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 Both make historical references.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.