The brief apparition of a third Mitt Romney Presidential bid vanished last Friday, with a conference call to several of his supporters. “You can’t imagine how hard it is for Ann and me to step aside,” Romney told them. He added that he thought he would have won the Republican nomination again, and that he’d had the “best chance,” this time, to win the Presidency. There was a surprising reason for this optimism, which he had alluded to a couple of weeks earlier, during a speech at the Republican National Committee’s winter meeting, on board the U.S.S. Midway. Despite his previous campaigns, people had not come to know the real Mitt Romney. He had been seen “as a business guy and a political guy.” Neither of those identities had worked—perhaps, although he didn’t say so, because they weren’t consistent with each other or with his record. Ann Romney, however, saw how he had “served as a pastor for a congregation and for groups of congregations,” a reference to his work as a lay bishop of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. If voters didn’t know this side of him, it was largely because he and his advisers had treated his Mormon faith as a liability, hardly to be spoken of, in part out of fear that it would alienate evangelicals in the Party’s base. But now Romney seemed ready to be the religious guy. “That’s the authentic Mitt,” a family friend in Utah told the Washington Post. The report added that members of Romney’s political circle “said they are considering making Salt Lake City, the cradle of Mormonism, his 2016 campaign headquarters.”
As it turned out, Romney’s faith and his sense of mission may have been most useful in explaining why he’d entertained the idea of what even many Republicans saw as an exercise in futility. Yet one aspect of it is worth examining further, owing to its implications for his Party. In his R.N.C. speech, Romney mentioned his pastoral work “with people who are very poor, to get them help and subsistence,” and he said that Republicans had to position themselves as opponents of inequality if they were to win the White House. He may be right, but it will be hard for the G.O.P. to shake the sense that Romney was being more true to his party’s principles three years ago when he said, of the so-called forty-seven per cent, “I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.” This is a Republican dilemma, not a Mormon one.
Indeed, other potential G.O.P. candidates are now having to recalculate how another religion figures into the equation. There has never been a Catholic Republican nominee for the White House (the Mormons, interestingly, got there first), although there may be one this year, with a field that includes Rick Santorum, Chris Christie, and Jeb Bush, who converted to Catholicism, his wife’s faith, some twenty years ago. For them, the issue is not one of religious bigotry, such as John F. Kennedy faced in his 1960 campaign, with insinuations of adherence to secret Papist instructions. In a way, it’s the opposite: the very public agenda of the all too authentic Pope Francis.
Early signs of trouble came in the summer of 2013, when the new Pope, speaking with reporters about gays in the Church, asked, “Who am I to judge?” The conservative wing of the Party had relied on his predecessors to do just that. Then he proved much less reticent about issuing a verdict on capitalism. In an apostolic exhortation issued at the end of 2013, he labelled trickle-down economic theories “crude and naïve.” The problems of the poor, he said, had to be “radically resolved by rejecting the absolute autonomy of markets and financial speculation and by attacking the structural causes of inequality.” That went quite a ways beyond the sort of tepid proposals for job creation and “family formation” that Romney made on the Midway, and the response from Republicans has involved a certain amount of rationalization. “The guy is from Argentina—they haven’t had real capitalism,” Paul Ryan, Romney’s former running mate, and a Catholic, said.
“It’s sometimes very difficult to listen to the Pope,” Santorum noted last month, after Francis, in remarks about “responsible parenting”—widely interpreted as an opening for a discussion on family planning—said that there was no need for Catholics to be “like rabbits.” Santorum echoed Ryan’s suggestion that Argentine exceptionalism might be at work: “I don’t know what the Pope was referring to there. Maybe he’s speaking to people in the Third World.” On that front, when it emerged that Francis had been instrumental in the diplomatic breakthrough with Cuba, Jeb Bush criticized the deal, and Senator Marco Rubio, also a Catholic, said that he’d like the Pope to “take up the cause of freedom and democracy.”
As if all that weren’t enough, His Holiness is preparing an encyclical on climate change, to be released in advance of his visit to the United States later this year. In January, he said of global warming, “For the most part, it is man who continuously slaps down nature.” Stephen Moore, of the Heritage Foundation, has written, “On the environment, the pope has allied himself with the far left.” Actually, Francis is very much in the center in terms of scientific opinion, but the leading potential G.O.P. contenders, with the possible exception of Christie, sit somewhere on the climate-change-denial-passivity spectrum—Jeb Bush has said that he is a “skeptic” as to whether the problem is man-made.
In recent decades, liberal Catholic politicians were the ones with a papal problem; both Mario Cuomo and John Kerry had to reckon with the prospect of excommunication for their support of abortion-rights laws. John Paul II, meanwhile, was a favorite of conservatives; despite his often subtle views, he became at times little more than a symbol of anti-Communism and a certain set of social strictures. He cemented an alliance, in the political realm, between conservative Catholics and evangelicals. (Rubio also attends an evangelical church.) Abortion was a significant part of that story. By contrast, the Franciscan moment will push some Republican candidates to make decisions and to have conversations that they would rather avoid.
It will also offer a chance to address the knotty American idea that faith is an incontrovertible component of political authenticity. (Why is the Romney who thinks about God the “real” one?) The corollary should be that nothing is as inauthentic as faith that is only opportunistically professed, something that this Pope, who has extended a hand to atheists, seems to know. Still, the campaign will be defined not by theological questions but by political ones, prominent among them inequality and climate change. Both can have spiritual dimensions and speak to moral issues, such as our obligations to one another. But neither can be solved by faith alone.