By Michael Smerconish
Let me finish tonight with this.
Yesterday, Mitt Romney was asked about his Mormon faith while on the stump. In Wisconsin, a man read to him from a book of scripture published by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and asked Romney whether he agreed with his church's one-time belief that interracial marriage was a sin.
Q: "Do you believe it's a sin for a white man to marry and procreate with a black?"Romney: "No. Next question."
I said here last night that I think Romney has missed several opportunities to turn this campaign's religious fixation to his advantage. This was yet another.
Given that polls show he faces prejudice among a sizable share of primary voters because of his Mormon faith, you would think Romney would be eager to try to redefine the role of faith in the election.
One opportunity came when the Obama administration attempted to force religious institutions to offer birth control coverage to their employees in contravention of church teachings. The administration exempted churches, but it should have done the same for church-related institutions from the get-go. Forget for a moment the shortsightedness of an institution that opposes abortion but fails to recognize that contraception can prevent it.
Whatever the basis of the church's position, the government should not force it to act against its teachings. It was into this cross fire that Rick Santorum moved when he said the President was motivated by "some phony theology, not a theology based on the Bible."
That's when Romney should have stepped in and asked: What separates us from Iran or al-Qaeda if we are going to pick our presidents according to religious litmus tests? Perhaps he could have quoted the First Amendment and reminded people that it ensures every American's ability to exercise his faith, or to exercise no faith. But Romney remained silent.
And he stayed silent when Matt Drudge trumpeted a 2008 Santorum speech at Ave Maria University in which he invoked Satan while discussing abortion.
And Romney was still silent a day later, when the Rev. Franklin Graham, Billy Graham's son, said on msnbc that while he believed Santorum was a Christian, he couldn't be sure whether Obama or Romney was. Maybe Graham was channeling the Southern Baptist pastor Robert Jeffress, who said in October that the Mormon Church was a cult.
All these developments, just like yesterday, presented Romney with chances to remind the nation that this is not the election that ends with a cloud of white smoke over the Sistine Chapel. What has he done instead?
He's doubled down on his efforts to reach the party's religious base, telling a Michigan crowd a few weeks ago: "Unfortunately, possibly because of the people the President hangs around with, and their agenda, their secular agenda--they have fought against religion."
That kind of talk may help Romney with some of the GOP faithful, but it is not likely to be forgotten by independents come this fall.