Giuliani's JFK Moment

By Richard Cohen
Tuesday, August 14, 2007

In this already dismal presidential campaign, where nary an original idea has been broached, Rudy Giuliani said something remarkable the other day. When asked if he is a "traditional, practicing, Roman Catholic," the former mayor of New York essentially told the questioner to shove off. His religion, he said, was his own private affair.

This bold statement, as old as thought but as modern as today, was downright refreshing in its reverent plea for spiritual privacy. "My religious affiliation, my religious practices and the degree to which I am a good or not so good Catholic, I prefer to leave to the priests," Giuliani said. And a good thing, too, some wag will surely add. After all, Giuliani has been married three times and presumably carried on with No. 3 while still married to No. 2. But what all this has to do with Sept. 11, national security, the need for universal medical coverage and the subprime market is beyond me.

Whether Giuliani knew it or not, he was echoing something John F. Kennedy said back in 1960. Kennedy, only the second Roman Catholic presidential nominee -- Al Smith of New York had been the first -- gave an oft-cited speech to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association in which he declared that he was not, as he put it, "the Catholic candidate for president" but the "Democratic Party's candidate for president who happens also to be a Catholic." In this way, Kennedy was attempting to rebut the bigoted smear that he would, if president, be taking orders from the Vatican.

But Kennedy made two other points in that speech that bear repeating. The first was that "far more critical issues" faced the country than a presidential candidate's religion. The same, of course, is true today. Just for starters, there's an agonizing war in Iraq that needs to end in a fashion that will not turn a mistake into a debacle -- for Iraq, for the region and for the security of Americans here in the United States.

But second, and to my mind just as important, Kennedy's speech was an affirmation of rational thought -- a promise to deal with the great issues of state in a secular manner. Nowhere in the speech did JFK renounce his Catholicism or say it didn't matter to him. But he did make clear that as president he would make decisions in "accordance with what my conscience tells me to be in the national interest." In other words, he would use his noodle.

Contrast JFK, or for that matter Giuliani, with Mitt Romney, the likely GOP presidential nominee and possibly the next president of the United States. In a recent interview with Jan Mickelson on Des Moines' WHO Radio, Romney tried being JFKish, insisting (during commercial breaks that, of course, made it onto YouTube) that he was "not running as a Mormon." He said that several times, but his protestations, while laudable, sounded a bit hollow. That's because at other times, Romney has cited the Bible to explain why he holds this or that position. He not only has emphasized his Christian bona fides -- "the Bible for me is the word of God" -- but he has cited the Bible to explain why he opposes gay marriage. Marriage, the Bible says, is for procreation.

For a lawmaker, gay marriage is and ought to be a policy matter: good policy or bad policy, fair to gays or unfair to gays. Once this or any other issue becomes a matter of religious conviction, it's removed from the arena of public debate. George Bush has done this sort of thing time and time again -- sometimes explicitly, as in his cockamamie belief in the efficacy of premarital celibacy, and sometimes implicitly, as in his dogmatic faith in a happy outcome in Iraq, one that requires a rejection of evidence and a reliance instead on magical thinking. In him we see the sometimes sorry consequence of religious conviction: a cheery but unassailable smugness.

Romney took a badgering from Mickelson, who established himself (on the spot) as something of an expert on the Mormon faith. I thought Romney handled himself well, but no presidential candidate ought to have to explain his religious beliefs since, in many cases, they are inconsistent and change over time. But if Romney wants to keep his Mormonism out of political bounds -- as it should be -- he ought to extend the boundaries to religion in general. He cannot have it both ways -- as he has with abortion, gun control and, even, gay rights. He's a hedger who, it is clear, could use some pastoral clarity. Rudy can show him the way.

cohenr@washpost.com


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