This Thursday, at the George H.W. bush presidential Library in College Station Texas, Mitt Romney will deliver a much anticipated speech on religion in an effort to calm evangelical misgivings about his Mormon faith without scaring off moderately religious and secular voters.
Critics and supporters alike have pushed him to make such a speech for months, drawing analogies to President Kennedy's 1960 speech which was widely credited with calming Protestant fears that he would be the "Catholic President." Late in the 1960 presidential campaign, Kennedy told a Texas gathering of evangelicals, "I am not the Catholic candidate for President. I am the Democratic Party's candidate for President who happens also to be a Catholic. I do not speak for my church on public matters--and the church does not speak for me." The key element in this speech was a promise that he respected the traditional boundaries of church-state separation and would not violate those boundaries in favor of his own church.
Romney can't make that promise to the same effect. I have no reason to believe he can't be just as independent of the hierarchy of his church as Kennedy was with his. However, unfortunately for Romney, the evangelical political crowd don't want the same thing from him that they wanted from Kennedy. This year, they very much want the boundaries of church-state separation to be violated. They want the boundaries to be obliterated. But they only want that to happen if the obliteration is to their favor, and only to their favor. They want to be assured that Romney won't make them share the benefits of wholesale meddling in the government with religions that don't share their political and social agenda. They don't want Romney to promise neutrality; they want him to swear fealty.
Ironically, Romney probably does share many of the values and goals that the religious right wants to promote. If they would let him continue on his way, looking to most people like a middle of the road Protestant, he would most likely re-enforce everything George Bush has done for them. But, by demanding a public declaration from him that he is their candidate, they are seriously damaging his chances of getting elected or even of getting the nomination.
This speech is a very dangerous moment for Romney. He needs to be all things to all people without scaring anybody. It might be a mission impossible.