Romney unlikely to have true `JFK moment'

Thoughts Of Faith

December 06, 2007|By David Domke and Kevin Coe

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney will address the nation today about his Mormon faith and how it relates to his candidacy and policy goals. Many are calling it his "JFK moment."

In September 1960, John F. Kennedy traveled to Houston to speak to conservative Protestant clergy about the relationship between his Catholicism and his politics. In that speech, Mr. Kennedy declared: "I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute," and, "I believe in a president whose views on religion are his own private affair."

If Mr. Romney delivers a similar speech, it will be good for the nation. But it almost certainly will end his presidential hopes.

Many of the men who founded the United States were devoutly religious, yet they were also eminently aware of the dangers of faith-driven politics. They were only an ocean removed from the religious violence that had plagued Europe for centuries - the very strife that had compelled their ancestors to seek a new world.

That's why the Constitution doesn't include a single mention of God and includes a Bill of Rights that begins with a guarantee that Congress can neither establish religion nor prohibit its free exercise. The Founders understood that in getting down to the business of governing, of creating policy and keeping democracy vital, citizens do well to keep religious doctrines at a distance. This vision is at serious risk today.

In recent decades, conservative Christian evangelicals and Catholics - the two groups at odds in the 1960 election - have found common ground. These voters increasingly seek candidates whose faith infuses their politics. Out is a wall of separation; in is a "bridge between church and state" that George W. Bush - a favorite of these voters - offered early in his presidency.

The turning point came in 1980. Four years earlier, Jimmy Carter made his Southern Baptist faith a centerpiece of his presidential campaign. Once in the White House, however, Mr. Carter's strict separation of church and state and moderate policies - the JFK approach - disappointed the growing religious conservative movement.

Ronald Reagan responded with what we call the "God strategy": a political voice and agenda that is primarily secularized, but that finds opportunities to signal sympathy for religious conservatives' views. This tactic was stunningly successful in 1980, and subsequent presidents have followed suit.

On average, presidents from Franklin D. Roosevelt - the beginning of the modern presidency - to Mr. Carter mentioned God in fewer than half of their major addresses. In contrast, Mr. Reagan, George H. W. Bush, Mr. Clinton and President Bush (through year six) all did so in more than 90 percent of theirs. Further, the total number of references to God in the average presidential speech since 1981 was an astounding 120 percent higher than the average speech from 1933 to 1980.

Religious terms, such as "faith," "pray," "sacred," "worship" and "crusade," increased by 60 percent.

Presidential requests for divine favor also show a profound shift. "God bless America," now the signature tagline of American politics, gained ubiquity in the 1980s.

Wherever we look, whatever we measure, our analysis points to the same conclusion: Mr. Romney faces religious politics far beyond anything Mr. Kennedy knew.

All the more reason to hope that Mr. Romney does indeed have a JFK moment today. But remember, like JFK, he wants to win - so don't count on it.

David Domke and Kevin Coe are authors of "The God Strategy: How Religion Became a Political Weapon in America."

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