December 13, 2007
Governor, you’re no Jack Kennedy.
Last week, Mitt Romney got close to Houston to deliver his update of "the religion speech" presidential candidate Kennedy made in September of 1960. Things were just a little different, in several respects. Kennedy spoke to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association, an audience deeply suspicious of his Roman Catholicism; Romney appeared at the George H. W. Bush Library 40 miles out of town, to a hand-picked crowd of friends and supporters. Kennedy fielded questions from the ministers; Romney took none. And in terms of substance, Kennedy presented a clear and unequivocal position; Romney’s was murky and often contradictory.
Of course, the times were different too. Nearly 50 years later, it is almost impossible to conceive how real a threat to "American values" the Catholic hierarchy appeared to be, not only among conservative Protestants but among liberal intellectuals as well. In an article in the journal The Historian (March 33, 2001, available at www.encyclopedia.com), Thomas Carty summarizes the concerns of Paul Blanshard, a civil libertarian lawyer and author, in his 1960 book, God and Man in Washington: "Seeking to expose Vatican interference in U.S. public policy, Blanshard defined six particular points of contention with Catholicism — state support of Catholic schools, censorship of movies and books, discrimination against Protestants and Jews in mixed marriages, segregation of Catholic children by schools, a U.S. ambassador to the Vatican, and the banning of birth control in Catholic hospitals — and challenged voters to consider whether a Catholic presidential candidate would support the Vatican’s stated positions on these issues."
Two of these concerns — government aid to religious schools and the rights of Catholic health-care facilities and insurance plans to refuse to supply contraceptives (and now, tellingly, to perform abortions, which at the time was universally prohibited by state statutes) — are legitimate Constitutional questions still being debated today. The others turned out to be straw men: Now we have an ambassador to the Vatican, Catholic schools have many non-Catholics looking for a better education, mixed marriages include couples of the same sex, and the movie industry censors itself.
Kennedy took on these arguments by fighting fire with fire, completely embracing the civil-libertarian position of Blanshard: "I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute — where no Catholic prelate would tell the President (should he be Catholic) how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishoners for whom to vote." The sword, he noted, can cut both ways: "Today I may be the victim — but tomorrow it may be you." Religious liberty implies that the presidency is "a great office that must neither be humbled by making it the instrument of any one religious group nor tarnished by arbitrarily withholding its occupancy from the members of any one religious group."
His position on religion and public office was simple: "I believe in a President whose religious views are his own private affair." Regarding ethical issues that religious leaders may lobby government to regulate — his examples are "birth control, divorce, censorship, gambling or any other subject" — "I will make my decision in accordance with . . . what my conscience tells me to be the national interest."
Kennedy could quite comfortably take this position because he didn’t care much what the pope thought anyway. Carty cites an alleged quote by Jacqueline Kennedy at the time: "I think it is unfair for Jack to be opposed because he is a Catholic. After all, he’s such a poor Catholic. Now if it were [his brother] Bobby: He never misses mass and prays all the time."
The strategy of the speech was convincing. The opposition to Kennedy as "the Catholic candidate" (rather than, as he said, "the Democratic Party’s candidate for president who happens also to be a Catholic") was stanched, and the Catholic question quickly evaporated.
Romney’s task, at least at this stage of his campaign, is only half like Kennedy’s. To beat Mike Huckabee at his own game in Iowa next month, he has both to allay suspicions that he is taking orders from the Mormon hierarchy in Temple Square and to affirm that he too is a "Christian candidate." It’s a bouncy tightrope to walk, and should he win the Republican nomination, he will then have to jump to a bouncier one, explaining how a Christian candidate can be everybody’s candidate too. If Huckabee wins, he’ll have that jump to make as well.
Taking one aspect of the JFK side, he asserts that "no authorities of my church, or of any other church for that matter, will ever exert influence on presidential decisions." But how authentic is that? After all, the leaders of the evangelical churches have been exerting explicit influence on politicians for the last quarter-century, on abortion rights, gay marriage, stem-cell research, and teaching creationism, among others. (The Mormon church, in fact, has been far less invasive on these issues.) Indeed, Romney himself has had to reverse his liberal stance on abortion to curry favor with the evangelical bloc. If, as he says, "Americans do not respect believers of convenience," how much respect should Americans owe him?
The tightrope really begins to bounce when he addresses the question of privacy in religious matters. On one hand, he asserts that no candidate should have to "describe and explain his church’s distinctive doctrines," calling this "the very religious test the founders prohibited in the Constitution." This is flatly absurd. Rather, the reverse is true: In this era of promotional candor about candidates’ personal lives, it only makes sense for them to articulate their specific beliefs rather than put forth the usual saccharine generalities most of them use to establish their credentials with religious voters. Romney himself could help defuse anti-Mormon sentiment by bringing his religion’s fundamental beliefs to light. And yet, while avoiding his own religion on Constitutional grounds, he felt no qualms about one unabashed audience-appealing credo: "I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and the Savior of mankind."
After these gyrations, he turns to the other hand: Religion is not "merely a private affair with no place in public life." The "Constitution rests," he says, on "the foundation of faith," and true faith to him transcends the sectarian; it is "a common creed of moral convictions" harmoniously shared by all religions — "our nation’s symphony of faith." The only problem is that it’s not true: Look, for example, at how the Episcopalians are tearing their church into shreds over gay marriage, an issue the evangelicals have thrust into "the public square."
The murkiness of his position may be inadvertently clarified by his concluding story about the First Continental Congress, whose members quarreled over offering official prayers for guidance. "Then Sam Adams rose," Romney states, "and said he would hear a prayer from anyone of piety and good character as long as they were a patriot."
God at the service of politics. Jack Kennedy may be turning in his grave.