John F. Kennedy delivered his famous speech to the Houston Ministerial Association on September 12, 1960. It remains among the great documents of American history. The speech was designed to address a nasty whisper campaign and to assuage those questioned if someone of his faith could serve as President without Vatican interference. Kennedy spoke mostly about religious freedom and religious prejudice, the things he fought to protect in the South Pacific and for which his brother Joe had died. “I believe”, he said, “in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute.” It was a message that rang throughout the text. But he also faced the issue of anti-Catholic prejudice head on. Never once did he let his audience forget why he had come to speak. In a 1555 word speech the word Catholic appears 17 times. He made it clear that he would remain true to his faith, but also that the specifics of that faith were a private matter. He mentioned God but once, and that in quoting the oath of office that he hoped to take in the months ahead. His message was one of inclusion and of tolerance for religion. There was no call for religion to enter the public square. It was for the rights of people to attend any church or no church at all. Toward the end he got to perhaps the most critical message, “I am not the Catholic candidate for President. I am the Democratic Party's candidate for President who happens also to be a Catholic.”
What a difference 47 years can make. Mike Huckabee, the self-proclaimed “Christian Candidate” for President, is rising in the polls. His affable personality, notwithstanding, positioning himself as such in a political ad may be a first, certainly in my memory. It is diametrically opposite to what Kennedy hoped would characterize America’s future. It was also to the Huckabee surge, and the fear that his candidacy was threatened by it, that finally brought Mitt Romney the Bush library in Texas. Romney associated his talk with that of JFK but it could not have been more different. It was longer, 2540 words and the word Mormon appeared only once. “I believe in my Mormon faith and I endeavor to live by it. My faith is the faith of my fathers – I will be true to them and to my beliefs.” God is mentioned 13 times. Kennedy may have seen his belief as a private matter, Romney told us more than I wanted to know of a Presidential candidate. I believe” he proclaimed, “that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and the Savior of mankind”. He also told less than others may have wanted to hear. “My church's beliefs about Christ may not all be the same as those of other faiths.” They, it would seem, wanted to know if he was a Christian, which seems to be important to the Republican candidates this year (see my recent post). To be sure Romney made some clear statements about tolerance upon which he clearly relies. I agree with him.
Unlike Kennedy in Houston, Romney made no claim for absolute separation of church and state. Instead there was this: “…in recent years, the notion of the separation of church and state has been taken by some well beyond its original meaning. They seek to remove from the public domain any acknowledgment of God. Religion is seen as merely a private affair with no place in public life. It is as if they are intent on establishing a new religion in America – the religion of secularism. They are wrong.” Romney’s proclaimed tent is big, but not sufficiently so to accommodate non-believers. He speaks about secularism as if it some sort of conspiracy, perhaps equivalent to the “Communist menace” of the 1950s. It is a profoundly disturbing message, one that flies in the face of his proclaimed tolerance. Romney, it would seem, is uncomfortable with the idea of our secular democracy.
He follows his attack on the secular menace with these words: "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.” In that regard, perhaps his most striking and telling remark, one that goes far beyond a constructionist view of the Constitution, is this. “Our greatness”, he says, “would not long endure without judges who respect the foundation of faith upon which our Constitution rests.” Imagine what music that is to the ears of opera buff Antonin Scalia.
Romney’s talk is not of a Presidential candidate who happens to be a Mormon, but more of a pretender to national religious leadership. Consider these words, “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. Nor would I separate us from our religious heritage.“ Somewhat later he adds, "I have visited many of the magnificent cathedrals in Europe. They are so inspired ... so grand ... so empty. Raised up over generations, long ago, so many of the cathedrals now stand as the postcard backdrop to societies just too busy or too 'enlightened' to venture inside and kneel in prayer. The establishment of state religions in Europe did no favor to Europe's churches. And though you will find many people of strong faith there, the churches themselves seem to be withering away.” As with Huckabee’s claim of being the Christian Candidate, I can’t remember a Presidential contender and certainly not a holder of the office who felt it appropriate to comment upon, much less decry, the “withering away” of churches, albeit attributed to state religions which are contrary to the American approach. Finally toward the end of this sermon, Mr. Romney makes this exclusionist comment, “Any believer in religious freedom, any person who has knelt in prayer to the Almighty, has a friend and ally in me.”
Rudy Giuliani told a reporter that he agreed with everything Mr. Romney had said. Mike Huckabee still won’t comment on whether his opponent is a Christian. The Democratic candidates may have been disturbed by the speech, but just won’t go there. If you think immigration is a third rail, faith is the radioactive zone. And the press, well they looked at this speech only in the context of whether it did the political job hoped for by the former Governor. It would appear they didn’t really read or listen to the text, but then again why would they enter that hornet’s nest. The rest of us should be concerned. If the Romney message reflects where we are or where we’re going, the country is in worse trouble than any of us might hope.