Reason, Religion and Fear

In 1960 John Kennedy went to Texas to talk to some Protestant pastors about what it means to be a Catholic. They were mostly Democrats but the reception was not a warm one, the reason being they were also white, male, conservative and on the brink of an historic political transformation.

People say passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act cost the Democrats the South but Kennedy's encounter in Houston may be seen as the real starting point of the realignment, based as much on religion and culture as on race, that forged the politics of late 20th century America.

To Southerners, Kennedy was an exotic. In his cool and cultured gaze was something even scarier than an alien theology: the future. He called America to a new frontier but Texans liked the old frontier, and the Old South. Eight weeks later many of the ministers voted for Nixon. Twelve years later, they all did.

I saw the speech recently on C-span. It's a remarkable artifact, as close to the bone as Kennedy ever got on film. In a lions' den of doubters, he talked about the separation of church and state and fielded fierce questions.

No one asked Kennedy about transubstantiation or why he ate fish on Fridays. He faced only two questions, phrased in various ways: would the Pope or some Cardinal tell him what to do? Would his government favor Catholics?

Fair questions, given the Church's keen interest in politics. You may recall the Holy Roman Empire; or more recent battles in Ireland over divorce and contraception; or in Latin America over social justice. Kennedy promised to be his own man and to respect all faiths.

Recently Mitt Romney went to Texas to talk to some Protestant politicians about what it means to be a Mormon, or so we thought. His speech mirrored Kennedy's in many particulars, but not in its purpose.

Romney's rich, handsome and smart but lacks Kennedy's wit and ease. He can seem patrician and superficial, even robotic, as if George Hamilton had gone to Choate. Though his audience was handpicked by his campaign he took no questions. He barely mentioned Mormonism, explaining that to do so would make him a spokesperson of his faith and thus violate the spirit of the Constitution.

Mormons have a number of striking beliefs; that American Indians are the lost tribes of Israel; that Jesus visited them here after he died and will meet up with them in Missouri at the end of the world; that God was once a man and lives in a distant solar system; that believers may become gods and rule other planets.

None of it is any of my business. It's amazing the people you meet who think every story but theirs is ridiculous. Some believe in the virgin birth and others in a heaven full of virgins. My own faith must strike some as odd, including especially the notion that anyone but me cares about my salvation.

But Latter Day Saints, like Catholics, take an interest in politics. The first Mormon to run for president was Joseph Smith, the first Mormon. From the start, his relations with government were rocky, even hostile. Vigilantes killed him before he had a chance to show the seriousness of his candidacy.

Some Mormon literature foresees the collapse of government. Mormon scripture foretells Mormon rule of North America and the world. How do Romney and other current Mormon leaders view these matters? I don't know.

I do know that when theology crosses over into politics, it's okay to ask.

We live in a time in which people with strong opinions about the end of time can influence foreign policy. It's fair to ask Romney the questions put to Kennedy: will your faith conflict with your duty? Will others, even non believers get a fair shake? Romney says separation of Church and state has gone too far. Inquiring minds want to know: What exactly does he find excessive?

Romney stands out even among politicians for the number and significance of positions switched; abortion, civil unions, assault weapons. Perhaps we needn't fear his over-devotion to any idea, political or religious. But whether he's too devoted to faith or too little devoted to the constitution the concern's the same; that one who offloads Roe v. Wade so casually might not have a bottom line.

Kennedy reassured evangelicals that though his faith was different from theirs he'd never impose it. Romney told them his faith wasn't so different and that in any event he'd be happy to help impose theirs. He dodged questions not out of respect for the constitution but out of fear that doctrinal differences would be too hard to bridge.

Kennedy bet on progress, reason and the constitution, in part because he had to. These ideals were overthrown by his death, by war and racial unease and by the inevitable dislocations of progress, among other things.

We've lived ever since in the chokehold of a backward politics that subverts democracy and religion and turns us against science and the world. There are signs everywhere that we're leaving this politics behind, in part because we have to. But Romney doesn't see them.

In the '60s Romney had the distinction of being the rare young man whose dad turned against the war before he did. As governor he seemed more modern, perhaps even the man to help his party face the future. Instead he bet heavily on the past, due almost certainly to miscalculation rather than conviction.

Kennedy couldn't know that the future he ceaselessly pondered would be lost to the atavism and fear he met in Houston. A half century later Romney mimics Kennedy's style but Mitt Romney, it turns out, is no Jack Kennedy. He peddles fear in the guise of reason, pretending to take refuge in the Constitution as he goes about his real business of subverting it. His pandering speech was but the bookend of an era.