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Romney better pray he can be Jimmy Carter

December 05, 2007|Kenneth S. Baer | Kenneth S. Baer, the author of "Reinventing Democrats: The Politics of Liberalism from Reagan to Clinton," is a founder and editor of Democracy: A Journal of Ideas.

On Thursday, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney is headed to Texas to deliver a speech on "Faith in America" in order to dispel reservations voters may have about electing a Mormon president.

While this clearly echoes the famous address that his fellow Bay Stater, John F. Kennedy, gave on Sept. 12, 1960, to the Greater Houston Ministerial Assn., Romney was adamant to reporters this week that "I'm not gonna be giving a JFK speech."

And he shouldn't.

Romney doesn't need to do a JFK. He needs to do a Jimmy Carter. After all, Kennedy ran away from his religion. Carter ran on it, using his religious belief -- he was the first "born again" president -- as a selling point. But as Carter's experience demonstrates, trying to be the candidate of faith, without being tied by voters to a particular faith, is a very hard course to navigate and must be done carefully.

The questions Romney is facing about his Mormonism pale in comparison to what Kennedy faced. Immediately after JFK's nomination, the Alabama and Texas Baptist conventions, the National Assn. of Evangelicals and the president of the Southern Baptist Convention all came out against the idea of a Catholic president. Then, on Sept. 7, 1960, a group of 150 conservative Protestant leaders issued a statement reading, "It is inconceivable that a Roman Catholic president would not be under extreme pressure by the hierarchy of his church to accede to its policies."

Five days later, Kennedy went to Houston to silence his critics.

In his speech, Kennedy made it clear that he not only believed in a high wall between church and state but that there also was a high wall between his private religious faith and his public action. "I do not speak for my church on public matters -- and the church does not speak for me," he said. Kennedy mentioned his opposition to two of Catholic America's biggest policy priorities: federal aid to parochial schools and the appointment of an ambassador to the Vatican. Kennedy wasn't asking voters to see his faith as a plus or a minus but as a nonissue. "I am not the Catholic candidate for president," he said. "I am the Democratic Party's candidate for president who happens also to be a Catholic."

Kennedy's strategy worked, but it's not the right approach for Romney. Unlike JFK, Romney doesn't want to entirely change the subject. Appealing to social conservatives as a God-fearing, churchgoing family man is an essential part of his strategy to win over primary voters skeptical of his previous support for abortion rights and his Massachusetts mailing address. Rather, Romney has to turn the potential liability of his Mormonism into a selling point -- just as Carter (another one-term governor-turned-presidential candidate) did with his faith in 1976.

Campaigning in the wake of Watergate, Carter used his religious belief to underscore his campaign's central promise: "I will never lie to you." He talked about the joy of attending church, and he welcomed reporters to the Sunday school classes he taught. Coming across as a picture of rectitude helped Carter in his race against Gerald Ford, the president who had pardoned Richard Nixon. And being a Southern born-again Christian undoubtedly helped Carter carry every Southern state except Virginia. Carter's strategy, though it was extremely different from Kennedy's, worked as well.

Of course, not all voters were so happy about Carter's faith, and how he handled the issue should also serve as a warning to Romney.

Despite the mainstream Democratic stances he took on social issues, some saw in Carter's born-again faith an implicit anti-Catholicism and anti-Semitism. Others had questions about how his religious beliefs might affect his judgment as president. "What's really troubling is the implication that evangelical principles can solve social, economic and international perplexities," said Arthur Schlesinger Jr., the historian and former aide to President Kennedy.

To silence any suspicions, especially among nonreligious and younger voters, that he might be too pious for the job, Carter agreed to a five-hour interview with Playboy magazine. Trying to dispel a holier-than-thou image, Carter explained that he too had sinned. "I've looked on a lot of women with lust," he said. "I've committed adultery in my heart many times." To an evangelical audience, this made perfect theological sense. To others, however, it merely sounded bizarre.

Although the odds of Romney meeting with Playboy are about the same of his posing for it, Carter's interview is instructive.

By being drawn into a long conversation about his faith, Carter ended up at a level of detail that seemed strange to the nonbeliever. And by trying too hard to appeal to his skeptics -- Playboy is hardly popular reading among devout Christians -- Carter came across as phony. Add in his use of such colloquialisms as "shacks up" and Carter alienate not only secular voters but some conservatives as well.

On Thursday, Romney is going to face similar choices. If he downplays the differences between his Mormon beliefs and those of other Christians, or between what he believes and what his church professes, he risks coming across as inauthentic (as Carter did when he talked about shacking up) or as someone not that serious about his own faith (like Kennedy). Either outcome could undermine Romney's attempt to win over Republican social conservatives. Running away from his faith simply will not work.

Ultimately, one hopes that a candidate's religious beliefs wouldn't matter in selecting a president. But if Romney wants to win the GOP nomination by winning over religious voters, he better hope that he looks like Kennedy but sounds more like Carter.

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