Romney vs. JFK


    Almost 50 years ago another candidate from Massachusetts explained that he was an American running for President, not a Catholic running for President.  Like him, I am an American running for President.  I do not define my candidacy by my religion.  A person should not be elected because of his faith nor should he be rejected because of his faith.

Mitt Romney said that today, in his much-hyped, high-stakes speech about … well, he said it was about "Faith in America," but of course it was about "Faith in Mitt Romney," and whether that would be a barrier to his election. Even if he hadn’t invited the comparison to the JFK speech, it would certainly be compared — particularly since it was offered under such similar circumstances, and for nearly identical reasons.

I’ve read and watched (well, sort of watched — more like listening while working) both speeches. Having done so, I wonder whether a fair comparison is possible. I find myself much more impressed by the Kennedy speech, but a great deal of that is a matter of style. Kennedy spoke with such unabashed authority and intellectual rigor, but then he led in a time when the alpha male, take-charge style of leadership was accepted and nobody apologized for it. He came across as Yes, I’m smart as hell; isn’t that what you want in a president? There’s also a slight undertone of being righteously ticked off at having to address the matter, combined with complete confidence in the rightness of what he’s saying.

By contrast, Romney’s delivery is blander, more tentative, less threatening, using tones that you might use in speaking to a class of schoolchildren (but then, I so often think today’s politicians sound like they’re speaking to a particularly slow group of third-graders). As he talks about religion, I’m reminded of how Mr. Rogers might have spoken had he been a televangelist. But this (aside from the hair) is not anything particular to Mr. Romney, I think, so much as it is what public life seems to demand today. He seems to be a little more ingratiating in his desire to be liked — again, in the modern mode.

Beyond that, the speeches in substance have much in common. Both express a fundamental belief in the separation of church and state. Both make historical references. But there are a couple of key differences. Romney feels compelled to "witness" in the evangelical manner to his personal belief in Jesus as the son of God and Savior:

    There is one fundamental question about which I often am asked.  What do I believe about Jesus Christ?  I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and the Savior of mankind. My church’s beliefs about Christ may not all be the same as those of other faiths. Each religion has its own unique doctrines and history. These are not bases for criticism but rather a test of our tolerance. Religious tolerance would be a shallow principle indeed if it were reserved only for faiths with which we agree.

Kennedy in no way felt compelled to air his own faith in such specific terms.

This stands out in the Romney speech in particular in light of his assertion, immediately after he did that, that he doesn’t believe in doing such things: "There are some who would have a presidential
candidate describe and explain his church’s distinctive doctrines. To do
so would enable the very religious test the founders prohibited in the
Constitution." Yes, I know what he’s thinking: He’s thinking of polygamy and other things from Mormon history. But if there is no religious test, why did he have to say what he did about Jesus? Because there was a higher priority for him than asserting the principles that Kennedy set out: Soothing the Christian right. He was explaining that he believes just what they believe; in other words, he was acting as an apologist for the orthodoxy of his faith. And within this political context, that struck me as unseemly.

Then there was the "multicultural" passage, in which he reached out and stroked everybody and told them that their religion was very fine, too:

And in every faith I’ve come to know, there are features I wish were in my own: I love the profound ceremony of the Catholic Mass, the approachability of God in the prayers of the Evangelicals, the tenderness of spirit among the Pentecostals, the confident independence of the Lutherans, the ancient traditions of the Jews, unchanged through the ages, and the commitment to frequent prayer of the Muslims. As I travel across the country and see our towns and cities, I’m always moved by the many houses of worship with their steeples, all pointing to heaven, reminding us of the source of life’s blessings.

Kennedy didn’t bother condescending thus to other people’s faith. As for his own church, he cited it and its teachings quite specifically and not in generic pieties, but he only did so insofar as it affirmed the bright line between its magisterial authority and secular power in America:

I ask you tonight to follow in that tradition, to judge me on the basis
of my record of 14 years in Congress, on my declared stands against an
ambassador to the Vatican, against unconstitutional aid to parochial
schools, and against any boycott of the public schools (which I have
attended myself)— instead of judging me on the basis of these pamphlets
and publications we all have seen that carefully select quotations out
of context from the statements of Catholic church leaders, usually in
other countries, frequently in other centuries, and always omitting, of
course, the statement of the American Bishops in 1948, which strongly
endorsed church-state separation, and which more nearly reflects the
views of almost every American Catholic.

Overall, for what he was trying to do and his political and cultural context, I suppose Romney did all right. But I think Lloyd Bentsen would probably say that he’s no Jack Kennedy.

Here’s the text of the Romney speech as delivered, and here’s the video.

Here’s the text of the Kennedy speech, and here’s that video.

12 thoughts on “Romney vs. JFK

  1. diligentdave

    I watched JFK’s speech last night, and Governor Romney’s speech live this morning. I would agree with you on your comparisons.
    Indeed, the speeches were different, as the candidates are different, the people today are different from those of that era, and today’s era has its own peculiarities.
    Someone else today online pointed out, too, that JFK’s speech on Catholicism was more of an ‘anti-religion’ speech. In some ways, Mitt’s was too. But, I found that Mitt answered the questions to today’s political audience in the only way he could, and preserve any semblance that if the U.S. Constitution prohibits a religious test for office, so should a U.S. Constituency.
    Lloyd Bentsen would have said that Romney is no JFK, I agree. But knowing Bentsen’s partisanship, he would have said that to be true of any Republican, and not of Dan Quayle only.
    Kenneday hit a home run. And, Governor Romney did too, unless Mitt miscalculated, and the faith in America he expressed in his “Faith in America” speech is wrongly placed, then our religious tolerance is, indeed, too shallow!

