Mitt Romney’s speech about his faith and the role of religion in politics a few weeks ago at the George H. W. Bush Presidential Library in Texas, was a not so subtle attempt to replicate something done by another Bay State politico during the 1960 presidential campaign.
When John F. Kennedy appeared before The Greater Houston Ministerial Association less than two months before he narrowly defeated Richard M. Nixon, he effectively neutralized the idea that his religion (Catholicism) should somehow disqualify him for the nation’s highest office.
Kennedy had, in fact, been out in front of this issue for much of his campaign, sensitive to the fact that the last time a Roman Catholic had been nominated by a major party for the presidency was in 1928, when Al Smith, “The Happy Warrior,” had been routed by Herbert Hoover. Smith’s Catholicism was every bit as important that year as was Hoover’s legendary resume.
Even before he announced his candidacy in 1960, Kennedy was talking about the issue telling one national magazine in 1959: “Whatever one’s religion in private life may be, for the officeholder nothing takes precedence over his oath to uphold the Constitution and all its parts – including the First Amendment.” This would be the essence of his argument before the Texas ministers.
Interestingly, though, Kennedy’s most persistent critic on the issue was not a Republican – or even a Protestant. Rather, it was a fellow Democrat, and Roman Catholic at that, who took issue with JFK’s rhetoric on religion and presidential politics.
Eugene McCarthy was a Senator from Minnesota, and he is best known to most of us for what happened in the 1968 campaign – but his musings on religion and elections are very relevant today as we move into the political year 2008. McCarthy was a devout Catholic and he took issue with Kennedy’s handling of issues of faith. Here’s something he said writing in America, a Catholic weekly, at the time:
“Although in a formal sense church and state can and should be kept separate, it is absurd to hold that religion and politics can be kept wholly apart when they meet in the consciousness of one man. If a man is religious – and if he is in politics - one fact will relate to the other if he is indeed a whole man.”
Charles Kaiser, in his book 1968 in America suggests that John F. Kennedy took this as a personal offense. So, McCarthy’s relationship with the Kennedys was turbulent long before he, himself, ran for president in ’68.