Thursday, March 22, 2007

Should Romney follow Kennedy’s speech?

Bruce Wilson thinks so. Wilson, previously a self described protestant and now a converted Mormon, writes in the Baltimore Sun that Romney should follow JFK’s speech proclaiming separation of church and personal politics:

If a candidate truly believes in a church, its principles are likely to be the most fundamental building blocks of that person's character. And personal character is always one of the key attributes voters should consider when electing a president. Thus, it seems obvious that voters should try to ascertain both the depth of a candidate's faith and the primary principles of that faith.

But as Mr. Kennedy discovered in 1960, members of other faiths who have an ax to grind are more than willing to fill the vacuum, turning theological molehills into mountains of misconception…Mr. Romney should guard against misinformation defining his faith by speaking openly about it when asked.
The topic of whether Romney should make a grand pronouncement of independence from his church on the subject of national politics has been one that has perplexed me. As Wilson describes, there is a lot of bad information about the LDS Church out there and it will certainly play a role in Romney’s campaign. On the other hand, talking openly, as Wilson advocates, about Romney’s faith invites more questions and emphasis to be put on religious theology than political philosophy.

So what are the benefits versus the detriments of making such a Kennedyan speech? The expected benefit of such a speech is that the religious obstacle will be removed for voters who would not otherwise consider Romney. This argument assumes that the religious barrier for Romney is the same as it was for Kennedy. While not being an expert in the Kennedy campaign or politics at the time, the obstacle for Kennedy was that he would not exercise independence from Catholic leadership. This seems a different point than the one that confronts Romney. It is not his independence that is questioned (while there have been traces of that), but the substance of LDS religious practices and doctrines. To overcome the charge facing Kennedy he proclaimed independence in the political sphere. How does Romney overcome fears about LDS doctrines? He cannot easily proclaim independence from them as Kennedy could quell fears about political independence. Perhaps I have mis-framed the issue, but it seems a tough speech to make.

On the other hand, it could be that by making a speech like Kennedy, Romney would end the questions asked to him about his faith. This would be a significant benefit to Romney by being able to focus on the political issues. He would be freer to quickly direct religious questions to church leaders and focus his message on politics.

I believe, however, that Romney is better off not making a speech about the role of religion in his candidacy. While Wilson makes the point that religion is central to character and should therefore be explored, I think that character is inferred from the way that a candidate speaks and acts. The religious principles that underlie that behavior and speech are less important than the result. By injecting religion into character Romney runs the significant risk of having the LDS standards of behavior (as much as I believe in them) become more important than Romney’s actual behavior. No, I think that emphasizing the commonalities that Romney has with people of other faiths is the right direction. It gives voters the more palatable choice of accepting Romney alone without having to swallow the entire LDS Church as a whole. I think that making a Kennedy-like speech forces voters to make a much bigger leap than Romney alone presents.

In sum, I think that Romney has chosen the right path so far, emphasizing the things that he has in common with voters and allowing them to make their judgment of him be based on politics and not religion. Indeed, it allows Romney to sell his personal accomplishments and qualities, which I believe are presidential.

Labels: , , ,


Post a Comment

<< Home