Mitt Romney and the Kennedy Mistake

Over at First Things, Francis J. Beckwith reviews Hugh Hewitt’s new book about Mitt Romney: A Mormon in the White House? He argues that American Christians considering Romney’s candidacy for the presidency should not make "the Creedal Mistake," i.e., believing that "the planks of his [religious] creed are the best standard by which to judge the suitability of a political candidate." By the same token, however, he cautions Romney not to make "the Kennedy mistake." Citing Kennedy’s September 12, 1960, speech to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association, Beckwith writes:

Kennedy’s speech reads like a complete acquiescence to American mainline Protestant notions of privatized faith and anti-clericalism, as well as its stereotypical, outdated, and uncharitable ideas about the Catholic hierarchy and the teachings of the Catholic Church. Kennedy could have argued that his Catholicism informs him of certain theological and moral doctrines that will make him a thoughtful and principled president. He could have consulted and mined from the works of Catholic scholars who were able defenders of liberal democracy and the natural law that grounds it. But he did not. Kennedy’s speech was a terrible concession. For it played to his audience’s anti-Catholic prejudices while saying that his religious beliefs are so trivial that he would govern exactly the same if they were absent.

Beckwith applies these lessons directly to Romney:

Romney, in order to pacify secularists and traditional Christians, may be tempted to emulate Kennedy and claim that his theology and church do not influence or shape his politics. But this would be a mistake. For it would signal to traditional Christians that Romney does not believe that theology could, in principle, count as knowledge; but this is precisely the view of the secularist who believes that religion, like matters of taste, should remain private. Yet if a citizen has good reason to believe her theological tradition offers real insights into the nature of humanity and the common good—insights that could be defended on grounds that even a secularist cannot easily dismiss—why should she remain mute simply because the secularist stipulates a definition of religion that requires her silence? Why should she accept the secularist’s limitations on her religious liberty based on what appears to many of us as a capricious and politically convenient understanding of “religion”? If Romney commits the Kennedy Mistake, it would give tacit permission to secularists to call into question the political legitimacy of not only Romney’s fellow religionists (including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid) but also conservative Catholics and evangelicals.

Then he wraps up his discussion with this conclusion:

If one does not support Romney’s candidacy, it should not be because he is a Mormon. It should be because one has good reason to believe he is not the best candidate for the office. That is the message of Hewitt’s book. It is one that would resonate with Martin Luther, who once tersely said, “I’d rather be ruled by a competent Turk than an incompetent Christian.”


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