This Won’t Be a JFK Moment

Originally posted: December 6, 2007

Mitt Romney is scheduled today to give a speech on his Mormon faith. Romney had resisted this moment, as he has skirted any discussion of Mormonism in the campaign, preferring to talk about his shared values with more traditional Christian sects and his strong marriage. But questions come up. In a recent debate, Romney was asked whether the Bible is the word of God. He responded that he does believe it is, but added, “I might interpret the word differently than you interpret the word,” thus leaving things vaguely muddled.

Now, Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor and Baptist preacher, is overtaking Romney in the upcoming Iowa caucuses by running a TV spot headlining himself as a “Christian leader.” The core of the Iowa GOP caucus vote is evangelical Christians and, as David Kuo, the former White House director of faith-based programs, put it: “A vast majority of evangelical Christians consider Mormons a cult. And that’s (Romney’s) big problem.”

Romney said in advance, “I’m not going to be giving a JFK speech,” referring to John Kennedy in 1960, when the Democratic nominee sought to defuse concerns that his Roman Catholicism would dictate his policies. One significant difference is in the venue each man selected. At a time when antipathy toward a Catholic president was common from Protestant pulpits, especially in the South, Kennedy walked into the lion’s den, delivering his speech to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association.

Using Google, you can review the entire event and hear the palpable hostility of the pastors in the questions that followed Kennedy’s speech. Among other things they demanded to know if he had cleared his statement on the separation of church and state with the Vatican, and if he would arrange for the pope to officially endorse it for all Roman Catholics in America.

Romney has chosen to give his speech in the friendly confines of the George H.W. Bush presidential library, perhaps the most hospitable venue outside Salt Lake City. My bet is that the questions — if any are allowed — will be nothing like those faced by Kennedy.

Romney also has said that the speech would not be an effort to deal with questions about Mormonism. “I certainly am not a spokesman for my faith,” he says. But Mormonism is his problem, because today’s religious conservative movement believes that faith is more than a private matter, that faith should shape a politician’s view on public issues. Romney has been a Mormon pastor and, within the church hierarchy, the rough equivalent of a Catholic bishop. He has never publicly indicated any distance from church doctrine.

Today, religion plays a more central role in politics, mainly because of the voters Romney and Huckabee are courting, those who want faith to shape policy, and also partly because George W. Bush has placed faith above reason in his habits of governing. Some people would not vote for an atheist for president, others for a Scientologist. Many of the faithful seem to need convincing that it’s OK to vote for a Mormon, and Romney will not convince them with just another speech about religion in a free society.

After an earlier column about Mormonism, I received an e-mail from Cyndi Mosteller, the Charleston County chair of the South Carolina GOP, who tried to question Romney publicly about his religion. I quote from her message: “He and his staff shuffled me into a room, then made the few people who wanted to hear the exchange leave, stating, ‘This is a private meeting.’ When I asked Romney, ‘How do I, living in a state with 30 percent African-Americans, ask those citizens to vote for you if you stand with a church that teaches the Curse of Cain is on the Negro race, and the Lord has put a mark upon him which is the flat nose and black skin?’ ”

Mosteller continues: “Romney grew visibly agitated and asked, ‘Who are you to ask me these questions?’ I responded, ‘At some point CNN could ask you those questions.’ After my encounter with Romney, he put out a statement that I had attacked his religion, bringing numerous angry e-mails from Mormons across the country.”

I worked for and traveled with Mo Udall when he ran for president in 1976 and don’t remember him ever being asked about his Mormon faith. However, times have changed. Today, Romney’s religion is an issue — and rightly so.

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