Mitt Romney made an important speech at Liberty University, preaching the virtues of tolerance. But some members of the Republican Party he will lead next fall are not listening.
Romney was entering unfriendly territory when he spoke at Liberty, an institution founded by the late Jerry Falwell. It was John McCain, after all, who once denounced Falwell and his fellow evangelical pastor, Pat Robertson, as "agents of intolerance," and Liberty offers a course that describes Romney's Mormon faith as a "cult." That's a widespread view among the conservative Christians who strongly opposed Romney in the Republican primaries.
Romney confronted this hostility with a graceful, even moving, passage: "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."
He's right about the risk of emphasizing "creed and theology" over "shared moral convictions." Just look at the tribal savagery pitting Sunni, Shia and Alawite Muslims against each other in countries like Iraq and Syria.
American politics is not that bad. Yet. But there are too many voices in our political life today that reflect the self-righteous rigidity of religious warfare. And Romney could have been giving those voices tacit encouragement when he said: "From the beginning, this nation trusted in God, not man."
That's certainly true in one sense. Our core national canon, that "all men are created equal," is deeply rooted in religious principles. The Founders made that link explicit in the Declaration of Independence, writing that "they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights."
But Romney was wrong in another sense. Americans have never trusted God to tell us how those "inalienable rights" should be practiced and protected. We are a profoundly pragmatic people. God might inspire us, but she does not think or plan or vote for us. We know that human beings -- faithful but fallible -- make the choices, set the priorities and build the institutions that translate those rights into living doctrines.
As a member of a religious minority, at times a persecuted minority, Romney should be sensitive to how his words could be misused by the holy warriors. Religion has played, and should play, an enormously beneficial role in public life, and we have often disagreed with the secular liberal view that disparages religious influence in our politics.
True piety, however, has to be accompanied by modesty and humility, especially in such a pluralistic nation. The danger point comes when purists decide that God has spoken to and through them, and that there is only one true path to wisdom and salvation.
Romney's appearance at Liberty stirred up some of that narrow-mindedness. A column in the school paper argued, "Choosing Romney to speak continues a dangerous and unethical trend." A student, Sarabeth Rudd, told The Washington Post: "People get so blinded by their party that they forget principle. His theology goes against my faith. I'm not going to vote for him for that."
Some evangelical leaders praised Romney's speech -- former presidential candidate Gary Bauer called it a "home run" -- but others remain highly critical of a candidate they deride as a devout heretic. Writing on the influential website Red State, Tim Griffin said Romney had "utterly failed" to win over conservative voters.
"My Christian brothers should stop asking those of us who see Romney for who he really is to fall into line," Griffin wrote. "To be clear, I am not advocating voting against Romney. I just am on record that the lesser of two evils is still evil."
That same absolutist mindset, which sees the world as a holy war between good and evil, was on display in Indiana last week, where state Treasurer Richard Mourdock defeated six-term senator Richard Lugar in the Republican primary. In Mourdock's view, Lugar committed a cardinal sin by actually cooperating with Democrats on issues such as nuclear disarmament.
In fact, he believes bipartisanship should be banished entirely from Washington. "This is a historic time," says Mourdock, "and the most powerful people in both parties are so opposed to one another that one side simply has to win out over the other."
This is jihadism without the car bombs, the elevation of "creed and theology" over "shared moral convictions" that Romney wisely warned against. If God was in Indiana last week -- the God of the Golden Rule and loving your neighbor -- she was not pleased.
Email Steve and Cokie Roberts at firstname.lastname@example.org.