Mark Silk on When Religious Conviction Trumps Politics: The Case of Mitt Romney

Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, pauses as he speaks to a reporter outside the Senate chamber during a break in President Donald Trump’s impeachment trial, at the Capitol in Washington, on Jan. 29, 2020. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Mark Silk is Professor of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College and director of the college’s Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life. He is a Contributing Editor of the Religion News Service. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily represent those of BCNN1.


There is evidence that Americans respond positively to a politician who explains taking a difficult position by citing personal religious conviction.

Running for governor of Virginia in 2005, Tim Kaine, who is Catholic, explained his principled opposition to the death penalty by citing his church’s teaching against capital punishment (while at the same time pledging to uphold state law permitting executions). His Republican opponent, Jerry Kilgore, seized on the issue, running an attack ad that accused Kaine of saying “Hitler doesn’t qualify for the death penalty.”

Virginia voters, redder then than they are now, nevertheless did not bite. As The Wall Street Journal put it after Kaine won the election, “Mr. Kilgore’s nonstop death-penalty demagoguery might have backfired with social conservatives who saw a man being attacked for his religious beliefs.”

Which brings us to Mitt Romney’s citation of his religious faith in explaining his decision to vote to impeach President Donald Trump.

“I am profoundly religious,” Romney declared in his speech on the Senate floor. “My faith is at the heart of who I am. I take an oath before God as enormously consequential.”

Anyone who has followed Romney’s career knows this to be the case. A scion of a leading family in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, he served as bishop (Mormon pastor) of his Massachusetts ward while he was a businessman in Boston. (See this account by one of his counselors at the time.)

When running for the GOP presidential 2008 nomination, Romney was at some pains to talk about his faith, acknowledging the party’s evangelical base was distinctly lukewarm to the idea of a Mormon standard-bearer.

The speech he made in December of 2007, in conscious imitation of John F. Kennedy’s speech to the Protestant ministers of Houston in 1960, included a bold critique of the country’s history of persecuting religious dissenters, including his own religious forebears.

“Americans were unable to accommodate their commitment to their own faith with an appreciation for the convictions of others to different faiths,” he said.

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Source: Religion News Service