Politics & Policy

Revising Kennedy

Mitt should remind voters that his candidacy is about his vision for America, not his religion.

This weekend at a gathering in New Hampshire, Governor Mitt Romney was asked, yet again, whether he would give a speech outlining his religious beliefs. He said he would be happy to do so, but that some of his advisers caution against doing so, since it would “draw too much attention to that issue alone.”

It’s too late — the governor and his faith have our attention. For better or worse, Mormonism is on the public table. The “good news” part, for Romney, is that the public interest signifies how important he has become in the presidential sweeps. Romney leads in Iowa and New Hampshire, and he is now being taken seriously as a prospective nominee. The “bad news” part is that, despite Romney’s desire to think only the best of his fellow citizens — to think that no one would disqualify a person merely because of faith, 218 years after the promise of religious freedom in the First Amendment — such a vision of religious freedom is not yet a reality.

Governor Romney would be wise, in this discussion, to remind the nation to stick to its founding ideals. There is no religious caste here. Article VI, section 3 provides that “…no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.”

Romney now has little choice but to pursue the course taken by John F. Kennedy in 1960, when he used a major speech to Baptist ministers in Houston to defuse Protestant concern over his Catholicism. Even as the situations differ somewhat, the reasons for confronting the issue squarely were poignantly summarized by Kennedy: “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” Or, as it turns out, a Mormon.

At the time JFK spoke, Rome still advocated for Catholicism to be an established church. This was commonplace in Europe even well into the 20th century. Pontiffs like Leo XIII held to the Catholic contention that “error could be given no rights.” So propagated, Catholicism and the constitutional freedoms secured by our First Amendment were incompatible, and it was little wonder Kennedy was held suspect. The modern Catholic Church would back off this view in the mid-60s after the Second Vatican Council. While giving no ground on the Catholic belief to be the “one true apostolic faith,” the church fathers nevertheless conceded that faith coerced under law could never be consistent with the dignity due each person.

Romney’s plight is different. Mormons ask only the equal freedom to believe and practice consistent with the public order. Because of Rome’s prior insistence upon favored legal treatment, Kennedy had a special burden to indicate that, as he said, “no Catholic prelate would tell the president (should he be Catholic) how to act.” Romney’s burden is lighter. It is perhaps enough for him to observe that the modern Mormon or Latter Day Saint (LDS) prophets (“revelators”) do not assert revelations that could trump the presidential oath. Faith matters, of course, and part of Romney’s attractiveness for many voters is that he is a faith-filled and faithful man. In the words of Justice William O. Douglas, “We are a religious people and our institutions presuppose the existence of a Supreme Being.”

Of course, the Mormon faith indulges some unique beliefs that non-Mormons do not “presuppose.” Many, perhaps most, Americans are unfamiliar with the Book of Mormon, or even the names Joseph Smith, or Brigham Young — let alone their prophecies. But no one can legitimately ask Romney to deny his belief in missionary service, or the reward of the “celestial kingdom,” any more than Kennedy should have been expected to renounce the Catholic belief in the true presence of Christ in the consecrated bread and wine at Mass.

In truth, those objecting to Romney’s faith usually know little beyond its one-time attachment to polygamy. Here, Romney must be the patient teacher, reminding, as he has, that polygamy has not been a tenet of Mormon practice since it was set aside by the President of the church in September 1890. Romney gives no quarter to false cults that distort the Mormon faith. “It bothers me no end that the term polygamy keeps being associated with my faith,” the Governor explained in an interview some years back in an interview with The Examiner. “There is nothing more awful, in my view, than the violation of the marriage covenant that one has with one’s wife. The practice of polygamy is abhorrent, it’s awful, and it drives me nuts that people who are polygamists keep pretending to use the umbrella of my church,” he added.. “My church abhors it, it excommunicates people who practice it, and it’s got nothing to do with my faith.” Case closed. Asking for more would have been like asking John Kennedy to assure us that he, too, thought the inquisition a bad idea, or that Galileo got a bum rap.

Almost a half century ago, Kennedy observed that “because I am a Catholic, and no Catholic has ever been elected President, the real issues in this campaign have been obscured . . . So it is apparently necessary for me to state…not what kind of church I believe in, for that should be important only to me — but what kind of America I believe in.” Substituting Mormonism, Romney should similarly and properly refocus voters on the positive vision he offers America. It is better that we debate how to meet the terrorist offensive against the free world, or the economic imbalances at home, or our health care and education needs, than to invidiously disqualify one of our brightest prospects on the basis of his religion.

Whether or not he ultimately succeeds, Romney’s candidacy reminds us anew that citizens may pray differently, but equally desire America’s well being.

Douglas W. Kmiec is the chair and professor of constitutional law, Pepperdine University and a Romney campaign adviser.

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