It's been a long day of talking and thinking about Mitt Does Houston. As it happened, the speech took place at 10:30--in the middle of the last class of my Religion and the Media course. So I threw out the plan and showed the class the video of the Kennedy speech, and then we watched Romney. The consensus view was that Kennedy was a lot more impressive--especially because he had ventured into the ministerial lion's den. The standard accounts of this event just tend to talk about JFk's speech itself, but it is striking how hostile the questioners were. Romney, by contrast, operated from within the friendly confines of the George H. W. Bush Library, with George H. W. himself on hand. The students suspected that someone was holding up applause cue cards, so kempt was the exercise.
My own view of the speech was that it was a small net plus for Romney. His personal testimony of belief in Jesus was perhaps calculated to make people understand that he is, a good Mormon like him is, in fact a Christian. If so, it can't have done much to enhance his appeal to the many evangelicals who don't like Mormonism precisely because it insists that it is Christian.
To me, the most interesting part of the speech came towards the end when Romney gave his take on American religious history. Here's the relevant paragraph:
Today's generations of Americans have always known religious liberty. Perhaps we forget the long and arduous path our nation's forbearers took to achieve it. They came here from England to seek freedom of religion. But upon finding it for themselves, they at first denied it to others. Because of their diverse beliefs, Ann Hutchinson was exiled from Massachusetts Bay, a banished Roger Williams founded Rhode Island, and two centuries later, Brigham Young set out for the West. Americans were unable to accommodate their commitment to their own faith with an appreciation for the convictions of others to different faiths. In this, they were very much like those of the European nations they had left.
A normal (i.e. non-Mormon) American politician ringing the changes on the story of religious liberty in this country would never ever tell it this way. Here's the real Mormon speaking. But Mitt missed a huge opportunity at this point. He could oh so easily have included anti-Catholicism in the story, and linked himself directly to JFK. What was he not thinking?
Otherwise, I was disappointed but not surprised that he didn't take a real poke at his religious opponents. Kennedy did do this--making it clear that he expected Protestants to do as they wanted Catholics to do. Romney seems unalterably wedded to turning the other cheek, only taking out after an utter straw man--those who "would prefer it if I wouldsimply distance myself from my religion." So far as I know, no one has made such a preference known.
Enough for now. I look forward to Jan's far more informed commentary.