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Romney's Big Religion Speech

Many months after he had been urged to take this step, Mitt Romney is finally going to do his Big Religion Speech on Thursday, addressing his Mormonism in some manner or other.

He's running the risk that The Speech will be interpreted as a panicky reaction to his Huckabee problem in Iowa, and more fundamentally, that talking about his faith will make exploitation of its more eccentric (to most Americans) features fair game on the campaign trail.

But he's decided to do it, and has picked an interesting venue: The George H.W. Bush presidential library at Texas A&M, with Bush 41 himself performing the introduction. It's in the same state where John F. Kennedy delivered his famous Big Religion Speech in 1960, though Romney hasn't staged the kind of clever inquisitorial trappings JFK chose (a panel of evangelical Protestant ministers).

What's not clear at this point is how Romney will approach the subject. He could take JFK's tack of suggesting that his religion is an "accident of birth" that's not germane to his public persona. He could try to educate voters about Mormonism (though his campaign has said he won't do "Mormon 101"). Or he could, as he's more or less done up until now, suggest that having a faith, any faith, is the issue, and stay completely vague about the content of his own faith.

If I were Romney, I'd go right at the conservative evangelical Protestant suspicions about Mormonism by stressing and restressing its culturally conservative teachings and practices, ignoring the Book of Mormon and Joseph Smith and formal theological issues altogether. Theology aside, Mormons could be perceived as evangelicals with a much better track record of worldly accomplishments and moral fidelity. And in many respects, the LDS church has built the sort of conservative commonwealth in Utah that many evangelicals dream of for the whole country. I happen to have a family member, a longtime Southern Baptist Deacon, who's travelled to almost every corner of the world. The only place I ever heard him wax rhapsodic about was Salt Lake City. "It's so clean!" he kept saying, reflecting a tanglble envy for what Mormons have wrought in comparison to the messy and hypocritical cultural milieus in which most evangelicals live.

But somehow I doubt that the Mittster, whose own native cultural milieu is the corporate boardroom, is capable of pulling off this sort of visceral appeal to people who think Mormonism is weird, but who wouldn't have much of an argument with Mormonism's more practical implications. So I'm guessing he'll do a very abstract take on the importance of religion generally, suggest that anyone who questions his own faith is in alliance with godless liberal secularists, and then flee the podium, ever after dismissing the subject as something he's already addressed down at Texas A&M.