Last week, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney traveled to College Station, Texas, to deliver a major address on faith to an audience at the George H.W. Bush presidential library. Given the fact that the speech was so clearly an attempt to emulate President John F. Kennedy's famous speech on faith forty-seven years ago, it's a little surprising that Romney didn't deliver the speech at the Kennedy Library in Boston instead. But context is everything, and the backdrop of the Boston skyline would not have been reassuring to Romney's true audience—Christian evangelical voters who have grave reservations about electing a Mormon (and former Massachusetts governor)—as president.
It is not likely, however, that Romney's speech will resonate as deeply into history as Kennedy's has. That's not entirely Romney's fault, of course: Kennedy was a particularly charismatic speaker, and no candidate since, with the possible exception of Ronald Reagan, has had such eloquent speechwriters. But Romney and his campaign are certainly responsible for his speech's two main failings: its timing, and its content.
Romney enjoyed little of the drama surrounding Kennedy's speech to Greater Houston Ministerial Association (GHMA) on September 12, 1960. The hotly-contested election between Kennedy and the Republican nominee, Vice-President Richard Nixon, was less than two months away. Kennedy was vying to become the nation's first Catholic president, and had endured months of insult, including repeated charges that the Kennedy White House would be subject to the orders of the Pope. Kennedy's stirring affirmation of his independence and America's commitment to religious freedom were a stern reminder to the nation's Protestant majority in general and the GHMA in particular that no one in this country should be the target of religious intolerance. And unlike Romney, who chose a safe venue for his oration, Kennedy strode onto a stage in front of some his most skeptical critics.
Despite the significant cultural changes that have taken place over the last half-century, Romney tried to cast himself in the same light as Kennedy last week, saying that "some believe that such a confession of my faith will sink my candidacy. If they are right, so be it." But unlike Kennedy, Romney is not locked in a nasty one-on-one contest in which his faith and obedience to Mormon elders are central themes; instead, he is merely one candidate in a crowded and diverse field. It is difficult to make the case, at least right now, that Romney faces significant discrimination from general electorate due to his religious faith. He was, after all, elected governor in one of the most liberal states in the country.
Romney could not afford to wait and give this speech in a one-on-one general campaign, however, because he might not be around to do so. With former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee rapidly gaining strength among evangelical voters in Iowa pre-caucus polls (and as of this morning, in South Carolina as well), the Romney campaign is desperately trying to equate the Christian Right's suspicions (which are as much about Romney's once more moderate political positions than they are about his Mormon faith) with the widespread hostility that Kennedy faced in 1960. Romney's own words, however, make it clear that this speech was not a grand defense of religious tolerance in the Kennedy tradition, but instead, a much narrower plea for acceptance by one of his party's least tolerant but influential voting blocs.
Romney buttressed his plea to evangelicals by endorsing one of their most fervently-held positions: "We should acknowledge the Creator as did the Founders—in ceremony and word. He should remain on our currency, in our pledge, in the teaching of our history, and during the holiday season, nativity scenes and menorahs should be welcome in our public places. Our greatness would not long endure without judges who respect the foundation of faith upon which our constitution rests." (Complete text of speech.)
But Romney is wrong on both history and policy. When they drafted the Constitution, the Founders purposefully separated church and state, and then hastened to pass a Bill of Rights that not only protected the free exercise of religion but also forbade, in no uncertain terms, its establishment. As their many comments at the time make clear, the Founders did value religion, but more for its effects on the citizenry than the state.
Like many members of the Christian Right, Romney equates a strong separation of church and state with the establishment of "the religion of secularism." It is a deft rhetorical twist, one that the religious right has been employing for years, but mere repetition does not make it true. The Founders, steeped as they were in the Enlightenment, recognized that separation of church and state would not drive God from society but would instead promote religious tolerance and make it possible for people of different faiths (even Catholics and Mormons) to participate in public life.
Romney, like so many other candidates who have offered primary-driven obeisance to the Christian Right over the last thirty years, does not seem to understand that a community of religious people is a very different thing from a religious community. The drafters of our Constitution understood the value of the former and properly feared the latter. So did Kennedy, which is why the world will little note nor long remember Romney's pale echo.
Frederick Lane is an expert witness, lecturer, and author who has appeared on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, CNN, NBC, ABC, CBS, the BBC, and MSNBC. He writes daily for Newsfactor.com on technology, law, and privacy, and he has just finished his fourth book, The Court and the Cross: The Religious Right's Crusade to Reshape the Supreme Court (Beacon Press May 2008).