JFK and Romney: Pinheads and the angel count
Religion is a subject about which most everyone harbors some kind of conviction. Consequently, there is always the risk of offending someone for failure to be flattering enough to their particular brand of faith or for being overly enthusiastic about some other religion. Nevertheless, the religious similarities between Senator John F. Kennedy’s race for the White House in 1960 and that of former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney in 2007 are too obvious to be ignored.
Senator Kennedy had a number of obstacles to overcome: If elected, he would be the youngest person to take office as President of the United States. The pro-Kennedy, Jewish comedian, Mort Saul, made light of Kennedy’s youth by citing Isaiah 11:1-6 where it says, “…and a little child shall lead them.”
Historically, Congress was not the launching pad of successful presidential campaigns. Moreover, young Kennedy was viewed by some as the rich, playboy son of a philandering, millionaire father whose fortune was founded on Prohibition-era boot-legging and whose anti-Semitic, pro-Hitler sympathies forced President Franklin D. Roosevelt to recall him from his pre-World War II post as U.S. Ambassador to the United Kingdom.
But the largest hurdle John F. Kennedy had to overcome was his Roman Catholicism. Bible-belt Protestants worried about a President who might “take his orders directly from the Pope in Rome.” Bible-thumping preachers across the Deep South reminded their flocks about the abuses of Indulgences that led to the Protestant Reformation.
To some Protestants, the elevation of a Roman Catholic to the White House would mean the refutation of the Protestants who had fought against the armies of the Pope in the Thirty Years War that devastated Western Europe from North to South.
Even today, perceptive tourists sometimes note how upscale German homes are often surrounded by high walls and how the windows are protected by “rolladen,” those slatted, window coverings that roll down at night to form an almost impenetrable barrier. The walls and the rolladen are architectural details left over from the Thirty Years War – a time when the Protestant armies of the King of Sweden battled the armies of the Catholic nations and both laid waste to Germany over and over again.
Kennedy’s Catholic problem was lessened slightly because Richard Nixon had been raised as a Quaker – hardly your mainstream Protestant religion. Although Richard Nixon served honorably as a naval officer in the Pacific during World War II, some viewed the pacifism of Quakers and the insistence by some Quakers on Conscientious Objector status as a negative reflection on Richard Nixon. Thus, the presidential politics of 1960 were rife with religious overtones and undertones.
Roman Catholics turned out in droves to help JFK win the Democratic presidential nomination. Still, to win the general election, Kennedy knew he had to face the taking-orders-from-the-Pope-in-Rome issue head-on.
Speaking in Houston, Texas -- in the heart of the Bible Belt -- Kennedy told a group of Protestant ministers that while Catholicism was his personal religion, his religion would not govern his decisions as President. There would be no Pope-to-President pipeline.
Recently, and taking a page from JFK’s book, GOP presidential hopeful, Mitt Romney, assembled a group of Evangelical Protestants in College Station, Texas, and told them that his Mormon faith was personal. Moreover, Romney would not be taking his orders from Salt Lake City. Whether Romney’s 2007 pledge will have the same positive impact on the Christian Right as did the statement made by John F. Kennedy in 1960 remains to be seen.
Recent polling data suggest today’s voters prefer elected officials with some form of religious conviction. Especially popular with voters are: the 7th Commandment (Do not commit adultery) and the 8th Commandment (Do not Steal).
So, by November, how the candidates actually live their lives may matter more than how many angels can dance on the head of a theological pin.
William Hamilton is a syndicated columnist and featured commentator for USA Today. Writing as William Penn, he and his wife, Penny, are the co-authors of The Grand Conspiracy and The Panama Conspiracy – two thrillers about terrorism directed against the United States.
©2007. William Hamilton.