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Press preys on wrong question

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The American press habitually handles stories involving religion with all the dexterity of a surgeon wearing mittens. Still, it was hard to read this week’s accounts of religion’s role in the race for the Republican presidential nomination without feeling that some unseen and clumsy hand had sent us all stumbling right through the looking glass.

Start with the fact that nearly all this week’s political coverage focused on former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and the speech he gave in Texas on Thursday, asking voters not to reject his candidacy because he’s a Mormon. Much of the media response to that address was built on superficial, mostly misleading comparisons to John F. Kennedy’s landmark 1960 address before Protestant clergymen hostile to his Catholicism. What was missing was any discussion of the numerous and very legitimate questions that ought to be asked about religion and the candidacy of former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, whose surging popularity in Iowa sent Romney to the podium in the first place.

Romney, after all, simply does what most religiously affiliated Americans do; he practices the faith into which he was born. Huckabee, by contrast, is a Baptist minister. Has the notion of distinct temporal and spiritual spheres -- each with its proper concerns and distinct competency -- really been so utterly obliterated that the political press simply shrugs at this? Doesn’t anybody think it’s worth asking whether it’s proper or even desirable for a clergyman to occupy the White House?

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One of the suspicions Romney was forced to address was the notion that, as a Mormon chief executive, he would be compelled to accept direction from his church’s leaders, even if it means acting in ways contrary to the nation’s interest. In other words, some ancient Mormon elder in Salt Lake City is going to pick up the telephone and order President Romney to do something kooky. Huckabee, by contrast, already believes kooky things for religious reasons -- in things like creationism, which he thinks should be taught in the public schools. Doesn’t anybody thing it’s worth asking whether a nation fighting to remain technologically competitive can afford a president who -- for religious reasons -- wants to encourage as many children as possible to join him in scientific illiteracy?

Then there’s the issue of the Iowa campaign ads in which Huckabee declares he is “the Christian candidate.” We’re all sophisticated enough to understand that’s a not-so-subtle way of saying that, as a Mormon, Romney isn’t a Christian in the eyes of most evangelicals. However, neither are Catholics, Unitarians or Quakers, let alone Jews, Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus, Bahais or -- God help them -- the despised atheists. That’s the thing about religious bigotry -- and the ad is nothing less -- once it is set loose, like the angel of death, it has a logic of its own. Surely, somebody in the national campaign press corps must think this is an issue worth raising with the avuncular Arkansas pastor?

Obviously not, and that sort of institutional blindness to what is at stake in the current struggle over religion and politics made it all but inevitable that Romney’s address Thursday would be misunderstood by much of the media. First of all, it was nothing like Kennedy’s storied speech in setting, intention or content.

Kennedy was straightforward; Romney was clever.

Kennedy spoke to a hostile audience of Protestant clergymen and took their questions afterward; Romney spoke to a hand-picked crowd at a Republican presidential library and took no questions.

Kennedy defended -- indeed, insisted on -- separation of church and state; Romney simply asked that what is essentially a religious test for office be expanded to include his religion.

Kennedy and his advisors sought the advice of one of American-style religious liberty’s foremost defenders -- the great Jesuit theologian John Courtney Murray; Romney sought the counsel of political handlers skilled in stage managing the religious right.

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Much of consequence flows from that difference. Murray, who later would have a hand in writing the Second Vatican Council’s epochal declaration on religious liberty, argued that the West’s Anglo-American political tradition had given rise to a deep new appreciation of human dignity, one that required individual believers to take autonomous responsibility for their religious beliefs independent of the state. The benefits of this autonomy, Murray said, were so evident that they reflected an “intention of nature,” a new truth of natural law.

Thus Kennedy, who used the word Catholic 14 times in his speech, could tell the ministers: “I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute -- where no Catholic prelate would tell the president (should he be Catholic) how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote -- where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference -- and where no man is denied public office merely because his religion differs from the president who might appoint him or the people who might elect him. . . . If I should lose on the real issues, I shall return to my seat in the Senate, satisfied that I had tried my best and was fairly judged. But if this election is decided on the basis that 40 million Americans lost their chance of being president on the day they were baptized, then it is the whole nation that will be the loser, in the eyes of Catholics and non-Catholics around the world, in the eyes of history, and in the eyes of our own people.”

Kennedy pointed out that, as a member of Congress, he had opposed government aid to parochial schools or even the appointment of an ambassador to the Vatican. He argued that apprehension over his religion was obscuring “far more critical issues in the 1960 election: the spread of Communist influence . . . the hungry children I saw in West Virginia, the old people who cannot pay their doctor bills, the families forced to give up their farms -- an America with too many slums, with too few schools.”

Romney, who used the word Mormon only once, told his audience: “In recent years, the notion of the separation of church and state has been taken by some well beyond its original meaning. They seek to remove from the public domain any acknowledgment of God. Religion is seen as merely a private affair with no place in public life. It is as if they are intent on establishing a new religion in America -- the religion of secularism.”

(It’s a little hard to figure out who these scheming secularists really are: While polls show that just one in four Americans say they are less likely to vote for a Mormon, 61% say they won’t vote for an atheist.)

Romney was quick to agree that it’s “appropriate” to question candidates about their religious beliefs, and assured his audience that he regards Jesus as the savior of the world.

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Well, that takes care of things. It would have been refreshing if at least some of the analysis of the former Massachusetts governor’s address had pointed out that it was not, as billed, a speech about religious liberty. It was, beginning to end, an appeal to a single GOP constituency, the evangelical right, which now applies a religious test for office. Unlike Kennedy, Romney doesn’t have any problem with such a test -- he just wants it graded on a steep enough curve to include Mormons.

Good luck with that.

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timothy.rutten@latimes.com

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