By: Craig J. Hazen
Biola University //
I watched Gov. Mitt Romneyâ€™s much-heralded speech on his religious faith with great interest. It was a very well-crafted oration, delivered with vigor, and rightly received praise from key commentators in the mainstream media. But will it help him in Republican nomination contests in Iowa and New Hampshire? It will certainly give him a small bounce in the polls in the short term simply due to the broad-based media attention the speech garnered. But apart from that, it will not change his status among the all-important conservative Christian voters. Hereâ€™s why. The Romney campaign has missed something very important about the three main ways that Americans approach religious issues: the civil, the experiential, and the realist approaches.
Romneyâ€™s speech was almost entirely centered on the â€œcivil religionâ€ approach to faith in America. This is a very generic approach to religion that is transfixed on building a firm wall between â€œfaithâ€ (which is wholly personal) and the state (which is obviously very public). One who embraces the civil religion approach ends up sounding like he does not take his personal faith very seriously in public matters. Of course this is the safest way to go in a culture with many religious points of view, but may not be perceived as authentic by those who hold to the other two approaches to religion.
The â€œexperientialâ€ approach is one in which all religious knowledge ends up being confirmed almost exclusively by oneâ€™s own personal faith experiences. Many religious groups in America center on this, but Mormons may very well take the lead. At the end of the day, when you quiz a Mormon about the truth of Mormon religious claimsâ€”such as, is the Book of Mormon an actual history of the pre-Columbian people in the Americas?â€”the Mormon will simply say that â€œI have had an inner testimony from God that this is true.â€ This is utterly unsatisfying to those who adhere to the last category, the realist approach.
The realists are comprised mostly of evangelical Christians who believe that if certain religious assertions are not trueâ€”like Jesus rising from the deadâ€”then their faith is empty and worthless. Realists believe that the Bible paints a picture of the world that matches the way the world really isâ€”and ultimately can be demonstrated to be true through open investigation.
Romneyâ€™s speech will not help him among the â€œrealistâ€ evangelicals. He is a very attractive candidate, but if the evangelicals have a viable alternative candidate in Mike Huckabee who better fits their â€œrealistâ€ approach to religion, then they will not take a chance on a man whose religion they believe has no grounding in the real world. And they wonâ€™t trust a candidate who cannot see this or cannot address it squarely.