December 13, 2007
By Alan W. Dowd 

A week after Mitt Romney took to the podium in an effort to answer the not-so-quiet questions about his Mormon faith, Mike Huckabee has raised the issue again, with an offhand comment about Mormon doctrine to The New York Times Magazine

To some voters, it seems like much ado about nothing. To others, it’s a critical issue. To still others, it’s a somewhat sad case of déjà vu.   

In October, perhaps sensing the looming controversy over Romney’s Mormon faith, CSPAN replayed then-Senator John F. Kennedy’s 1960 speech and Q&A with Southern Baptist leaders. 

“I want to emphasize from the outset that I believe that we have far more critical issues in the 1960 election,” Kennedy began, citing the spread of communism, childhood hunger, failing farms and the forgotten poor. He reminded his hosts that he fought—and his brother died—for an America without religious tests of any kind. “No one suggested then that we might have a ‘divided loyalty,’” he intoned, no doubt shaming some of his hosts. 

Then, perhaps intentionally and wryly imitating the pattern of a creed, he delivered his confession of non-faith: “I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute…I believe in an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant nor Jewish…I believe in an America where religious intolerance will someday end…where there is no Catholic vote, no anti-Catholic vote, no bloc voting of any kind.” 

Kennedy won over many of those in attendance and enough of their fellow Protestants to settle the sad controversy triggered by his Catholicism. Yet 12 presidential elections and, incredibly, almost 50 years later, a sizeable swath of this great, multi-religious republic has qualms about Romney’s religion. According to a Pew survey, 25 percent of Republicans—and a whopping 36 percent of white evangelical Protestants—say they are “less likely to vote for a Mormon candidate.”  

And so, Romney set aside a day last week—in 2007, not 1907 or 1807—to re-remind America that we are a country of many faiths. He’s no JFK, as the old saying goes, but he was equal to this important task. 

Following Kennedy’s script, Romney explained that terrorism, a rising China, oil dependency and the breakdown of the family are the pressing issues we face. But he noted that when “our nation faced its greatest peril,” the Founders “sought the blessings of the Creator.” Freedom and religion go hand in hand, he declared, adding “religion requires freedom.” 

This has always been true. Moses, it pays to recall, argued that God’s people had a right to assemble and to worship. Acting as heaven’s ambassador, Moses outlined God’s reasonable demands: “Let my people go, so that they may hold a festival to me in the desert.” 

Closer to our own time, as Romney explained, the ancestors of our Founders were people of intense faith, who came to this continent to practice that faith and build a society shaped by that faith. Since then, faith and people of faith have played an indispensable role in America.   

Twenty years before the Declaration of Independence, Gen. George Washington had a minister detached to his regiment. Later, he warned that “Reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.” 

Jefferson’s masterpiece document announcing the nation’s birth invokes “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God” and claims that all people “are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.”

Echoing Washington and Jefferson, Romney argued that “Reason and religion are friends.” Americans, he continued, “share a common creed of moral convictions.”

Alexis de Tocqueville came to a similar conclusion in the 1830s, when he described religion as “the first of America’s political institutions.” Sometimes Americans went too far in their religiosity, at least in Tocqueville’s view. “In the midst of American society, you meet with men full of a fanatical and almost wild spiritualism,” he observed. “Religious insanity is very common in the United States.”  

But Tocqueville recognized that America, for better or worse, was infused with faith. “I do not know whether all Americans have a sincere faith in religion—for who can search the human heart?—but I am certain that they hold it to be indispensable to the maintenance of republican institutions,” he concluded.

Indeed, it was the Civil War that birthed “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” with its stirring, almost terrifying, messianic stanza, “As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free.” And with nearly the same fervor, people of faith struggled for women’s voting rights, for fair labor standards, for civil rights and equality among all races, and today for unborn life.

Yet in spite of this rich religious heritage, Romney warned, rightly, there are some in our country who want to establish “a religion of secularism.”   

Romney says he will be a bulwark against that effort. “Any believer in religious freedom, any person who has knelt in prayer to the Almighty, has a friend and ally in me,” he concluded, applauding what he called “our nation’s symphony of faith.”  

Like Kennedy before him, Romney has also sought to reassure his critics. “I will serve no one religion, no one group, no one cause and no one interest,” he vowed. “A president must serve only the common cause of the people of the United States.” 

Romney took care to detail the dangers that follow when a religion hijacks the state, pointing to our jihadist enemies. And he reminded his audience that the Founders were also against the opposite extreme—“the elimination of religion from the public square.” Another enemy of free peoples—the Soviet state—is a grim reminder that banishing faith leads not to utopia, but to ruin. 

Romney’s religion—a religion which didn’t even exist when the country was founded—does not disqualify him from serving as president, just as Jefferson’s Deism, Kennedy’s Catholicism, Carter’s born-again experience, Bush’s evangelicalism or Lieberman’s Judaism didn’t disqualify them from—or qualify them for—high office. 

In short, Romney’s supporters have plenty of reasons to back him—his proven record as an innovative chief executive, commitment to lower taxes, hard line on the war. And his opponents have plenty of things to criticize—his “evolving” position on abortion, record on spending, the healthcare behemoth he helped spawn in Massachusetts. But his religion falls into neither category.