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Originally published Wednesday, December 12, 2007 at 12:00 AM

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Floyd J. McKay / Guest columnist

Romney's "symphony" should also embrace freedom from religion

Mitt Romney gave a ringing endorsement Thursday to religious freedom, but his speech failed to satisfy in two respects, and neither is likely...

Mitt Romney gave a ringing endorsement Thursday to religious freedom, but his speech failed to satisfy in two respects, and neither is likely to go away soon.

For evangelical Christians, his real audience, Romney didn't address — really he cannot address — theological issues separating Mormons from mainstream Christians. He's not a Mormon official.

Candidates for public office cannot satisfy either those who want them to be missionaries for their faith or those who want them to renounce it. Fortunately, most Americans aren't that demanding.

Republicans found religion to be good politics in 1980, but Ronald Reagan espoused a generic Christianity. George W. Bush went much further, surrounding himself with evangelicals and pursuing policies that played to a narrow ideological base. Bush pushed his religion in our face like a never-ending prayer breakfast.

Candidates for the 2008 Republican nomination must deal with voters for whom some sort of religious declaration is required. Thus Romney, the third Mormon to make a serious run for president, became the first to feel obliged to speak about religion.

His father, George Romney, was a serious candidate in 1968 — a popular governor and businessman — but I watched him flail and fall in the snows of New Hampshire, an uncertain candidate unable to connect with the voters. He dropped out before religion could become an issue.

Morris Udall's Democratic candidacy was more durable — he finished second to Jimmy Carter in the 1976 primaries. Congressman Udall was a nonpracticing or secular Mormon, so he didn't face the questions.

I liked and respected both men, but felt no need to explore their faith.

Why must we do so now, in 2007?

Because conservative evangelicals, a big bloc in the Republican Party, are uneasy with Mormonism. It's not just theology — although there are big differences. Part of the problem is the competition for new worshippers.

To outsiders, the Mormon church in most communities looks much like the new breed of nondenominational congregations that have been so successful: The emphasis is on "family values," practical challenges of daily life, tithing and regular church attendance. Lead ministers are invariably male; women accept secondary roles. There is a big emphasis on presentation, music and drama.

American religion is big business, with competition for market share. The rise of the megachurch challenges the phenomenal increase in Mormon membership, already six million in the United States.

Mormons and evangelicals compete for our rootless population, particularly in the West's new suburbs and exurbs, people desperate for community, a safe and accepting place for their families. Mormon Romney and Baptist Mike Huckabee represent that competition, and for Christian evangelicals it will be difficult to see around it.

Even with scrupulous adherence to his pledges, a President Romney would elevate his faith to a new level of prominence and acceptability.

For those of us not caught up in this dispute, Romney's talk disappointed for a different reason.

Romney vowed to protect freedom for religion from attack by a "religion of secularism." Yet, any objective observer of America in 2007 would find that religion is the least endangered of our basic freedoms. We are perhaps the most religious country in the non-Muslim world. Let a thousand sects compete!

Historically, religious intolerance in this country often begins with believers of competing faiths, not with secularists.

Romney is just plain wrong when he says freedom requires religion and religion requires freedom. In fact, religion has often been the enemy of freedom; think Taliban, think Spanish Inquisition. Several of America's Founding Fathers were devotedly secular; most wanted a wall between church and state.

The Constitution also protects people from religion, from the use of public funds and facilities to promote one brand among our dozens of religious sects. No American religion suffered as much discrimination as Mormons in the 19th century. But the modern church's overwhelming power in Mormon-majority communities in the West has always brought concerns about equal opportunities for nonbelievers.

Most Americans want someone of faith to lead this nation, and inquiries into the beliefs of candidates are now accepted practice. But many also still feel that the actual practice of faith should be a private affair, not trumpeted from the public podium to fuel the enthusiasm and win the votes of the already saved. Romney was preaching to that choir Thursday.

He also pledged to honor "a symphony of faith," rejecting the emphasis on a single ideology that has become familiar in recent years.

That sort of symphony needs to embrace both freedom for religion and freedom from religion, and it is unclear how dedicated Romney is to that principle.

Floyd J. McKay, a journalism professor emeritus at Western Washington University, is a regular contributor to Times editorial pages. E-mail him at floydmckay@yahoo.com

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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