JFK, Mitt Romney and "The Speech"
Frederick Clarkson printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Mon Dec 03, 2007 at 02:02:32 AM EST
Mitt Romney is getting desperate.

He has not received as much support from the religious right as he had hoped. He has sought to be acceptable to conservatives and at the same time not-too-scary to moderates. He has also emphasized his recent conversion from being prochoice to being prolife, and sought to obscure his past support for gay and lesbian civil rights while emphasizing his position opposing marriage equality.  During the recent GOP candidate debate in Florida, he refused to say, as he once did, that he looks forward to the day when gays and lesbians can serve openly in the military.  Many -- especially many of us who live in Massachusetts -- take him as having few, if any, deep convictions. And (as far as I know) with the exception of Paul Weyrich, no major religious right leader is supporting him.

Throughout the campaign, pundits have wondered whether he would give a speech analagous to the one given by then-Senator John F. Kennedy before the Houston Ministerial Association, to address concerns about his Catholicism and allegiance to the Pope, then as now the head of a foreign state as well as the spiritual leader of a worldwide church.

Now, faced with a deeply held and resilient anti-Mormonism amongst many conservative evangelicals, Romney has finally decided to give "the speech."  

The Boston Globe reports:
From the start of Romney's bid, his Mormon faith has been an issue in the campaign as he tried to position himself as the candidate of the GOP's family values voters. A Pew Research Center poll in September found a quarter of all Republicans -- including 36 percent of white evangelical Protestants -- said they would be less likely to vote for a Mormon.

Indeed, skepticism about his religion has proven difficult for Romney to overcome, particularly in Iowa where religious conservatives play a powerful role in GOP caucuses. Romney has invested heavily in the state, hoping to use a win here as a launching pad to the nomination.

Polls show the race a toss up. Just a month ago Romney held a wide lead and Huckabee trailed in the single digits. Huckabee has surged in large part by rallying the GOP's religious right wing.

Last week, Huckabee sought to exploit Romney's weaknesses -- his Mormon faith and his reversal on abortion as well as shifts on other issues -- by running a TV ad in Iowa that emphasizes his own religious beliefs. The ad doesn't mention Romney but clearly targets him.

"Faith doesn't just influence me. It really defines me. I don't have to wake up every day wondering what do I need to believe," Huckabee says in TV ad. "Let us never sacrifice our principles for anybody's politics. Not now, not ever."

Huckabee has earned the lion's share of the public endorsements by religious right leaders, including: at least three past presidents of the Southern Baptist Convention; American Family Assocation founder Don Wildmon, Vision America honcho Rick Scarborough; former SBC 2nd Vice President, Wiley Drake; televangelists James Robison and Ken Copeland, Jerry Falwell Jr., Jonathan Falwell (brother of Jerry Sr.), actor Chuck Norris and radio talk show host Janet Folger.

There is undoubtedly more to it, but at the very least, Huckabee is apparently the choice of the anti-Mormon vote and Romney hopes to neutralize it.

JFK, faced with an analogous situation, gave a speech that was a landmark in the politics of separation of church and state. It is a fair and reasonable and inspired standard by which polititians may distinguish themselves from the views of the religious institutions to which they happen to belong.

I think John Kerry would have done well to have emulated it when he was attacked by religious rightist Catholic prelates, among others, in 2004. I think too, that the Inside the Beltway consultants who are now busy recasting bedrock Democratic principles (so well articulated by JFK in 1960) in an effort to pander to evangelicals and conservative Catholics -- ought to reconsider the way they are demolishing respect for the constitutional principle of no religious tests for public office.

Here are excerpts from JFK's 1960 speech to the Houston Ministerial Association:

"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 parishoners for whom to vote--where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference--and where no man is denied public office merely because his religion differs from the President who might appoint him or the people who might elect him."...

"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."

"Finally, I believe in an America where religious intolerance will someday end--where all men and all churches are treated as equal--where every man has the same right to attend or not attend the church of his choice--where there is no Catholic vote, no anti-Catholic vote, no bloc voting of any kind--and where Catholics, Protestants and Jews, at both the lay and pastoral level, will refrain from those attitudes of disdain and division which have so often marred their works in the past, and promote instead the American ideal of brotherhood.

"But let me stress again that these are my views--for contrary to common newspaper usage, I am not the Catholic candidate for President. I am the Democratic Party's candidate for President who happens also to be a Catholic. I do not speak for my church on public matters--and the church does not speak for me."