  2. Max

    Didn’t you find it strange that Mitt said JFK worn secret golden plated undershorts like him during the speech.
    Go Ron Paul

  3. Randy E

    Some further analysis of what Romney said:
    Religion is seen as merely a private affair with no place in public life. It is as if they’re intent on establishing a new religion in America – the religion of secularism. They’re wrong.
    So he wants to religion to be part of the campaign (he has previously espoused his faith as part of his identity on the campaign trail) but he wants it on his terms. He wants this sword to cut only one way.
    Americans tire of those who would jettison their beliefs, even to gain the world.
    I believe in my Mormon faith, and I endeavor to live by it.
    So his Mormon faith found abortion acceptable a couple years ago?
    I’m moved by the Lord’s words: ‘For I was an hungered, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: naked, and ye clothed me…’
    Unless you are the child of an illegal alien (see You Tube debate exchange with him and Huckabee).
    His inconsistencies are what I take away from his speech.

  4. D. Hardy

    Directly comparing Romney to JFK seems a bit unfair and short-sighted. Because JFK was assassinated in his prime, he has taken on almost mythical status and when any presidential candidate is directly compared they will undoubtedly not measure up.
    I thought that Romney’s address was perhaps one of the greatest speeches from a political figure in recent times. He unabashedly addressed religion and its role in our society and stressed the importance having public leaders who share a faith in God. This central theme is one that compelled our founding fathers to create this great nation and has seemingly been lost on many Americans in modern times. I am not endorsing Romney, but will give him the credit he deserves for tackling a sensitive and divisive issue that should be a central theme in attempting to correct the moral degradation that plagues our modern society.
    We are in the middle of a primary election and everyone understandably views the world through a political lense, but Romney’s speech should be viewed outside this context. This speech should make all Americans feel proud that there are still some people in public life who a have faith and commitment to God and uphold the values and principles upon which this country was founded.

  5. SC Conservative

    I have to agree with Randy E:
    JFK was espousing the typical “I have a dream” mentality of feel good, politically correct themese. It was like he was saying, “Can’t we all just get along”.
    Romney on the other hand was unapologetic in his approach that faith requires freedom, and our particular brand of freedom required and still requires faith.
    Sorry Brad, but your eloquently stated analysis seems to pale in comparison to the feelings and impressions I was left with from Romney’s address. It’s too bad you couldn’t feel it too.

  6. Brad Warthen

    You’re kidding, right? That is precisely the opposite of what I see and hear.
    JFK was speaking in a way that no candidate dares speak today — like a man among men, saying, Yeah, I’m Catholic. You don’t like it, that’s YOUR problem.
    Romney was all multicultural touchy-feely, “Please like me as I am,” and “I think your religion is very, very nice as well” and other modern multicultural boilerplate. He even had to proclaim his personal belief in Jesus. JFK would never, ever have deigned to get into his personal beliefs or felt the need to apologize or explain his religion to anyone. Romney SAID he wouldn’t do that — right after he did it.
    Maybe you got the two videos switched.

  7. Randy E

    Brad, JFK was defending himself. Romney was bashing people are not religious – attempting to vote them off the island.
    His latest ad ran today, Saturday, bashing illegal aliens. It is one thing to want to defend our borders. It is another to incite hate towards people, which I doubt is in the Book of Mormon or the book he’d lay his hand on for an oath.
    Also, where was his “touchy-feely” approach when he was espousing abortion rights while keeping with his Mormon faith?
    This guy was certainly eloquent in his double talk.

  8. Phillip

    “Freedom requires religion…” Does that mean, Mr. Romney, that if I am not religious as you define it then I am less entitled to my freedom than you?
    Romney says he’ll be a friend and ally to “anyone who prays to the Almighty.” What about those who do not pray to the Almighty, or a single deity again as Romney defines it?
    Can Mitt Romney, or anyone prove definitively beyond a doubt the existence of a single God as defined by the Christian religion? No. It has to be a matter of faith. No man can claim to know the real truth about creation. It’s all within the minds of mere men. Whatever the truth of creation is, we certainly cannot say that any man or any group of men (i.e., any organized church) can definitely claim that they and they alone know the answers to the mysteries of creation.
    So while Romney may seek to seem “generous” in his acknowledgment of the legitimacy of other religions, why does he claim the right to govern only for those who accept the teachings of one of these religions? What special right to govern does possessing religious belief confer on the holder?
    We make a big fuss about religious freedom here in the US, but I’ll know we’ve truly achieved it when a man or woman can stand up and openly profess either atheism or belief in the old pagan gods, and be elected to public office.
    Mr. Romney, you seem a reasonable man on the outside and I know you probably abhor violence for the most part; nevertheless, I feel that a person like me would be equally incomprehensible to both you and Mahmoud Ahmedinijad.

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