Mitt Romney has missed several golden opportunities to turn this campaign's religious fixation to his advantage.
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. But he keeps refusing to challenge those who would apply faith-based litmus tests, even though doing so would win him plaudits among the independents who will pick the next president. That's probably because he fears it would backfire among those who will pick the GOP nominee.
It has been a dizzying two weeks in matters of church and state. First, the Obama administration unwisely 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. In doing so, the president served up a perfect political opportunity for his opponents to accuse him of waging war on religious freedom.
The next mistake, however, was the church's. When the president came to his senses and offered a compromise that would not force the church to pay for contraception coverage, the bishops rebuffed it. Instead of declaring victory, they continued to fight.
Here in Philadelphia, Archbishop Charles Chaput wrote in The Inquirer that the administration's mandate, "including its latest variant, is belligerent, unnecessary, and deeply offensive to the content of Catholic belief." He added that "no similarly aggressive attack on religious freedom in our country has occurred in recent memory." And he concluded that the "mandate is bad law, and not merely bad, but dangerous and insulting. It needs to be withdrawn -- now."
Chaput and the other bishops overplayed a winning hand. Who is being intolerant when an employee of a Catholic-run hospital, charity, or college, who might not be Catholic herself, is told she cannot have access to birth control as part of her health insurance -- even though her employer doesn't have to pay for it?
It was into this crossfire that Rick Santorum stepped last weekend when he said the president was motivated by "some phony theology, not a theology based on the Bible." When challenged by Bob Schieffer of CBS, Santorum thinly defended his comments as references to Obama's environmental policies. But the remark seemed in keeping with the email circulars many of us have received ("YOU MUST READ THIS") that seek to portray Obama as an "other," someone fundamentally different from the rest of us.
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 the father of lies has his sights on what you think the father of lies, Satan, would have his sights on -- a good, decent, powerful, influential country, the United States of America," Santorum said.
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. This week, Jeffress said he would hold his nose and vote for Romney. No doubt his antipathy is shared by the one-third of evangelical Christians who told the Pew Research Center that they would have a hard time voting for a Mormon.
All these developments 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 did he do instead? He doubled down on his efforts to reach the party's religious base, telling a Michigan crowd: "Unfortunately, possibly because of the people the president hangs around with, and their agenda, their secular agenda -- they have fought against religion." And in the CNN debate last week in Arizona, he accused Obama of an "attack on religious conscience."
That kind of talk may help Romney on Tuesday with some of the GOP faithful in Michigan and Arizona. But it is not likely to be forgotten by independents come this fall.
Follow Michael Smerconish on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@smerconish