Mitt Romney's Kennedy Moment?

Last Thursday, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney gave a speech in which he argued that his Mormon religious beliefs should not prevent Americans from voting for him.

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.

Let me assure you that no authorities of my church, or of any other church for that matter, will ever exert influence on presidential decisions… I will put no doctrine of any church above the plain duties of the office and the sovereign authority of the law.

The main intended audience of Romney’s speech was the Republican Party’s base of right-wing Christians, many of whom are deeply suspicious of Mormonism and consider it a cult. In this respect, Romney faces a similar dilemma to another famous American politician who confronted skepticism about his faith – President John F. Kennedy.

The first (and still the only) Roman Catholic ever to be elected President, Kennedy likewise had to persuade the public that his religion would not cause him to impose doctrines on them which they did not share. In a famous 1960 speech, Kennedy effectively laid those doubts to rest with a resounding defense of the importance of separation of church and state:

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—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.

…I believe in a President whose religious views are his own private affair, neither imposed by him upon the nation or imposed by the nation upon him as a condition to holding that office.

Clearly, Romney wants to invoke the image of President Kennedy; he alluded to this speech in his own address. But Romney is in a far more difficult bind, because the audience he’s trying to reach is vehemently opposed to the separation of church and state. Right-wing Christians want to force their own theological vision on the nation, and for Romney to assert that he’ll keep religion apart from government would only further push them away from him. It’s no surprise, therefore, that Romney’s allusion to Kennedy’s speech was a very brief and glancing one. He said only that “Almost 50 years ago another candidate from Massachusetts explained that he was an American running for president, not a Catholic running for president,” omitting Kennedy’s argument for an expansive view of separation.

Romney’s own proposal was a very different one:

Freedom requires religion just as religion requires freedom….

…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.

“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. 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.’

This vague, ecumenical-sounding statement is, in fact, a bolt of vicious bigotry directed at atheists. This fact was noticed and pointed out by a Christian blogger, Slacktivist (who also capably dissects the other absurdities in the speech):

If freedom requires religion, then the a-religious and irreligious, the non-religious and un-religious are the enemies of freedom. Romney believes, in other words, that atheism is incompatible with freedom. Whatever it is he means by “religious liberty,” he does not believe it can safely be applied to atheists.

By repeating the right-wing rhetoric about how separation of church and state is fully compatible with official sanction of belief in God and discrimination against atheists, Romney shows what his intent is. He doesn’t truly want a candidate’s religious beliefs to be considered irrelevant. He’s just pleading for the circle of religious bigotry toward outsiders expanded slightly to include him – so that he can be on the inside, hurling barbs at those who believe differently, rather than on the outside, on the receiving end of those barbs from his fellow theocrats.

Romney’s stance is remarkably like that of his fellow Mormon, Orson Scott Card, who likewise argued that America is a secular nation with no religious test and then proceeded to arrogantly dismiss all atheist Americans as unqualified for elected office. Far from pleading for a truly universal tolerance, Romney, like so many other aspiring theocrats through history, wants just enough tolerance for himself, but has no intent or desire to extend that same tolerance to others. His plight as a member of a distrusted minority has given him surprisingly little insight or empathy toward others in the same situation. Rather than abolish religious persecution, he simply aspires to be part of the majority so that he can redirect that persecution toward his chosen adversaries.

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About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Arc of Fire, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.


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