Five years ago, Massachusetts Governor and first-time GOP White House hopeful Mitt Romney declared, "People in this country want a person of faith to lead them as their president." Just not his faith, according to that most Republican of audiences at this week's Values Voters Summit. Hoping to capitalize on polls showing almost a third of white evangelicals would be less likely to vote for a Mormon, Rick Perry's campaign orchestrated an appearance by Texas mega-church pastor Robert Jeffress to denounce Romney's religion as a "cult" which does not qualify "you as a Christian."
The virulent anti-Mormon bigotry on display at the conclave is all the more striking, given Mitt Romney's recent statements against religious intolerance, religious tests for office and the right-wing crusade against the chimera of Sharia law. But during his dalliance with the religious right four years ago, Mitt Romney suggested that Muslims had no place in his Cabinet and atheists no place in the American community. Now, as JFK warned 51 years ago, the shoe is on the other foot.
In his much-hyped "Faith in America" speech in December 2007, Mitt Romney explained that "No candidate should become the spokesman for his faith" and warned:
"There are some who would have a presidential candidate describe and explain his church's distinctive doctrines. To do so would enable the very religious test the founders prohibited in the Constitution."
Sadly, Romney during his last presidential bid endorsed precisely that very religious test for followers of Islam or no faith at all.
Years before Herman Cain suggested Muslims appointees must swear a special loyalty oath to serve in his Cabinet, Mitt Romney explained they need not apply period.
I asked Mr. Romney whether he would consider including qualified Americans of the Islamic faith in his cabinet as advisers on national security matters, given his position that "jihadism" is the principal foreign policy threat facing America today. He answered, "...based on the numbers of American Muslims [as a percentage] in our population, I cannot see that a cabinet position would be justified. But of course, I would imagine that Muslims could serve at lower levels of my administration."
Given his own membership in a small religious minority, one might expect more openness and tolerance from the Mormon Romney. But the next month, Romney doubled-down on his religious test during that "Faith in America" speech. The man who in 2006 declared, "People in this country want a person of faith to lead them as their president" in December 2007 added atheists to his list of those to be excluded from the American community:
"I believe that every faith I have encountered draws its adherents closer to God. And in every faith I have come to know, there are features I wish were in my own: I love the profound ceremony of the Catholic Mass, the approachability of God in the prayers of the Evangelicals, the tenderness of spirit among the Pentecostals, the confident independence of the Lutherans, the ancient traditions of the Jews, unchanged through the ages, and the commitment to frequent prayer of the Muslims."
Just as long as those frequent prayers aren't heard in President Romney's Cabinet Room.
As Atrios noted at the time, it was altogether fitting that Romney was introduced that day by President George H.W. Bush, who purportedly stated, "No, I don't know that atheists should be regarded as citizens, nor should they be regarded as patriotic. This is one nation under God." The former Massachusetts Governor made much the same point in his December 2007 appeal to Iowa's evangelical voters, proclaiming simply "Freedom requires religion just as religion requires freedom."
That nonbelievers have no place in leading Mitt Romney's America was remarked upon by conservative commentators at the time.
While Ramesh Ponnuru of the National Review asked "what about atheists and agnostics?" David Brooks of the New York Times concluded that Romney "asked people to submerge their religious convictions for the sake of solidarity in a culture war without end." former Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan wondered:
"Why did Mr. Romney not do the obvious thing and include them? My guess: It would have been reported, and some idiots would have seen it and been offended that this Romney character likes to laud atheists. And he would have lost the idiot vote."
And to be sure, Governor Romney was going after the idiot vote with his jeremiads against Islamo-fascism and by conflating all Muslims into a single, unified global threat. Long before Glenn Beck made the global caliphate a regular staple of his Fox News show, Mitt Romney made it a fixture on the campaign trail. As he put it in May 2007:
"But I don't want to buy into the Democratic pitch, that this is all about one person, Osama bin Laden. Because after we get him, there's going to be another and another. This is about Shia and Sunni. This is about Hezbollah and Hamas and al Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood. This is the worldwide jihadist effort to try and cause the collapse of all moderate Islamic governments and replace them with a caliphate."
Despite the comical collapse of his call for disinvestment from Iran after his former firm was revealed to still be doing business with Tehran, Romney nonetheless in October 2007 released an ad taking a hard line against Iran and that caliphate:
"We can and will stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons...It's this century's nightmare, jihadism - violent, radical Islamic fundamentalism. Their goal is to unite the world under a single jihadist caliphate."
Mercifully, the 2012 edition of Mitt Romney seems to have learned some lessons from his experience four years ago. In his major foreign policy address Friday, Romney had only two mentions of Islam and the specter of the global Muslim caliphate was nowhere to be seen. And on Saturday, Romney used the stage at the Values Voter Summit to blast American Family Association president and Rick Perry's "Response" sponsor Bryan Fischer:
"Our values ennoble the citizen and strengthen the nation. We should remember that decency and civility are values, too," Romney said. "One of the speakers who will follow me today has crossed that line, I think. Poisonous language doesn't advance our cause. It's never softened a single heart nor changed a single mind."
While laudable, Romney's case now could have been much stronger - and more credible - if four years ago he had simply echoed John F. Kennedy's words to the Southern ministers in 1960:
"For while this year it may be a Catholic against whom the finger of suspicion is pointed, in other years it has been -- and may someday be again -- a Jew, or a Quaker, or a Unitarian, or a Baptist. It was Virginia's harassment of Baptist preachers, for example, that led to Jefferson's statute of religious freedom. Today, I may be the victim, but tomorrow it may be you -- until the whole fabric of our harmonious society is ripped apart at a time of great national peril."
(This piece also appears at Perrspectives.)