Michele Bachmann and John F. Kennedy have something in common. Both have come under intense scrutiny for their faith. Bachmann and her team should take a few cues from JFK.
In 1960, when Kennedy’s bid for the presidency was in full swing, people worried about his Catholicism. What would it mean to have a Catholic president? Would the Pope exercise infallible authority over political policies in Washington as well as doctrinal statements in Rome? Fear gripped more than one mind while the press made it the central issue of the day. However, the most pressing issue in fact was an economy that had been through two recessions in three years. Sound familiar?
Recently, Meet the Press host David Gregory appeared deeply concerned about Bachmann’s faith during his interview with her. Despite the fact that she had just hours earlier made news winning the Iowa straw poll, over half of his questions concerned her religious convictions; over half! Gregory’s tone nonverbally communicated, “Can we trust a religious kook who claims to hear from God to be president?”
Gregory asked: “Does your relationship with God mean that you take cues from God for decisions that you make and that you would make as president?” and “Would God guide your decisions that you would make as President of the United States?” He seemed shocked that Bachmann may actually seek God’s guidance as president, saying, “There’s a difference between God as a sense of comfort and safe harbor and inspiration, and God telling you to take a particular action.”
The fair observer would have to admit that Bachmann’s response was clear and uncompromising: “As president of the United States, I would pray and ask the Lord for guidance. That’s what presidents have done throughout history. I think that it’s important for us to seek his guidance and to pray and to listen to his voice.”
Since when did religious faith become merely a matter of consolation, inspiration and “safe harbor”? What about obedience, sacrifice and wisdom? While faith comforts; it also guides. Christians pray to the God whom they believe truly hears and answers. That doesn’t make them “extreme,” simply people who trust in God and value a government that celebrates the freedom to do so. And, is there anyone who remembers a time when praying for guidance seemed any more critical than right now?
On the campaign trail in 1960, the questions about JFK’s religion heated up. On Sept. 12 of that year he gave a major speech to a group of Protestants at the Greater Houston Ministerial Association. As he spoke, Kennedy made a few key points that Bachmann, Romney and every other candidate should consider. Four pertinent principles embedded in Kennedy’s words need revisiting by the current slate of candidates and, even more so, by the news media.
JFK said: “Because I am a Catholic, and no Catholic has ever been elected president, the real issues in this campaign have been obscured - perhaps deliberately, ...”
SO, REMEMBER: Too often the press focuses on questions of controversy, rather than substantive issues germane to our nation’s prosperity. In the most recent debate, for example, Newt Gingrich received rousing applause when he confronted Fox News’ Chris Wallace over his “gotcha questions.”
JFK: “While this year it may be a Catholic against whom the finger of suspicion is pointed, in other years it has been, and may someday be again, a Jew or a Quaker or a Unitarian or a Baptist. … Today I may be the victim, but tomorrow it may be you…”
SO, REMEMBER: As a nation we pride ourselves on our religious “freedom.” Too often, however, the more “religious” a person, the more suspect in the eyes of the press they seem to become as qualified to lead a nation. Kennedy reminds us if the freedom of one religion is at risk, then all are.
JFK: “I ask you tonight to judge me on the basis of my record, instead of judging me on the basis of these pamphlets and publications we all have seen that carefully select quotations out of context from the statements of Catholic Church leaders.”
SO, REMEMBER: In choosing a candidate, actions speak louder than stump speeches. The press regularly extracts candidate’s statements from their original contexts and cuts away all clarifications and qualifications. They trade the factual for the sensational; behaving more like political paparazzi than journalists committed to the truth. Candidates end up being judged not by their actions or even their speeches; merely their sound bites.
JFK: “Contrary to common newspaper usage, I am not the Catholic candidate for president. I am the Democratic Party’s candidate for president, who happens also to be a Catholic. I do not speak for my church on public matters, and the church does not speak for me.”
SO, REMEMBER: Candidates should draw a clear line between being political leaders and religious ones, and be careful not to conflate the two. It is more important that our faith shape our character than merely color our rhetoric. While love of God and country are important, they are not synonymous. For a person of faith, that would be idolatry.
Among the most poignant and clever of all the words in Kennedy’s speech were these. “I do not intend to apologize for these views to my critics of either Catholic or Protestant faith,” he said, “nor do I intend to disavow either my views or my church in order to win this election.” Rather, “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.”
So, to Michele Bachmann, and all other presidential candidates seeking to lead the free world, whatever you do, please take heed to your words. It was Jesus who said, “For by your words you will be justified and by your words you will be condemned” (Matt. 12:37). History shows, your words will be scrutinized, obsessively so. Oh, that your actions would be so closely considered.
Ultimately, the speech in Houston was a game-changer. It framed the issue, engaged the conflict at hand and proved effectual in paving the way to the White House. Michelle Bachmann would be wise to take a page from JFK’s forceful and pivotal speech that ended, “if, on the other hand, I should win the election, then I will faithfully execute the office of president of the United States, and will to the best of my ability preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution, so help me God.”
Robert Crosby is a Professor of Practical Theology at Southeastern University (Lakeland, FL), a contributor to Christianity Today, and the author of several books including More Than a Savior. He writes a column on issues of faith at Patheos.com. He blogs at The Current.