ABC's Sawyer: Is Romney Against Freedom For Atheists?

Does Mitt Romney believe atheists should enjoy freedom? "Good Morning America" co-host Diane Sawyer apparently isn't too sure. On Friday's edition of the ABC program, the co-host discussed the 2008 presidential candidate's speech on his Mormon faith and wondered about Romney's comment that "freedom requires religion." "Is there going to be a question whether humanists or even atheists, agnostics deserve freedom," she asked "This Week" host, and former Clinton operative, George Stephanopoulos. (This is the same Diane Sawyer who has repeatedly objected to '08 contender Mike Huckabee using the phrase "Christian leader" in a campaign spot. She derided that as "heavy handed" and possibly crossing a line.)

In response to the loaded question, Stephanopoulos simply replied, "I think that's a fight that Romney is willing to pick." In a segment setting up the interview, reporter Dan reiterated the same themes and fretted, "What about non-believers?" He then negatively spun the speech: "Did Romney go too far in blurring the line between church and state?"

Throwing cold water on Thursday's address, Harris asserted that the speech is "getting a mixed bag of reaction." This, despite the fact that conservative heavyweights such as Rush Limbaugh, Hugh Hewitt and Pat Buchanan have raved about the speech. They, however, weren't included in Mr.Harris's piece. And although the segment did feature the Southern Baptist Convention's Richard Land and former Bush operative Matthew Dowd, both of their comments were analytical. Other than a mildly positive comment from talk radio host Jamie Johnson, the only praise in the Harris segment came from University of Utah college students. (To be fair, though, Stephanopoulos did allow that Romney "got a lot of praise from Christian leaders yesterday.") Also, former JFK speechwriter Ted Sorensen appeared to deride the address. Rather than feature two clips of Mormon college kids, wouldn't it be more enlightening to at least note that the most popular conservative radio host in the country liked the speech?

A transcript of the segment, which aired at 7:13am on December 7, follows:

DIANE SAWYER: And it's crackling out there on the campaign trail, the race to '08. As we said, Oprah Winfrey with Barack Obama this weekend on the trail. And of course, there's all the reaction now to presidential candidate Mitt Romney's big speech yesterday where he tried to ease concerns, particularly among evangelicals, about his Mormon faith. Did he succeed? ABC's Dan Harris has been looking into that.

MITT ROMNEY: Let me assure you that no authorities of my church, or of any other church for that matter, will ever exert influence on presidential decisions.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I thought the speech was fantastic.

HARRIS: Positive reviews from fellow Mormons at the University of Utah.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: He will not be running the country by his church and he's just bringing it out in the open and he's not trying to hide anything.

HARRIS: But political watchers believe Romney was really directing his talk at evangelicals, 42 percent of whom say they are uncomfortable with a Mormon president. So, was it smart for Romney to only mention Mormonism once and to refuse to defend some of the controversial doctrines of his faith?

ROMNEY: No candidate should become the spokesman for his faith.

MATTHEW DOWD (ABC News political contributor): If the speech was designed to address the issue of Mormonism and the perception of Mormonism, it doesn't address any of those and so I still think there's still going to be questions about that in the aftermath.

RICHARD LAND (Southern Baptist Convention): If he had tried to defend Mormonism, he would have been picking a fight with evangelical that he doesn't need to pick. It's a fight that he couldn't win.

HARRIS: Evangelicals in the key state of Iowa, where the former Baptist minister Mike Huckabee has pulled in front of Romney, seem to appreciate Romney's emphasis on the role of religion in American public life.

ROMNEY: Freedom requires religion. Just as religion requires freedom.

HARRIS: But what about non-believers?

JAMIE JOHNSON (Iowa News Talk Radio/Faith & Freedom Network): If the evangelicals understand Mitt Romney not as a Mormon, so much as a moralist, I think they can feel more comfortable with voting for him.

HARRIS: Did Romney go too far in blurring the line between church and state?

TED SORENSEN (Fmr. Kennedy advisor & speechwriter): Romney fudged that a little bit because he was trying to impress those members of the religious right who don't favor complete separation of church and state and Romney wants more religion involved in statecraft.

HARRIS: The speech is getting a mixed bag of reaction. But the Romney camp seems to have faith that at least it has put this issue to rest. For "Good Morning America," Dan Harris, ABC News.

SAWYER: And for the bottom line, we turn to ABC's chief Washington correspondent, host of "This Week," George Stephanopoulos, in Washington. Good morning, George. So --

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Good morning, Diane.

SAWYER: As we know, the polls show how close it is, Huckabee and Romney in Iowa. Did this speech change anything?

STEPHANOPOULOS: Well, it's certainly important. No one speech can completely change the dynamic here. Mike Huckabee is rising because of his support among evangelical Christians. Of course, that's who Romney was targeting yesterday. I think he said three things that are very important to evangelical Christians. Number one, he wouldn't take orders from the leaders of the Mormon church. Number two, and probably most important, he had a declaration of Christian faith. He said, I believe that Jesus Christ is the son of God and the savior of mankind. That was critically important. And number three, he did say that he doesn't believes that the separation of church and state, as John Kennedy believed, is absolute. He believes that religion has a place in our public life. Mitt Romney got a lot of praise from Christian leaders yesterday. It's too early to say whether that's going to translate into real support on the ground.

SAWYER: What about the other statement we heard Dan mention? "Freedom requires religion." Is there going to be a question whether humanists or even atheists, agnostics deserve freedom?"

STEPHANOPOULOS: I think that's a fight that Romney is willing to pick. There's no question this could end up being the most controversial statement in a general election for Mitt Romney. But he believes-- This is what he believes. And I just spoke to the campaign a few minutes before going on the air and they say he absolutely stands by this statement, it is what Mitt Romney believes, and I think this is exactly what a lot of evangelical Christians want to hear. If it causes him trouble later on down the road in the general election, he'll deal with that later.

SAWYER: One more symbol we should point out, by the way, George Herbert Walker Bush, former President Bush, was the man who introduced him yesterday.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Very significant. And he had lots of praise for Mitt Romney's family. He introduced the family, for Mitt Romney's father who of course ran for president in 1968. Now, President Bush did go out of his way to say other candidates will come as well. But it was a subtle endorsement, I think, of Mitt Romney.

SAWYER: All right, let's switch for a minute to Oprah Winfrey. Barack Obama heading out on the campaign trail this weekend. What, two events in Iowa, one in South Carolina, one in New Hampshire. Tell us what she is going to do and what do you think is going to happen?

STEPHANOPOULOS: Well, she's going to electrify the campaign trail. There's no question about it. Look at what's happening in South Carolina. The Barack Obama campaign has had to move from an 18,000 seat arena to an 80,000 seat stadium. Now, they're a little worried now of raising expectations too high. They expect about 25,000 people to show up. But it is going to be a big event. I also spoke with the Clinton campaign. They are going to go on, do all of their business in Iowa. They're also considering sending Bill Clinton to South Carolina a day ahead of Oprah Winfrey to try and counter her effect.

SAWYER: Oh, my goodness. Got to stay tuned this weekend.

Scott Whitlock
Scott Whitlock
Scott Whitlock is the senior news analyst for the Media Research Center and a contributing editor for NewsBusters.org