by Randolph T. Holhut
American Reporter Correspondent
December 15, 2007
WHY ROMNEY HAS TO PANDER TO THE GOP'S RELIGIOUS RIGHT
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- One of these days, people in public life might start following George Carlin's commandment on religion - thou shalt keep thy religion to thyself.
But that is not the case, especially if you're a Republican. If you do not pander to the Christian nutters who control the GOP, you're toast.
That's why former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney tried to compare himself to John F. Kennedy in a speech he gave last week at the George H.W. Bush Presidential Library in Houston.
Yes, Romney, currently a contender for the Republican presidential nomination, was giving a speech about his Mormon faith and politics in the same city where Kennedy, running as the Democratic presidential candidate, gave a speech about his Catholic faith and politics to a gathering of Baptist ministers in 1960.
While Romney faces the same questions that Kennedy faced by being a member of a minority religion, the similarities end there. It's not just the difference between a Republican and a Democrat. It's the difference between what public life was like nearly 50 years ago, and what it is now.
Kennedy's speech threw down the gauntlet to the Baptist ministers in the audience and to the rest of America that religion was not the central issue of the 1960 election. It was "the hungry people I saw in West Virginia, the old people who cannot pay their doctor bills, the families forced to give up their farms; an America with too many slums, with too few schools."
Kennedy was telling the ministers two things. First, he knew they didn't believe a word he said about his religion and how it would not influence his public policymaking. And second, that he did not care. The New Frontier had no room for religious bigots, and prejudice had no place in the America he hoped to create.
Last week Romney, on the other hand, embraced a vision of an exclusionary America for only those who believe in one version of God. To those who don't share that vision, too bad for you.
"Freedom requires religion just as religion requires freedom," said Romney. "Freedom opens the windows of the soul so man can discover his most profound beliefs and commune with God. Freedom and religion endure together or perish alone. ... Americans acknowledge that liberty is a gift from God, not an indulgence of government. ... And you can be certain of this: Any believer in religious freedom, any person who has knelt in prayer to the Almighty, has a friend and ally in me."
While John Kennedy stated clearly in his speech that "I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute ... where every man has the same right to attend or not attend the church of his choice" - an forthright declaration that no political candidate from either party would dare make today - Romney all but declared America to be a Christian nation and that his faith and religious beliefs would color his decision making.
Where Kennedy said he would put the interests of the nation ahead of the interests of his church, Romney prostrated himself before the Christian fundamentalists.
Anti-Catholicism was still a real cultural force in much of the nation in Kennedy's time. That's why he aimed his speech at the entire nation, not just a narrow slice of the electorate. But no religious bloc controlled the Democratic Party of 1960, which is why Kennedy did not have to pander for votes.
Kennedy told the nation that "contrary to common newspaper usage, I am not the Catholic candidate for president. I am the Democratic Party's candidate for president, who happens to be a Catholic."
Romney made no commitment to put the national interest above his religious beliefs. Indeed, he sees religious faith and the national interest as inseparable - exactly what the religious right wants to hear.
In the end, Romney's speech marks a missed opportunity. In a crowded and contentious field, he could have used his address at the Bush Library as a way to break away from the tyranny of religious fundamentalism and intolerance and speak, like Kennedy did, of a nation where one's faith is a personal matter. Instead, Romney pandered to the people whom - as Kennedy knew before he even started his 1960 speech - would not believe a single word he said.
If Romney thought his Houston speech would save his campaign and get the fundamentalists on his side, it won't. As political writer Charles Pierce succinctly put it last week, "they think your religion is a cult and they think you're pretty much a foof. They're always going to think that, even when and if you're the nominee and some of them beg their Personal Lord And Strength Coach for permission to vote for you. Ain't going to be pretty, son."
Randolph T. Holhut has been a journalist in New England for more than 25 years. He edited "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.