Time's Nancy Gibbs praised John F. Kennedy in mid-May as the model of how Mitt Romney should respond to potential voters who have theological misgivings about his quest for the presidency. Now, in an issue of Time devoted to what America can learn from Kennedy's example, Gibbs commends the 35th president as the model for how any candidate should frame personal faith.
Gibbs laces her report with relevant facts and writes it elegantly, but she never quite establishes why J.F.K.'s model is so needed today, other than asserting that "Kennedy provided the case study for candidates ever since who have faced some version of the Religion Test."
What's important is that no candidate -- including Romney -- faces a test that's quite comparable to what Kennedy faced. Yes, some people have wondered about the extent that Romney's membership in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints might influence his decisions as president.
But I'm not aware of any Romney critics who have said of the LDS anything that compares to this from the president of the Southern Baptist Convention, remarking on Kennedy's candidacy: "All we ask is that Roman Catholicism lift its bloody hand from the throats of those that want to worship in the church of their choice."
Romney could, like Kennedy, make this promise that Gibbs reports: "If the time should ever come -- and I do not concede any conflict to be remotely possible -- when my office would require me to either violate my conscience or violate the national interest, then I would resign the office."
Such a promise would not, however, address the theological misgivings of evangelicals who worry about such things in a political context (I am not among them), or the anxieties of a Romney critic such as Jacob Weisberg, who has written:
There are millions of religious Americans who would never vote for an atheist for president, because they believe that faith is necessary to lead the country. Others, myself included, would not, under most imaginable circumstances, vote for a fanatic or fundamentalist -- a Hassidic Jew who regards Rabbi Menachem Schneerson as the Messiah, a Christian literalist who thinks that the Earth is less than 7,000 years old, or a Scientologist who thinks it is haunted by the souls of space aliens sent by the evil lord Xenu. Such views are disqualifying because they're dogmatic, irrational, and absurd. By holding them, someone indicates a basic failure to think for himself or see the world as it is.
I find it reassuring that American politics is not generally hobbled by the anti-Catholicism of the early 1960s or by Weisberg's facile equation of fundamentalism with fanaticism.
Kennedy's vanquishing of the anti-Catholics of his day is an inspiring story, to be sure. Most of the candidates in this race do not have to defeat similar spiritual prejudices. Romney is making clear that if he overcomes anti-Mormon prejudices, he will do it by some means other than delivering a "What J.F.K. Said" speech.