"Whatever issue may come before me as President--on birth control, divorce, censorship, gambling or any other subject--I will make my decision in accordance with these views, in accordance with what my conscience tells me to be the national interest, and without regard to outside religious pressures or dictates. And no power or threat of punishment could cause me to decide otherwise."

"But if the time should ever come--and I do not concede any conflict to be even remotely possible--when my office would require me to either violate my conscience or violate the national interest, then I would resign the office; and I hope any conscientious public servant would do the same."

"But I do not intend to apologize for these views to my critics of either Catholic or Protestant faith--nor do I intend to disavow either my views or my church in order to win this election."

While Romney's speech will inevitably be measured by the Kennedy standard -- it is safe to say, he is no Jack Kennedy. But for those of us who are concerned about the religious right, and the errosion of separation of church and state as a bedrock principle in American public life, the contrast in these speeches, and all that they represent, offers a great opportunity to revive the Kennedy standard for the role of religion in American politics.

Romney is in full reaction mode now that the "values voters" in Iowa have made up their minds and have plumped for Huckabee.  And I will be flabbergasted if a Mormon speech will make any difference.

It's too late for Romney.  He should have done this weeks ago, getting out ahead of the story when it could have been viewed as an act of courage and perhaps people then would have compared him favorably with Kennedy.  

Now with his numbers in the polls flagging, it will just be seen as another one of a long line of calculated ploys intended to remake himself as an acceptable standard bearer for the religious right.  He will have to outdo Kennedy to score on this one, and I'm not sure it's even possible.

They showed the results of the latest poll from Iowa this morning on Meet the Press and Huckabee's support is rock solid with around 85% of those supporting him saying that they have already firmly made up their minds.  Romney was below 50% by the same measure.

Huckabee looks poised to win Iowa unless they can successfully attack his policies enough to overcome the "Mr Nice Guy" perception.  And even if the Huckster comes a close second to Romney, he will still grab all the headlines from the winner.  

BTW: David Brody from CBN News (Pat Robertson's pet TV news organization) was on the Meet the Press panel this morning, and I was actually reasonably impressed by his professionalism and balanced opinions (unlike that awful Monica Crowley who was on the McLaughlin Group this week).  The only time he wavered from neutrality was when he claimed that Huckabee's rise could be traced back to the "Values Voters Summit" in mid-September.  That was self-serving nonsense since the most people didn't even know it had happened since it wasn't on TV anywhere, even Iowa.

by tacitus on Mon Dec 03, 2007 at 03:07:58 AM EST

JFK's famouse Houston Church/State speech here.

"I believe in a President whose views on religion are his own private affair" - JFK, Address to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association
by hardindr on Mon Dec 03, 2007 at 07:20:35 AM EST

Huckabee can attract the Christian Right, but he might very well lose the "big money boyz." From what I understand, the Club for Growth is displeased with Huckabee over his tax increases when he was governor of Arkansas. Huckabee also has his own Willie Horton type incident to contend with, his release of convicted rapist Wayne Dumond.

by khughes1963 on Mon Dec 03, 2007 at 06:47:13 AM EST
I avoid making predictions about the horse race.

This year, arguably all of the candidates have big flaws, or at least the flaws have been highlighted early and often. Given the nature of this campaign, anything could happen. But then again, I guess that too is a prediction.

It was not long ago The Conventional Wisdom gave Huckabee no chance against the mighty Guiliani and Romney and the Reaganesque Fred Thompson.

How a few weeks can change things.

I think that the silly narrative that the religious right is divided/fractured/splintered (as if it were ever actually unified) has obscured Huckabee's rise.  Pat Robertson's endorsement of Giuliani made big news. But Huckabee was collecting far more endorsements that mattered from the religious right.

by Frederick Clarkson on Mon Dec 03, 2007 at 02:34:26 PM EST

What I'd like to hear Romney comment on is the peculiar strain of anti-intellectualism in Mormonism. Mormon scholars have been forced from Brigham Young University, and from the Mormon church, for scholarship that is accurate and truthful but not considered "faith-promoting." That sounds uncomfortably like George Bush ignoring science and scholarship with which he does not agree. Mormons are also precluded from criticizing church leaders, even if the criticism is accurate. That sounds like the Republicans' "Eleventh Commandment" -- Thou shalt not speak ill of a fellow Republican."

by bill1766 on Mon Dec 03, 2007 at 08:52:21 PM EST

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