The “Mormon Speech”

After an interesting discussion at EFM regarding the pros and cons of the speech on Mormonism now being contemplated by Romney, I sent an email inserting my two cents, which is now posted at EFM. In my email, I didn’t take a position on the speech one way or the other, but just wanted to lend support to one of the arguments raised by EFM’er Steve Muscatello- that coverage of Romney’s Mormonism in the media has seen a significant downturn in recent weeks. As I stated in my email, I think that’s true based on my close watching of the topic in the past months, but I don’t think it really answers the question at hand, which is whether Mitt Romney ought to proceed with his plans to give his speech.

Responding to my email, blogger Charles Mitchell argues that my conclusion on declining coverage on the Mormon issue do not go to the relevant issue. I agree with him. I don’t think my conclusion means that much in this debate. That’s because I think there are a number of spikes in coverage of Mormonism on the way in the coming months. If Mitt Romney continues to lead in the polls in early primary states, especially if he becomes a real threat in places like South Carolina and Florida, where opponents might think he’s vulnerable on the religion issue, I think it’s almost certain that we’ll see increased coverage of the question, driven by a few high-profile attacks by religious bigots and a few whisper campaigns from the candidates themselves. Thus, the mere fact that July was relatively peaceful on the faith-and-politics front means little when viewed in light of the future reporting we’re likely to see.

The likelihood of heightened scrutiny of Mormonism in coming months, combined with the inevitable huge wave of free advertising that would accompany a “Mormon Speech” (which I first pointed out here, but is more persuasively argued here) must make this speech a very hard thing for Romney to pass up. It’s funny that even though I started in this conversation by pointing out how the coverage of Romney’s Mormonism has declined sharply, I now see a huge spike in stories on the topic, driven solely by Romney’s statement that he might be considering the speech. That fact alone is proof of how much attention this speech would draw.

However, the downsides remain significant. Largest among them is the problem of making faith an issue, something that past experience indicates will convince all kinds of people that suddenly all aspects of Mormonism-doctrine, history, culture, are on the table for discussion, debate, and ridicule in evaluating Romney’s candidacy.

Romney is clearly aware of that risk as he considers giving this speech. But I think he’s likely to go forward regardless, probably locating a middle ground that protects him from those who hope he’ll open the door to discussion of all things Mormon for the rest of the campaign. The best course would be to bill the speech as his landmark address explaining his Mormonism to the country. This gives him the guarantee of huge coverage, and will make millions of ears perk up nationwide. Then he should give a speech that actually details very little about Mormonism itself, but rather explains his own values, tells a few folksy stories about how those values were influenced by his faith, and then discusses his political distance from the Church and focuses once again on his core values. Because the nation hopes he’ll delve into the history of polygamy or Mormon theology, this speech might be a bit of a disappointment to many. But sticking to a message regarding core values (as informed by faith) would be a powerful reminder that while Romney takes his faith seriously, he remains unwilling to answer for specific tenets of his faith in the public arena.

If Romney can walk this line, I think the speech could be quite helpful for him, by attracting enormous media attention and by convincing many on the religious right that he shares their values. In other words, it’s not the speech itself that raises real risks of inserting the religion issue into every other aspect of the campaign- it’s what the speech actually says. If Romney (one of the best communicators in the race) can walk the tightrope with his speech, it could easily give him a big boost.