In 2007, Mitt Romney, facing a surging Huckabee campaign in an Iowa caucus that was supposed to launch him to the nomination, delivered a speech about the role of faith in public life. As eloquent as the speech, entitled “Faith in America,” may have been, it did little to bolster his Iowa campaign. He lost badly, in large part because of Huckabee’s evangelical supporters.
Last Saturday, Mitt Romney returned to the heart of evangelical America. In accepting the invitation to address the graduates at Liberty University, Romney surely could not have predicted that the commencement would occur during a week in which President Obama embraced same-sex marriage. Yet Romney chose, rightly, not to ignore what had occurred, and ended up delivering one of the most effective speeches of his political career. In understanding why this is so, it is instructive to study the writings of the Orthodox Jewish Talmudist and philosopher Joseph Soloveitchik.
During the heady days of Vatican II, Jews of less traditional denominations were eager to engage in dialogue about theological doctrines with the church, optimistic that new religious commonalities could be discovered. Rabbi Soloveitchik, in contrast, discouraged such engagement. Matters of theology, he stressed, “are personal and bespeak an intimate relationship which must not be debated with others whose relationship with God has been molded by different historical events and in different terms.” Working to find substantive common ground on these theological matters, he argued, is ultimately unproductive because Jews and Christians “will employ different categories and move within incommensurate frames of reference and evaluation.”
Soloveitchik was speaking of Judaism and Christianity, but the point is equally applicable to the doctrinal differences between evangelical Christians and Mormons. As a case in point, let us take Romney’s description in his 2007 speech of his own Mormonism, responding to the many questions from Christians he had met while campaigning. “There is one fundamental question about which I often am asked. What do I believe about Jesus Christ? I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and the savior of mankind.” Romney further noted that his beliefs about Jesus may be very different from those of others, and that it is inappropriate for a political candidate to discuss doctrine. But if the intention was to strike a common chord with evangelicals, there is little evidence that Romney succeeded. By “savior” Mormons undoubtedly mean something somewhat different than evangelical Christians. Seeking commonality on the matter only emphasizes the deep divisions between Mormons and evangelicals on dogma, matters on which their respective missionaries are competing as they seek converts.
This does not mean, however, that members of diverse faiths cannot find religious reasons for unity. Even as he discouraged public dialogue on doctrinal matters, Joseph Soloveitchik stressed that when Jews and Christians “move from the private world of faith to the public world of humanitarian and cultural endeavors, communication among the various faith communities is desirable and even essential.” Soloveitchik, moreover, insisted that primary subjects of interfaith engagement should include “man’s moral values” and “the threat of secularism,” matters that “revolve about religious spiritual aspects of our civilization.” He then added that in engaging these matters, people of different faiths can discover a profound commonality:
As men of God, our thoughts, feelings, perceptions, and terminology bear the imprint of a religious world outlook. We define ideas in religious categories and we express our feelings in a peculiar language which quite often is incomprehensible to the secularist.
Soloveitchik’s point was that Jews and Christians share a moral vision and language that unites them in a society suddenly secular. These moral categories and values, he wrote, are “religious in nature and biblical in origin,” but they embody what he called “the universal and public—not the individual and private—in religion.”
Similarly, at Liberty, Romney chose not to emphasize doctrinal commonalities. In the presence of tens of thousands of evangelicals, no mention was made of his belief in Jesus as “Lord and Savior.” In fact, he emphasized the fact that Mormonism and evangelical Christianity are different faiths. At the same time, he stressed the ability of the biblical moral vision to unite faiths despite their differences:
People of different faiths, like yours and mine, sometimes wonder where we can meet in common purpose, when there are so many differences in creed and theology. Surely the answer is that we can meet in service, in shared moral convictions about our nation stemming from a common worldview [emphasis added].
Like Soloveitchik, Romney emphasized that these shared moral convictions revolve about essential aspects of our civilization:
You enter a world with civilizations and economies that are far from equal. Harvard historian David Landes devoted his lifelong study to understanding why some civilizations rise, and why others falter. His conclusion: Culture makes all the difference. . . . Central to America’s rise to global leadership is our Judeo-Christian tradition. . . . The American culture promotes personal responsibility, the dignity of work, the value of education, the merit of service, devotion to a purpose greater than self, and, at the foundation, the preeminence of the family. . . . Culture matters. As fundamental as these principles are, they may become topics of democratic debate. So it is today with the enduring institution of marriage. Marriage is a relationship between one man and one woman.
The speech produced rave reviews from evangelical leaders, and rightly so. There are many unexpected twists and turns yet to play out in the election, not to mention the conventions and debates. But if the first Wednesday in November leaves us looking at President-elect Romney, elected in part by a united conservative base whose divisions in 2008 destroyed his dream, we will look back on the Liberty University speech as a major moment.
Meir Y. Soloveichik is director of the Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought at Yeshiva University and associate rabbi at Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun in Manhattan.