Christianity and Politics: Kennedy and Romney
W. Robert Godfrey
When Jesus was accused of challenging Roman authority in Israel, he told Pilate: “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36). The essence of Christianity is apolitical. It is about Jesus creating a new people: forgiven, renewed and promised eternal life. Nevertheless from the beginning Christians have found that their religion has implications for their relationships with their governments. In the early years Christians were persecuted by Romans for being part of an illegal religion. Then in the fourth century in the Roman Empire, Christianity became first a legal, favored religion and then the official religion. That favored status continued in the west for over a millennium and a half. From the eighteenth century on Christianity gradually became disestablished and Christians have faced the difficult adjustment to declining cultural influence and to a dominant relativism that treats their exclusivist faith with amusement, disdain, or fear.
The emerging disestablishment of Christianity has produced both broad issues of adjustment as well as specific challenges. One of the most important specific challenges for Protestant Christians in America in the twentieth century was the nomination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, a Roman Catholic, to run as the Democratic candidate for president of the United States. Although America had around forty million Roman Catholic citizens, its history and ethos were decidedly Protestant. Even to the present day, Kennedy is the only non-Protestant ever elected president.
Kennedy faced several problems on his way to the presidency according to Robert Dallek: the excessively moderate character of his politics according to some liberals in the Democratic party, the influence of his father, and his Roman Catholicism. Dallek wrote: “Joe Kennedy’s reputation as a robber baron and prewar appeaser of Nazi Germany also troubled liberals. And, despite numerous examples of political divergence between father and son, they saw Jack as little more than a surrogate for Joe, whom they believed to have been planning to buy the White House for one of his children since at least 1940” (Robert Dallek, An Unfinished Life, John F. Kennedy [New York: Back Bay Books, 2003], 232f).
According to Dallek, of the three problems the most “discouraging to Jack was the persistence of the country’s irrational anti-Catholicism” (Dallek, 246). For many Protestants their antipathy to Roman Catholicism rested in part in their conviction that Romanism was a false religion. No doubt some of their fear was irrational, but some rested in a serious question about the allegiance of a Roman Catholic to America on the one hand and to the pope as a religious and political authority on the other.
In the course of the campaign Kennedy recognized the need to address the fears of Protestants about a Roman Catholic president straightforwardly. He met with a number of Protestant ministers in Houston, Texas on September 12, 1960, less than two months before the election.
Ironically Kennedy’s Roman Catholic convictions were so vague that he needed to engage a Roman Catholic theologian as a consultant to prepare for the meeting (Dallek, 283). His key statement in that speech which relieved the minds of many Protestant ministers was this: “…the separation of church and state is absolute….I believe in a President whose views on religion are his own private affair….I am not the Catholic candidate for President. I am the Democratic Party’s candidate for President, who happens to be a Catholic. I do not speak for the church on public matters – and the church does not speak for me….If the time should ever come…when my office would require me to either violate my conscience, or violate the national interest, then I would resign the office, and I would hope that any other conscientious public servant would do likewise” (Dallek, 284). This declaration seemed to help Kennedy a great deal in the campaign.
Nevertheless Kennedy’s religion had a major impact on the 1960 election. Although most pundits expected Kennedy to get between 52 and 57% of the vote, he actually received only 49.7% of the popular vote (Dallek, 294). Why were they so wrong? Robert Dallek concluded, “What they missed was the unyielding fear of having a Catholic in the White House” (Dallek, 296).
Even after the election concern about the influence of his father and of the Roman Catholic Church continued, especially in staunch Republican circles. One joke of the era captured that concern. The joke went this way: Jack and Jackie were sitting together in the White House when the telephone rang. Jack answered the phone and all he said was, “Yes, Father. Of course, Father. Anything you say, Father. Immediately, Father.” When he hung up, Jackie asked: “Home or Rome?”
The situation of 1960 seems remarkably distant today. Protestantism both as a religious and as a cultural force seems splintered, disestablished, and diminished. Evangelicals and Pentecostals outnumber mainline Protestants. For the first time in the history of the Republic no Protestants sit on the Supreme Court. Most conservative Protestants seem to see Roman Catholics as cultural allies rather than potential or actual agents of a foreign power.
Today, however, a somewhat parallel religious situation to that of the 1960s has arisen in relation to the candidacy of Mitt Romney for the Republican nomination for president. Romney is part of a family which has long been prominent in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (the Mormons). His father, George Romney, was not only an influential Republican politician, but rose to a high office in his church. He was a patriarch and a regional representative of the twelve apostles.
In a recent article, “A religious ‘test’ for Mitt Romney,” which appeared in the Los Angeles Times (June 1, 2011), Tim Rutten came to the defense of Romney against “theocratically inclined” Evangelicals and Roman Catholics. In particular Rutten criticized Warren Cole Smith, an editor at The World magazine, for writing of Romney: “I believe a candidate who either by intent or effect promotes a false and dangerous religion is unfit to serve.” Bad religion must lead to bad policy.
Rutten rejected such a notion by appealing to Article 6 of the Constitution: “No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.” Rutten seems fundamentally to misunderstand this article, however. The point of Article 6 is to prohibit any government-imposed religious test for political office. Certainly the article in no way suggests that citizens may not consider religion in evaluating a candidate.
Despite the problems in his article, Rutten does highlight a very important question: should Evangelical Christians refuse to vote for Romney simply because he is a Mormon? If false religion disqualifies for office, then may Evangelicals only vote for Evangelicals? Surely Evangelicals are likely to come to various conclusions about the complex question of the relationship between belief and policy, but few would agree that they should never vote for anyone other than a fellow Evangelical.
In all of the discussions of Romney’s religion I have yet to hear anyone ask the most critical question for a Mormon seeking the presidency: How will he relate to the prophet in his church? As Kennedy had to explain his relationship to the pope, so Romney should explain his relationship to the prophet of the Mormon church.
Romney is not a nominal or uninformed member of his church. He has had a prominent place in distinguished gatherings of his church and must know well the teaching of his church on the role of the prophet. The prophet receives direct revelations from God that are the very word of God to his people. The prophet stands at the top of a theocratic hierarchy in comparison with which the pope has limited powers indeed. Surely the American people should expect from Romney as clear a statement of his independence from his prophet in his politics as Kennedy gave about his independence from the pope.
In the past, prophets have made pronouncements that could have had profound implications on public policy. Some prophets have taught the propriety and importance of polygamy while others have subsequently rejected polygamy. Some have taught the inferiority of blacks to whites while others have subsequently taught the equality of blacks and whites. No one can know what pronouncements prophets might make in the future. How would a devout Mormon president react to future prophetic revelations?
In the course of a presidential campaign the electorate will have ample opportunity to evaluate Romney’s values and proposed policies. What we foundationally need to hear is a clear statement of his relationship to the hierarchy of his church which often operates with a great deal of secrecy. Will his religious convictions and connections remain private or will they influence his conduct of office? We need to hear explicit answers to such questions. One of the critical functions of a free press must be to insist on answers to these basic questions. Regrettably so many secular reporters know so little about religious belief systems and so little of the history of religion in America, that they do not know what questions need to be asked. They usually think only of ensuring that religion should be a private matter. But in failing to understand the teachings of various religions, they fail to understand what is private and what is potentially public. Those who understand Mormonism must insist that Romney address the question of the prophet.