet again.

My sense of Americans is that we are basically a decent people. The long sweep of American history assures me that, sooner or later, we Americans eventually rise to our better selves and embrace the principles encoded into our charter documents, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. This is especially true in regards to respecting the rights of minorities.

Has that embrace been too slow at times? Yes, absolutely, especially in the case of race and gender. Much too slow. But, on the other hand, I suspect I’m not the only American to live through the civil-rights struggle who thought that he would never see an African-American president in his lifetime.

This is why I believe Romney’s silence on the third “M”—Mormonism—was short-sighted. If, at some time over his nearly decade-long pursuit of the presidency, he had said something like, “Yes, I’m a Mormon. My family has been Mormon for generations. It’s how I understand my place in the world and my responsibility to others,” he would have gone a long way toward defusing the issue.

Romney might also have added, “I acknowledge that not all Americans understand Mormonism, and some might even regard it as an inauthentic religion. But I refuse to disavow my faith.”

I believe that if Romney had made a statement like that, perhaps when he purportedly addressed the issue at the George Bush Library in December 2007, he would have been better served. Instead, he studiously avoided the mention of Mormonism. (He used the word “Mormon” only once in the Bush Library speech. Contrast this with John Kennedy who, during his famous address to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association in 1960, used the word “Catholic,” or some variant thereof, thirteen times.)

Instead, Romney opted for silence, thereby reinforcing the impression that many Americans already had—namely, that he’s a moving target, a windsock politician prepared to pivot in any and all directions, even if that means disowning his own political accomplishments and distancing himself from his own faith.

As historians sift through the shards of Romney’s loss in the 2012 presidential campaign, the key to decoding this enigmatic politician may lie in the three silent “M’s”: Massachusetts, Mandate, and Mormonism.

Randall Balmer, an Episcopal priest, is chair of the religion department at Dartmouth College. His most recent book, First Freedom: The Fight for Religious Liberty, will be released in December.

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