According to the shared wisdom of the punditocracy and the blogosphere, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney badly needed a "JFK moment" when he flew into College Station, Texas, to deliver a Dec. 6 speech on religious conviction and American democracy at the George H.W. Bush Presidential Library. But what, precisely, do we mean by a "JFK moment" on matters of church and state?
John F. Kennedy's speech to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association was a rhetorical and political success, in that it successfully defused the "Catholic issue" in the 1960 presidential sweepstakes. Yet no serious student of the centuries-long American debate on church and state regards the Kennedy speech as a significant substantive contribution to our national reflection on the endlessly interesting, endlessly complicated question of how religious conviction can (or should) shape a politician's public action. At Houston, JFK declared his faith a private matter which had had no public consequences on his legislative career and would have no impact on his performance as president. At Houston, John F. Kennedy won by changing the subject.
It remains to be seen whether Mitt Romney's speech is as politically effective as JFK's. But at College Station, Romney displayed a greater seriousness about the questions at issue than Kennedy did at Houston. And in doing that, Romney may actually have advanced the national conversation on religious conviction and public life. In a campaign season that all too typically involves the political manipulation of consumer passions by means of sound-bites and advertising, that would be no mean accomplishment.
Romney got a lot of things right at College Station. He displayed an impressive sense of just how deeply religiously informed moral conviction is woven into the fabric of American life. At the same time, he suggested that he recognizes other paths to moral truth that are not religious in character.
He got the American Founding right, suggesting that the Framers' prohibition of a national church--"no establishment"--was intended to foster the free exercise of religion, not to drive religion into a private sphere with no connection to public life. In doing so, Romney implicitly challenged a dominant strain in the Supreme Court's First Amendment jurisprudence since the late 1940s, a trend that has pitted "no establishment" against "free exercise." The result? "No establishment" becomes the overriding constitutional concern, with exceptions being carved out for certain kinds of "free exercise" from time to time.
Romney correctly pointed out that the alternative to today's maddeningly diverse, but democratically vibrant, plurality of religious voices in the American public square is not a neutral or naked public square, but the de facto establishment of secularism as the official national "creed." That process of "establishing" secularism is already well under way in Europe, at both the national and European Union levels; some would argue (not without reason) that Europe's soul-withering secularism has at least something to do with Europe's sclerotic democratic discourse. And Romney was very good in proposing that shared moral principles of human dignity and human equality can serve as a kind of public grammar, disciplining the public dialogue so that people of no faith and people of faith can engage in a civil conversation about the oughts of our public life.
The College Station speech was not without its clunkers. "Religion requires freedom" is, in one sense, true, in that coerced faith is no faith. But religious faith has flourished under harsh persecution, not least during the twentieth century (when more Christians died because of their convictions than in the previous nineteen centuries of Christian history combined). That "freedom requires religion," the obverse Romney assertion, was another clumsy formulation. A freedom that reduces to "my way" is, if course, no freedom, but simply license. And it is certainly true that biblical convictions about human nature, human community, and human destiny have shaped the freedom project in the United States and elsewhere. Still, great champions of the politics of freedom ranging from Thomas Jefferson to Winston Churchill have been "religious" in only a generic, even deistic, sense. Here, Romney's attempt at the kind of rhetorical parallelism that Ted Sorenson made a trademark of JFK's speeches ("Freedom requires religion just as religion requires freedom.") didn't quite come off, at either end of the proposition. (Memo to all presidential candidates and speechwriters: trying to imitate Sorenson is like trying to imitate H.L. Mencken; it can't be done. So don't do it.)
One might also raise questions about Romney's promise that no church "authorities," of any faith, "will ever exert influence on [my] presidential decisions." Well, yes, if by "exert influence" you mean "determine." But if by "influence" you mean "persuade," why should a President Romney, or any president, deny himself the counsel of the nation's religious leaders? And on the flip side of the coin, do religious authorities lose their rights as citizens to "petition the government" when they assume responsibility for their congregations? The point Romney was trying to make here is a crucial one: that there is a crucial distinction between political authority and spiritual authority in a just state. But Romney's formulation left something to be desired.
Another failed attempt at a Sorensonian parallelism was Romney's assertion that "No religion should dictate to the state nor should the state interfere with the free practice of religion." The second half of that claim is certainly true; but wasn't the Southern Christian Leadership Conference "dictating" to the state when it declared segregation and miscegenation laws a violation of both the Constitution and the moral law? We all understand--or should--that religious organizations ranging from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops to Focus on the Family to the Union of American Hebrew Congregations do not constitute a parallel government. Still, American public life would be much the poorer if religious organizations could not call the state to judgment when, in their conscientious reasoning, the state was acting unjustly.
These clunkers do not, however cancel or significantly detract from Romney's accomplishment. In the midst of some very high-stakes presidential politics, Mitt Romney gave eloquent expression to the conviction that the institutional separation of church and state does not, and cannot, mean the exile of religiously informed moral conviction from the American public square. By lifting up the grammar of shared moral convictions as the means by which all Americans can engage in the public conversation that is democracy's lifeblood, and by reminding us that the adventure of democracy involves far more than the contest of interests, Governor Romney did his country a genuine service--whatever the political consequences for his campaign.