Mitt Romney’s campaign has quite naturally created a discussion of parallels between the former governor of Massachussetts, who’s the first Mormon to run for president, and John F. Kennedy, a senator from Massachusetts who was the first Catholic to be elected president. According to the conventional wisdom, JFK’s famous Q&A session with a panel of Protestant clergymen in Houston in 1960 took religion off the table in that campaign. And Romney has often been urged to do something similar. Indeed, Mitt’s whole campaign to become the True Conservative Candidate has probably come down to a Tale of Two Kennedys: overcoming the socially liberal positions he took when running against Ted Kennedy in 1994, and seizing JFK’s mantle as a pioneer who convinced skeptics to accept his specific faith as irrelevant to his candidacy.
Polls have shown significant but declining resistance to the idea of a Mormon President, and Romney has done pretty well in gaining the support of the conservative evangelical Protestants thought to be most concerned about Mormonism. And in fact, his candidacy is providing a fascinating test of the evolution of conservative evangelical thinking. There’s quite a disconnect between the vast gap separating evangelicals and Mormons theologically, and their consanguinity on many cultural and political issues–not to mention the natural admiration of evangelicals for the Godly Commonwealth the LDS Church has built in Utah (I first thought about this when a member of my own extended family, a decades-long Southern Baptist Deacon and inveterate world traveler, came back from a visit to Salt Lake City more enthused than he’d ever seemed after a road trip. “It’s so clean!” he kept saying).
But still, there are lingering doubts among some conservative Christians about Romney and Mormonism, and via Alan Wolfe, it’s interesting to learn that at least one highly influential Christian Right figure has suggested that anti-Mormonism is a legitimate reason for rejecting Mitt.
That figure is Richard John Neuhaus, the Lutheran-turned-Catholic-priest whose periodical, First Things, has become the most intellectually respectable and ecumenical Christian Right forum. Fr. Neuhaus was the first to popularize, back in his 1984 book, The Naked Public Square, the idea that church-state separation represents a secularist assault against the religious liberties of American Christians, now a gospel truth among religious conservatives. He’s also willing to throw bombs, as in the 1996 First Things symposium wherein he roiled conservative circles with his incendiary proposition that “the current regime” in America had forfeited the legitimacy to govern, and the allegiance of its citizens, by its tolerance of legalized abortion and gay rights.
So Neuhaus’ take on Romney and JFK as religio-political pioneers is of more than passing interest.
Contra the conventional wisdom that Kennedy took a candidate’s religious affiliation permanently off the table with his Houston encounter, Neuhaus observes (correctly, if you look at the vast pro-Democratic swing among Catholic voters in 1960, which clearly outmatched any anti-Catholic backlash) that JFK’s Catholicism actually elected him president.
More importantly, Neuhaus argues that a candidate’s religion can and should still matter, and not because he or she is suspected of conflicting loyalties between church and state:
The question is not whether, as president, Mr. Romney would take orders from Salt Lake City. I doubt whether many people think he would. The questions are: Would a Mormon as president of the United States give greater credibility and prestige to Mormonism? The answer is almost certainly yes. Would it therefore help advance the missionary goals of what many view as a false religion? The answer is almost certainly yes. Is it legitimate for those Americans to take these questions into account in voting for a presidential nominee or candidate? The answer is certainly yes.
So according to Neuhaus, it doesn’t matter if Mitt emulates Kennedy by arranging some big speech or forum where he defangs his faith or, like JFK, describes it as “an accident of birth.” If you don’t like Mormonism, and don’t want to see it grow (and it certainly is growing–by some estimates, more than any religious denomination on earth), it’s fine to vote against Mitt Romney.
It will be interesting and important to see if Neuhaus’ advice gets picked up elsewhere on the Christian Right, where Romney is in a white-knuckle competition for support with Fred Thompson and perhaps Mike Huckabee. If it does, not only is Mitt in trouble, but the common assumption that a candidate’s religious affliliation doesn’t much matter any more will take a big and dangerous hit.