Catholic World News News Feature
The speech JFK should have given December 10, 2007
If only JFK could have given a speech like this!
Mitt Romney bolstered his presidential prospects with a nicely crafted speech yesterday. But he did not choose to gain an advantage at the expense of his faith.
Political campaigns are zero-sum games; when one candidate wins, his rivals lose. Romney, a leading contender for the Republican presidential nomination, looked like a winner after his December 7 speech in Texas. Opinions may differ on that score; that's what keeps talk shows in business. Time and the tracking polls will tell the story. But the early reactions, from the public and the pundits, are strongly favorable.
Then who are the losers, then? They fall into three categories.
First there are the other Republican contenders. Romney gained an advantage, with the first really substantive speech of the campaign season. While we're all talking about Romney today, the other GOP candidates will have to struggle to regain public attention.
Second there are those who believe that a Mormon should not become President. Their concerns have not been eliminated, but Romney delivered a cogent argument against them. If you honestly fear having a Mormon in the White House, you should be more worried today than you were before the speech.
Third are those who believe that no candidate with deeply held religious views should be eligible for the presidency. These people, the "devout" secularists of our society, are disproportionately represented among the media elite. And it is their reaction that I find most interesting.
Romney went to Texas to shore up his support among Evangelical voters-- to quiet their qualms about his Mormon faith. In the process, however, he stirred up some worries among people who are suspicious of any religious beliefs.
In September 1960, when then-Senator John F. Kennedy addressed the Greater Houston Ministerial Association, he too was hoping to silence Protestant opponents, who feared the election of a Roman Catholic. But Kennedy's speech did not worry militant secularists-- and with good reason.
“I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute,” Kennedy told the Baptist ministers in Houston. Romney would not go that far. While he acknowledged the wisdom of separating theology and politics, he argued that "in recent years the notion of the separation of church and state has been taken by some well beyond its original meaning. They seek to remove from the public domain any acknowledgment of God."
Like JFK, Romney asked to be judged on the basis of his political stands rather than his theological views. But he did not promise to leave his religious views aside. On the contrary, Romney made a forceful argument that religious principles should be welcomed in American politics.
"I do not speak for my Church on public matters,” Kennedy said in his memorable Houston speech; “and the Church does not speak for me.” Promising to to be guided only by his own conscience, Kennedy said that he was speaking about “birth control, divorce, censorship, gambling, or any other subject." Those were not political issues chosen at random; they were the topics on which, back in 1960, the teachings of the Catholic Church varied from the consensus of American public opinion. Kennedy was carefully distancing himself from the positions of the Church. And his message was credible because, as serious political analysts knew, Kennedy himself was at odds with the Church on each of these important issues. His promise to the Houston ministers was, in effect, a promise to treat his Catholicism as a purely private matter.
Now contrast that message with the thrust of Romney's speech. When he criticized the proponents of absolute secularism, the former Massachusetts governor might almost have been describing Kennedy's stand:
Religion is seen as merely a private affair with no place in public life. It is as if they are intent on establishing a new religion in America — the religion of secularism.
Romney declined to discuss the tenets of the Mormon faith in any detail. The US Constitution forbids applying any religious test to candidates for public office, he pointed out, and he would not consent to such a test for himself. But there was nothing in his speech to suggest that he would compromise his faith. Quite the contrary, he did make a very simple profession of his beliefs: "I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and the Savior of mankind." Romney said quite clearly: "Some believe that such a confession of my faith will sink my candidacy. If they are right, so be it."
Some people see Romney's faith as a threat to American democracy. A Boston Globe editorial intoned: "Someone with ambitions to lead all the people in a pluralistic society should not identity so closely with any religion or religious figure, even one as revered as Jesus."
Do you see what that editorial is saying? It is announcing that no devoutly religious person is qualified for the presidency. It is imposing a religious test.
For more than 45 years, Kennedy's speech in Houston has been taken as the "gold standard" in discussions of the proper relationship between religion and politics. But Kennedy's argument was not really an argument against religious discrimination; it was an argument for religious indifference. In Houston, JFK made his case to the Baptist ministers not by arguing that a serious Catholic could be a good President, but by signaling that he would not take his Catholic faith too seriously.
Mitt Romney evidently takes his Mormon faith seriously. He promised that he would not be a sectarian leader, and he would not use his public trust to advance his faith. But he did not promise to leave his faith in abeyance.
Romney belongs to an odd sect, which most Americans rightly view with suspicion. Kennedy belonged to America's largest religious bloc-- a faith with a long history of profound thought about faith and public life. Yet it was Kennedy, the Catholic, who proposed to distance faith from public life. Now it is Romney, the Mormon, who seeks to restore the proper balance. I do not support Romney's candidacy. But I am grateful for this contribution to American political discourse.
And I am grateful because I notice how the secularists are squirming. The militantly secularist group People for the American Way issued a statement after yesterday's speech, telling the world: "One thing is for sure, Romney is no Jack Kennedy." David Kusnet of the New Republic (a speechwriter in the Clinton White House) echoed: "Mitt Romney, you're no Jack Kennedy."
They're right. And thank God for that.