Mitt Romney's 'Faith' Speech

Delivering one of the most widely anticipated political speeches of the year, Mitt Romney spoke about his faith and how it informs his views on public issues. It was widely described as a speech similar to the one given by John F. Kennedy in 1960, when he sought to limit the uproar over the possibility of a Catholic becoming president. However, while both speeches may have centered on religion, there are important differences.

In 1960, speaking to a general election electorate that was overwhelmingly secular, Kennedy said, “I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute — where no Catholic prelate would tell the president, should he be a Catholic, how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote ...”

Romney, speaking in 2007 to an audience of Christian caucus-goers, many of whom are fundamentalist or evangelical and who believe very strongly that religion is an important part of public life, took a different tack. He stressed the importance of religion in public policy formulation, saying, “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. If so, they are at odds with the nation’s Founders … Freedom requires religion just as religion requires freedom …” Rather than severing the link between religion and politics, as Kennedy did, Romney seeks to reinforce it.

Because the Supreme Court had not yet kicked religion out of the public schools in 1960, Kennedy was comfortable taking very secular stands on what would be called “wedge” or “hot-button” issues today. Here’s what Kennedy said: “I ask you tonight ... to judge me on the basis of 14 years in the Congress — on my declared stands against an ambassador to the Vatican [and] against unconstitutional aid to parochial schools ... I am wholly opposed to the state being used by any religious group ... to ... prohibit ... the free exercise of any other religion.”

In 2007, against a backdrop of federal courts trying to drive religion out of public life, Romney says, "In recent years, the notion of the separation of church and state has been taken by some well beyond its original meaning. They seek to remove from the public domain any acknowledgment of God ... The Founders ... did not countenance the elimination of religion from the public square.” This buttresses Romney’s claim to his newfound social conservative views.

The key to Kennedy’s speech was to reaffirm that he would not follow the dictates of the pope in Rome and that his views would be guided by his conscience, not his religion. Romney argued that his faith and values were essential to his public policy views AND that his faith and values were no different from those of the Christian caucus-goers. He was convincing on the first point. It remains to be seen how well he did on the second.

The results in Iowa, New Hampshire and the later primaries will give the answer.

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