A Mitt Romney Speech Evokes John F. Kennedy
On September 12, 1960, Catholic Democratic presidential candidate John F. Kennedy gave a landmark speech to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association (a group of Protestant ministers) regarding concerns about his Catholicism1. If elected, he would become the first Catholic president of the United States. In the speech, Kennedy reassured the audience, and by extension the American electorate, that he would not be a tool of the pope or Catholic hierarchy if elected president.
On December 6, 2007, Mormon Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney gave an anticipated speech to an audience at the George H. W. Bush Presidential Library in College Station, Texas, and addressed concerns about his Mormonism2. In the speech, Romney reassured the audience, and by extension American voters (especially Republican), that he would not be a tool of the Mormon Church if elected president.
The Line of Descent
As one reads both speeches given by Kennedy and Romney, one is struck by their statements of religious freedom. They reflect the heritage of religious freedom bestowed upon us by the Founding Fathers. Both speeches stand in the long line of descent in the best traditions of American religious freedom. Their genius is their restatement of the original principles of religious liberty and their fresh approach to applying them to their specific historical contexts. Most of all, they display an understanding of the separation of church and state that is important for our time.
While both speeches have slightly different emphases, they still share the American tradition of proper separation of religious authority from civil authority. They also reflect the foundational understanding of this relationship as stated by Thomas Jefferson two hundred years previous in his draft of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom in 1777 (enacted into law in 1786), and his famous letter to the Danbury, Connecticut, Baptist Association in 1801. The Kennedy and Romney speeches reflect the ideals given in both documents respecting the separation of church and state.
Danbury Baptist Letter
Jefferson's letter to the Danbury Baptists is a brilliant and concise statement of the principles he wrote in the Virginia statute. Twenty-five years had passed since he had penned the statute, but the Danbury letter exhibits the same principles without wavering.
Recapping that religious belief is personal, Jefferson again stated that "the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions [freedom of thought]." By quoting the First Amendment respecting religious freedom, he reassured the Baptists that the federal government would continue to protect religious freedom. It would be so because the First Amendment had built "a wall of separation between church and state." In other words, Jefferson meant that the separation of church and state was meant to protect religious liberty, not diminish it. Jefferson concluded his letter by reassuring the Baptists that he would continue to adhere to these constitutional protections as the "supreme will of the nation." He would do so "in behalf of the rights of conscience," understanding they are the restoration to all individuals of their "natural rights." Finally, he promises to "reciprocate [their] kind prayers for the protection and blessing of the common Father and Creator of man." In other words, his restatement of the freedom of religious belief reflected a firm belief in God as the one who gave men and women the right to worship as a natural consequence of creation.
The Kennedy Question
John F. Kennedy was not the first Roman Catholic to be nominated to run for president of the United States. In 1928, Democratic New York governor Al Smith was the first Catholic nominated to run for president for a major party. Kennedy was on the verge of making major U.S. history should he be elected president. So, he gave his speech to calm Protestant concerns, real or imagined.
He chose to speak as an American, not a Catholic. "I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute, where no Catholic prelate would tell the president (should he be Catholic) how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote." He condemned any hint of an official state-sponsored religion. He also condemned any religious body that would seek to impose its will "directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials." Kennedy emphasized Article 6 of the Constitution that forbade any religious test for public officials. Finally, he assured that he would fulfill the oath of the presidency to "preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution."
The Danbury Baptist letter
as originally drafted by Thomas Jefferson.
The Romney Question
Mitt Romney was not the first Mormon to run for president of the United States. His father, former Michigan governor George Romney, ran for the Republican nomination for president in 1968. He failed in his bid. Mitt Romney tried to reassure the conservative Protestant (Evangelical) wing of the Republican Party that he was not a threat to the nation because he is a Mormon. This part of his speech was somewhat regrettable, as he seemed to be trying to include his religion in an acceptable American religious tradition—a backdoor establishment, if you will. As with Kennedy, he also had to reassure the majority of Americans that his
religious affiliation would not dictate his performance as president. The difference with Romney is that the Mormon Church is not entirely in the mainstream of American society. Kennedy did not have to face this reality with Catholicism. So, Romney gave his speech earlier than Kennedy did to calm fears, real or imagined, about a Mormon president.
Like Kennedy, Romney has a gift of communication. His speech demonstrated his adeptness at communicating complex issues in simple, flowing terms. He chose to speak first as an American, then as a Mormon. "Like [Kennedy], 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." Romney narrows the issue to one main point: "Freedom requires religion just as religion requires freedom. . . . Freedom and religion endure together, or perish alone."
He upheld the separation of church and state by maintaining church authority is "within the province of church affairs, and it ends where the affairs of the nation begin," and "no religion should dictate to the state nor should the state interfere with the free practice of religion." Romney assured Americans that no church doctrine should interfere with the "plain duties of the office and the sovereign authority of the law." Finally, he assured them that if elected president he would commit to what Lincoln called "America's 'political religion'—the commitment to defend the rule of law and the Constitution." He would serve "only the common cause of the people of the United States." He dismissed religious tests for public service as the Founding Fathers did.
