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Answering Critics -- and Kennedy

By Michael Gerson

WASHINGTON -- In the strange cycle of American history, once again a youthful presidential candidate from Massachusetts with a suspect religion has spoken in Texas about the relationship of church and state at a key moment in his campaign.

The political circumstances faced by Mitt Romney and John Kennedy, however, are very different. Kennedy's speech to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association sought to put an uncomfortable topic behind him -- and it succeeded. Theodore Sorensen later recalled: "It made unnecessary any further full-scale answer from the candidate, and Kennedy, while continuing to answer questions, never raised the subject again."

Romney, in contrast, raised the topic of religion to reassert his relevance in a campaign that seems to be spinning out of his control. He is the most disciplined and organized of the Republican candidates, but former Gov. Mike Huckabee is winning the enthusiasm primary. Romney's speech was an attempt to slow this momentum by being the "biggest news story between now and the caucuses," according to one adviser.

Judging by the quality and ambition of his speech, Romney deserves to succeed as well.

Before his remarks, Romney tipped his hat to Kennedy's Houston address as "the definitive speech." But Romney, speaking at the George H.W. Bush Presidential Library at Texas A&M, declared his independence from the Kennedy model. Kennedy's speech began by downplaying "religious issues" as a distraction from the "real issues" of "war and hunger and ignorance and despair." Romney declared this perspective -- "that religion is not a matter to be seriously considered in the context of the weighty threats that face us" -- to be "at odds with the nation's founders."

Romney went on to dispute one of Kennedy's central arguments. Kennedy asserted that a candidate's "views on religion are his own, private affair," which should not be "imposed by him upon the nation." He promised, in essence, that his Catholicism would no more influence his politics than did Quakerism for Richard Nixon. And President Eisenhower's reaction to the Kennedy speech summarized this argument well: "I would hope that it
(religion) could be one of those subjects that could be laid on the shelf and forgotten."

Like Kennedy, Romney affirmed that "no authorities of my church ...will ever exert influence on presidential decisions." But Romney also argued, "Whether it was the cause of abolition, or civil rights, or the right to life itself, no movement of conscience can succeed in America that cannot speak to the convictions of religious people." Repudiating Kennedy's exact language, Romney contended that religion is not merely "a private affair." Martin Luther King Jr., Romney reminded us, did not regard religion as a purely personal matter or lay his deepest convictions upon the shelf.

It is one thing to assert, as Kennedy did, that politicians should not take orders from popes and prophets -- that is the institutional separation of church and state. It is another thing to assert, as Kennedy seemed to, that politicians should not take guidance from their own religiously informed conscience -- that is a multiple personality disorder.

Romney wisely did not delve into the theological details of his own Mormon faith, any more than Kennedy explained the Immaculate Conception.

That is not the job of a politician and, in Romney's case, would have been a tricky task. Unlike Catholicism, Mormonism does not accept the early, defining creeds of the Christian church -- it is not just a variant, but a different variety of faith. Romney expressed his belief in Jesus as the Son of God, but acknowledged that this means something different to Mormons.

Instead of engaging in theological debates, Romney argued that Mormonism reinforces basic American values -- a belief in human equality, commitments to compassion and liberty. And he further contended that these values -- "a common creed of moral convictions" -- are shared across religious traditions, whatever their distinctive theories of salvation.

This is a sophisticated view of pluralism and tolerance -- that religion and freedom are not at odds, because freedom should be one of the deepest commitments of true faith.

These arguments will go only so far for Romney. His biggest problem is not his religious beliefs, but persistent questions about his core political beliefs, provoked by shifting views on abortion, gun rights and immigration. Whatever Romney's religious faith, his greatest need is to demonstrate a fighting faith.

Romney's speech, however, was an achievement. It had the boldness to argue with Kennedy on key issues, and the intellectual seriousness to win some of those arguments. Kennedy's speech remains a landmark of American rhetoric. But Romney's deserves to be read beside it.

Copyright 2007, Washington Post Writers Group

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