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Religion and Public Life: Why It's a Smart Choice for Presidential Candidate and Governor Mitt Romney to Specifically Address the Topic of His Faith


Wednesday, Dec. 05, 2007

MittRomney has decided to address the topic of his faith - and he is wise to do so, for rather than being any kind of disability, Romney's faith is actually his greatest strength. It defines him as a person of integrity in interpersonal dealings, of service to the nation and community, and of fidelity to his family. These are things that cannot be said about every candidate in the race.

Indeed, it is the faith factor in the Romney biography that accounts for much of his great achievement. As a constitutional law advisor to the Governor, I know well the need for the separation of church and state, yet I applaud and support Romney's decision to discuss his faith, for it is truly relevant to his qualifications to serve.

Why Romney's Faith Is His Greatest Strength

For example, it was the Mormon faith and Romney's reputation for square dealing that attracted serious investors back to the Olympics that, before Romney's arrival, had been soured by corruption and malfeasance. Surely, a reputation for honesty and square dealing will also be precisely what the next president of the United States needs to reassure a world that, for various reasons, is skeptical of whether America intends to stand by her international commitments, be they against terrorism or torture.

Of course, the public will have to judge for itself regarding Governor Romney's service to his nation and community, but many concede that his religious perspective allowed him to be a fair-minded conservative Governor of the usually quite liberal Massachusetts. And if there's one thing no Mormon ever need be bashful about, it's love of family. Listen to any Romney campaign presentation, and you will be immediately struck for his appreciation for the family as the basis of a well-ordered society. Romney's commitments to expanding health care coverage, improving the education of children, and reducing violent crime are all hinged upon his faith-inspired desire to strengthen the family.

Romney's faith is also the best refutation of the flip-flopper indictment. Being a member of a faith that is constantly under public scrutiny necessarily invites one to check one's presuppositions at the door. Romney's thoroughness and probity stand in welcome contrast to the allegations of closed-mindedness, partisanship, or unbecoming behavior that has enfeebled recent administrations. No one interacting with the Governor can fail to perceive how his legal and business training, and the fact that he is a member of what was - and sometimes still is -- a persecuted religion, has caused him to be open to truly hear and consider opposing points of view.

A Key Analogy: Is Mitt Romney the New John F. Kennedy?

Many will compare Romney's presentation to that of JFK. As a Catholic and the former Dean of the Catholic Law School in America, I know that this is a comparisonthat is very important to get right. Notwithstanding my time as constitutional legal counsel to President Reagan, my first exposure to politics as a child was in helping my father (who had a small role in Democratic Party politics in Chicago) campaign for John F. Kennedy.

There is no question but that the speech Kennedy gave in Houston helped him defuse religious antagonism. It was eloquently delivered and managed, without anger or condescension, to simultaneously honor and shame his Protestant audience. Kennedy reminded the Baptist ministers that religious prejudice cut deeply against their better selves. Most importantly, the speech conveyed clearly and correctly that the offensive and unwarranted focus on Kennedy's private choice of faith was distracting voters from a full discussion of the public issues of the day, just as the same kind of focus does today with respect to Romney.

Kennedy, however, had a special burden that Romney does not bear.Catholicism, prior to the Second Vatican Council, saw itself as entitled to be recognized as a state religion. Later, however, the teaching of the Church would change to better mesh with American democracy, rather than the systems of the more familiar European capitals. Catholicism still maintains that it is the "one true catholic and apostolic faith," but after 1964, the church also made clear that this conclusion must be one that is arrived at without coercion of any kind. As Kennedy was running in 1960, not 1964, he had to make the case for religious freedom before his church was prepared to put it writing. That was a tall order, and Kennedy managed it reasonably -- though not perfectly. Most importantly, Kennedy made it clear that in presidential decision-making, he would not be taking instruction from the fathers of the Church. That is as it should be. What was uncomfortable, however, was Kennedy's suggestion that his faith could somehow be separated from his most important life commitments, from caring about the less advantaged to pressing forward on civil rights. Romney, unlike Kennedy, should not hide the virtues of his faith under a bushel.

The Mormon Church has never claimed that it is entitled to be an established faith of the United States. Moreover, there is no sense in which the Mormon Church could be said, through its leadership, to be seeking to control public decision-making. Indeed, quite the opposite, it would be entirely appropriate for Governor Romney to point out that his faith has been a persecuted faith.

Indeed, this is the story of the founding prophet of the Mormon Church, Joseph Smith. Religious hatred then and now kills the spirit and the community that is the inspiration for human achievement - and in Joseph Smith's case, quite literally, kills the body too. The founding American Mormon prophet was murdered in a jail outside Nauvoo, Illinois, even though Smith and his fellow Mormons had been responsible for making that community the largest city in Illinois at the time (even larger than Chicago), and a thriving commercial port on the Mississippi River.

Why Romney's Faith Should Strengthen His Candidacy

By asking the American voter to respect his faith choice, Romney will be reminding us of the importance of valuing men and women simply because humanity warrants that respect.

An ideology that only respects those who subscribe to a favored, imposed religious belief is an ideology that fuels the hatreds and mindless slaughter we associate with Al Qaeda, not America. The ideology that allows hatred to kill another person's prophet or religious leader is an ideology that is foreign to a Constitution of the United States that guarantees everyone access to public office without regard to religious test or oath.

Governor Romney is calling America to its better self. Whether the speech he will make about his faith ultimately benefits the Governor as a candidate will depend more upon us than on him -- that is, upon whether we are prepared to judge a person not by the religious book he reads, or by how often he calls himself a Christian leader, but rather by the quality of his words and his work.

Douglas W. Kmiec is Chair and Professor of Constitutional Law at Pepperdine University, and a volunteer Constitutional advisor to Governor Romney. Previously, he served as a constitutional legal counsel to President Reagan.

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