The Kennedy/Romney Answer
On the basics of religious freedom, Kennedy and Romney agree in several key areas. First, a presidential candidate should not be supported or eliminated based on their religious affiliation. Second, no religious official or denomination should determine presidential policy and decisions. Third, both present as firm believers in church and state separation. Fourth, no president should serve the interests of one religious group over another. Fifth, the colonial history of America is filled with examples of precedents given by which religious liberty is preserved and informed. Sixth, civil authority has no right to interfere or prohibit the free exercise of religious observance and expression. Seventh, a presidential candidate's first priority running for office is to run as an American, not first based on religious identity. Eighth, no president should be the spokesperson for one religious perspective. Ninth, no civil servant (such as a president) should be required or requested to surrender their own religious convictions or associations for political expediency. Tenth, as a public official, no president has a higher obligation than their sworn allegiance to uphold the Constitution and laws of the United States. This is itself a religious obligation to their personal religious beliefs.
The Romney Supplement
Romney extended the discussion of religious freedom a bit further than Kennedy due to the different historical context. For one, he mentioned his own personal religious belief in a couple areas, notably what he believes about Jesus and differences that exist between Mormon and orthodox Christian belief. He spent several paragraphs describing the common values and religious principles that all religious people in America share—the heritage of American values such as tolerance. Most important, he drew attention to something Kennedy did not face in 1960: the growing secularization of American culture.
In 1960 most Americans shared a common cultural identity of similar moral and religious principles that reflected the heritage of Judeo-Christian values extending back to colonial times. However, in the succeeding 40 years the social and cultural landscape in America has changed tremendously. Romney addressed this development in strong terms without compromising religious freedom:
"But 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. 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. They are wrong. The Founders proscribed the establishment of a state religion, but they did not countenance the elimination of religion from the public square. We are a nation 'Under God' and in God, we do indeed trust."
He then hearkens back to the Founders in their acknowledgment of God in public "ceremony and word." "I will take care to separate the affairs of government from any religion, but I will not separate us from 'the God who gave us liberty.'" Romney clearly believes the nation should not be separated from its "religious heritage." These are issues Kennedy did not have to address.
What Is the Romney Test?
The Romney test for our generation and our place in history is whether the American people use a religious test to eliminate a candidate for president of the United States. Candidate Kennedy addressed this issue candidly and plainly with respect to himself as a Catholic:
"For while this year it may be a Catholic against whom the finger of suspicion is pointed, in other years it has been, and may someday be again, a Jew—or a Quaker or a Unitarian or a Baptist. It was Virginia's harassment of Baptist preachers, for example, that helped lead to Jefferson's statute of religious freedom. Today I may be the victim, but tomorrow it may be you—until the whole fabric of our harmonious society is ripped at a time of great national peril. . . . And I hope that you and I condemn with equal fervor those nations which deny their presidency to Protestants, and those which deny it to Catholics."
If religious freedom and tolerance is to be taken seriously in the United States of the twenty-first century, then it must be extended to considering candidates who might be professionally qualified to be president but have religious affiliations that are called into question by a sector of America. If Mormons are not acceptable, where does that leave Jews or someone from another religious group? Where is the line?
The Romney test beckons us to focus on the real issues of our day. It is not about unconstitutionally setting up religious criteria that either qualify or disqualify a candidate for president of the United States. Rather, it is about not losing the freedom of religion in our nation, which we see being lost year by year. It is about electing candidates to any office who have a correct understanding of this nation's constitutionally mandated freedom of religion.
While it is up to the American people to determine their choice for elected office, whether it be local or national, religious freedom cannot be expected to extend just from civil officials to citizens, but must also extend to candidates by the people themselves. The tyranny of electoral elimination of qualified candidates based on religious tests is just as malignant as elected officials eliminating religious freedoms for one sector of society while favoring another. Kennedy made that appeal eloquently, and now Romney has addressed the same issues, though in the more urgent context of religious freedom being endangered in our own time.
Both Kennedy's and Romney's speeches display continuity with the principles given in Jefferson's writings. The quandary for today's voter is if they vote against a candidate such as Romney because he is a Mormon, would they vote for Jefferson who had deistic tendencies, not completely orthodox Christianity? History has agreed with Jefferson's take on religious freedom that was illustrated by John F. Kennedy and has been revisited by Mitt Romney.
If Governor Mitt Romney was eliminated as a viable candidate based upon religious affiliation, then the true spirit of American religious freedom and tolerance has been violated, and for that we will all be impoverished.
Rodney Nelson teaches history, government, and Bible at a Christian school in Richland, Washington.
1 A transcript of the speech can be found at: www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=16920600
2 A transcript of the speech can be found at: www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=16969460