Romney and JFK: The Difference

The situations are superficially the same—presidential candidates trying to remove an obstacle to their election arising from their church membership. But the obstacles are quite different. The objections some have to Mitt Romney’s religion are twofold, theological and cultural. Those against John F. Kennedy when he gave his 1960 speech in Houston about his Catholicism were more solidly political. The theological problems with Romney come from evangelicals, who know that his Jesus is not a member of the divine Trinity. Romney has assured them in his speech on religious liberty, also given in Texas, in early December, “I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and the Savior of mankind.” That may not be enough for those insisting on their own orthodoxy, since Brigham Young wrote that “intelligent beings are organized to become Gods, even the Sons of God,” and that these divinized believers may be the saviors of the worlds they dispose of. But Romney is right in claiming that such points of theology are irrelevant to the practical morality involved in politics. “Sons of God” is not a political slogan.

But theology is not what bothers most of those who feel uneasy about Mormonism. They object to its unfamiliarity. Mormons are a small minority in the country (1.3 percent), with what seem to be odd ideas and practices. There are only fifteen Mormons in Congress, far fewer than women or blacks. Of these, five come from Utah and none from east of the Mississippi. In most of the country, few people think they know any Mormons. People are not comfortable with what they feel they do not know about or understand. To fight this “weirdo factor,” Romney stresses his mainstream appearance and conduct. With a hit at Rudolph Giuliani’s multiple marriages and estranged children, he has offered his own family as a symbol of the values his faith upholds: “You can witness them in Ann and my marriage and in our family.”

The only objection to Mormons on political grounds would be their record of polygamy and racism, both of which have been officially abjured. But Kennedy’s problem was precisely political. Catholics were familiar enough to Americans—there was no weirdo factor. (People wearing white hoods over their heads had little right to call others weird.) And Kennedy’s opponents were not interested in theological questions like transubstantiation. But there were solid grounds for political doubts about Catholics. The Vatican had not, in 1960, formally renounced its condemnation of American pluralism and democracy. In fact, one of Kennedy’s advisers on his Houston speech, the Jesuit John Courtney Murray, had recently been silenced by the Vatican for defending religious pluralism.

There was a cogently argued case against papal politics. Paul Blanshard had maintained, in the best-selling American Freedom and Catholic Power (1948), that Catholics were just pretending to be democrats till they could get into power and imitate such Vatican-approved regimes as that of Francisco Franco in Spain. A strong lobby …

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