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Divinely Uninspired

Mitt Romney wants to have his religious freedom and impose a religious test, too.

“For the first time in this campaign--it’s long already--I heard greatness this morning,” gushed Chris Matthews shortly after Mitt Romney finished delivering his long-awaited speech about … well, what was it about?

Political insiders had long expected the “Mormonism Speech” to recall John F. Kennedy’s historic address to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association on September 12, 1960, in which he argued that his membership in the Catholic Church must not disqualify him from the presidency. Like Kennedy, Romney spoke in Texas. Indeed, he declared: “Almost 50 years ago, another candidate from Massachusetts explained that he was an American running for president, not a Catholic running for president. Like him, I am an American running for president.”

But apart from his assertion that “A person should not be … rejected because of his faith,” Romney’s speech reversed Kennedy’s ringing affirmation of the American traditions of religious tolerance and the separation of church and state.

Kennedy’s speech was powerful not only because of his understated eloquence, but also because he presented a logical response to a real challenge. Led by the mainline Protestant minister Norman Vincent Peale, hundreds of ministers declared that Kennedy’s Catholicism made him, and presumably his forty-million co-religionists, ineligible for the nation’s highest office. Just 32 years earlier, the only other Catholic presidential nominee, New York Governor Al Smith, had been defeated in a campaign so bitter that Ku Klux Klansmen greeted him with a burning cross in Oklahoma City.

Kennedy made the anti-Catholics look like the know-nothings they were by uncorking a tightly reasoned argument that his religion was irrelevant. Beginning with a litany of problems, from poverty in West Virginia to communism in Cuba, Kennedy declared: “These are the real issues which should decide this campaign. And they are not religious issues--for war and hunger and ignorance and despair know no religious barrier.”

Kennedy then went on to say that, unfortunately, “the real issues in this campaign have been obscured--perhaps deliberately” by attacks on his Catholicism. Rather than defend or describe his religious views, he asked to be judged by his record in public office and promised to govern “in accordance with what my conscience tells me to be in the national interest.”

Forty-seven years later, Romney began his speech similarly. He ticked off a list of current problems--“radical violent Islam,” “an emerging China,” “overuse of foreign oil”--before taking a hard right turn with this statement: “There are some who may feel that religion is not a matter to be seriously considered in the context of the weighty threats that face us,” and then making clear that he disagreed with the benighted “some.” From the 1960 campaign through Watergate, attacking an unnamed “some” was a favored rhetorical device of JFK’s rival, Richard Nixon. And, when it comes to arguing that religious issues shouldn’t be part of presidential campaigns, Romney’s “some” includes Kennedy himself.

While Kennedy dismissed concerns about his Catholicism, Romney challenged yet another “some” who “wonder whether there are any questions regarding an aspiring candidate’s religion that are appropriate.” His answer, in stark opposition to the Constitution’s forbiddance of religious tests for public office: “I believe there are. And I will answer them today.”

In fact, Romney answered only one: “There is one fundamental question about which I often am asked: What do I believe about Jesus Christ? I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and the Savior of Mankind.” In other words, in spite of Mike Huckabee’s reluctance to acknowledge this, Romney is a Christian.

But having just spurned those who consider it illegitimate to ask if Mormon candidates are Christians, Romney proceeded to defy yet another “some who would have a presidential candidate describe and explain his church’s distinctive doctrines.” Such questions--but presumably not questions about Jesus Christ’s divinity--would “enable the very religious test the founders prohibited in the Constitution.” Romney’s listeners might be forgiven if they conclude that questions that might embarrass him are illegitimate but not those that might marginalize a Muslim like Keith Ellison or a Jew like Russ Feingold. Where Chris Matthews hears “greatness” in Romney, “some” might settle for consistency.

Beyond first invoking and later contradicting Kennedy, Romney simply offered a series of paragraphs that, while well-phrased, led to no coherent conclusion. Sometimes he rose to eloquence: “Freedom opens the windows of the soul so that man can discover his most profound beliefs and commune with God.” Other times he borrowed from George W. Bush, as when he proclaimed, “Liberty is a gift of God, not an indulgence of government.” And other times still, he echoed Kennedy, as when he, too, promised that leaders of his church would not dictate his decisions as president.

But, mostly, he offered a caricature of Clintonian triangulation. On the “liberal” side, Romney endorsed the separation of church and state, supported the tolerance of those with different beliefs, and found something to admire in Catholicism (“the profound ceremony”), Lutheranism (“confident independence”), Judaism (“ancient traditions”), and Islam (“frequent prayer”). On the “conservative” side, he proclaimed that “secularism” is a religion, decried the un-churching of Western Europe, and declared that “freedom requires religion.” While only using the word “Mormon” once, he implicitly defended the denomination against common preconceptions. Thus, he recalled that his father, the Michigan Governor and civil rights champion George Romney, had “march(ed) with Martin Luther King” and looked to the day when he would take the oath of office as president with his “hand on the Bible” (and not the Book of Mormon).

As Kennedy would have reminded today’s Americans, Mitt Romney should be judged on his public record and should not subject himself to the indignity of denying that his religion is racist, unbiblical, or unchristian. Yes, candidates have every right to explain how they would promote the common good--and to tell how their deepest beliefs are derived from their religious faiths. But suggesting that one religion is better than another--or even, as Romney did, that testifying to one’s faith is preferable to keeping it private--ventures where our nation’s founders feared to go.

Why then did Romney deliver a speech that described some but not all of his most personal beliefs and defended the role of religion in public life without specifying where, how, or by whom it is being threatened? The answer, simply, is that Romney wants to stand on several sides of the church/state debates of the past half century. He campaigns as a religious conservative, but rejects attacks on his own religious beliefs by citing the religious tolerance that is the legacy of liberals like John F. Kennedy. Then he attacks a nameless “some” who threaten the role of religion in public life. Are they the churchgoing presidential candidates Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and John Edwards? Or perhaps they’re the oft-divorced Rudy Giuliani, Fred Thompson, and John McCain? So, in Romney’s conception, what is fair game? Which questions about personal beliefs (and personal behavior) can presidential candidates legitimately be asked? There were no answers to be found in Thursday’s speech.

Mitt Romney, you’re no Jack Kennedy.

David Kusnet was chief speechwriter for former President Bill Clinton from 1992 through 1994. He is the author of Love the Work, Hate the Job: Why America’s Best Workers Are Unhappier than Ever, to be published next year by John A. Wiley and Sons.

By David Kusnet