During the 1960 presidential campaign, John F. Kennedy downplayed his religion. Another Massachusetts pol, Republican Gov. Mitt Romney, is now contemplating a run. And Romney, a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, is being encouraged to follow in JFK's footsteps.
Kennedy's September 1960 speech to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association is credited with having destigmatized his Catholicism as a campaign issue. No doubt the Romney camp would like to do something similar -- make it so that questions about Mormon temple garments are beyond the bounds of respectable journalism. But Romney, a man of faith, has another concern: at what cost?
In his celebrated speech, Kennedy said, "I believe in a president whose views on religion are his own private affair." A later Bay State JFK, Sen. John F. Kerry, took refuge behind this concept to eviscerate his own Catholic faith of its public consequences. During the 2004 presidential cycle, Kerry told one reporter, "I'm not a church spokesman. I'm a legislator running for president.
My oath is to uphold the Constitution of the United States in my public life. My oath privately between me and God was defined in the Catholic church by Pius XXIII and Pope Paul VI in the Vatican II, which allows for freedom of conscience for Catholics with respect to these choices, and that is exactly where I am. And it is separate. Our Constitution separates church and state, and they should be reminded of that." Translation (putting aside the fact that he confused popes ... and that no Catholic says "THE Vatican II"): I'll vote against bans on partial-birth abortion -- and have done so -- and church teaching be damned.
The original JFK said a lot of right and important things, too, mind you. He said in that same speech that he would not "disavow either my views or my church in order to win this election. ... If this election is decided on the basis that 40 million Americans lost their chance of being president on the day they were baptized, then it is the whole nation that will be the loser in the eyes of Catholics and non-Catholics around the world, in the eyes of history, and in the eyes of our own people." Drawing on the valuable elements in Kennedy's speech, Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, has said that Romney is running for "commander in chief," not "theologian in chief." Land's advice is the right advice; as he told the "Boston Globe," "I just encouraged (Romney) to do it forthrightly and honestly and say, 'Look, this is my faith, and we don't have a religious test for office, and here's how my faith informs my values system.'"This seems to be the direction Romney is headed. When asked about "the Mormon problem," Romney says he is "a person of faith," and talks about "common values" among Mormons and other denominations: "The great majority of people -- Christian, non-Christian, and of different faiths -- look for values, character, integrity and vision and don't disqualify people on a religious test."
There is, of course, a worry that too much "common values" talk can water down one's religion, and thus weaken the overall role religion plays in public life. "Downplaying temple garments? What else do we want to demystify and de-weird for the sake of gains in popular opinion?" one LDS blogger recently wrote. "I'm all in favor of clarifying misconceptions, but eventually I am worried that we lose something vital."
In other words, Romney should go back earlier than JFK, and emulate George Washington. In his farewell address, the original George W. said: "Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, Religion and Morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of Patriotism who should labor to subvert these great Pillars of human happiness -- these firmest props of the duties of Men and citizens. The mere Politician, equally with the pious man, ought to respect and to cherish them."