The biggest difference between Romney's speech and Kennedy's can be summed up in one word - audience. Kennedy's audience was the Harvard-educated elite of the Democratic Party, suspicious of religion in general, and certainly wary of what was considered the "mummery" of the Catholic Church in pre-Vatican II days. In many ways, Roman Catholicism seemed antithetical to the American Spirit in those heady days of post-Cold War Baby Boom American triumphalism. The mass was still recited in Latin. A 19th century papal encyclical listing democracy, religious freedom, and liberalism as among the evils of the modern world to be resisted by Roman Catholics had yet to be repudiated. One of the biggest radio personalities of the time (and, yes, radio was a media player at the time) was Bishop Fulton J. Sheen, among the most reactionary public figures America produced, next to Joseph McCarthy.
Kennedy was seekiing to reassure those who might want to support him that his allegiance was to the American Constitution and our history of separation between church and state. There were many who just couldn't bring themselves to support a man who, it seemed, was willing to lay his conscience and faith life at the feet of a Roman Prince.
Romney's speech is not at all directed at non-sectarian, anti-Catholic liberals. Romney's speech is directed at zealot evangelicals who view his particular brand of religious belief as heresy. It is all well and good that Romney has seemed to toss aside a lifetime's worth of political achievements and beliefs in order to pander to the religious conservatives who, mostly for ill, still control the nominating process in the Republican Party. Yet, for all that, he is still a Mormon, and to many evangelical Christians, this is little different from calling oneself a Wiccan - error is error, heresy is heresy, and Mormonism is both.
By giving this speech, Romney hit all the right notes for his target audience. Here's a sample:
There are some who may feel that religion is not a matter to be seriously considered in the context of the weighty threats that face us. If so, they are at odds with the nation's founders, for they, when our nation faced its greatest peril, sought the blessings of the Creator. And further, they discovered the essential connection between the survival of a free land and the protection of religious freedom. In John Adams' words: "We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion. ... Our Constitution," he said, "was made for a moral and religious people."
Freedom requires religion just as religion requires freedom. Freedom opens the windows of the soul so that man can discover his most profound beliefs and commune with God. Freedom and religion endure together, or perish alone.
This is standard boilerplate, historically inaccurate, philosophically and factually dubious, but what we've been hearing for decades from people who wish to turn our founders from careful, rational Deists in to frothing, tongue-speaking charismatics. That's fine, because no matter how often this tripe is refuted, it keeps popping up, so my dismissal of it is as de rigeur as Romney's recitation - it is to be expected.
There is more of this kind of thing, what I call "standard boilerplate", a little further down. I do not know whether or not Gov. Romney actually believes any of this or not; I do not really care. His record as governor of Massachusetts belies much of the rhetoric presented here, and so my deeper concern is with the crass opportunism and sheer audacity Romney displays by suddenly spouting out tropes set forth two decades ago by such egregious persons as Jerry Falwell. Here's one passage that some, including Ezra Klein, have highlighted, as troubling:
[I]n 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's as if they are intent on establishing a new religion in America - the religion of secularism.They are wrong.
The founders proscribed the establishment of a state religion, but they did not countenance the elimination of religion from the public square. We are a nation "under God" and in God, we do indeed trust.(emphasis added)
This is the classic bait and switch, along with the declaration that "secularism" is actually a "religion". The bait and switch is easy to see: the bait is religious freedom as a good; the switch is the dire warning of "taking God out of the public square". This kind of thing first appeared when the Supreme Court declared that school prayers, written by officials and required of all students, was unconstitutional. It is nonsensical, and dangerous, as well as theologically inane. Yet, Romney repeats it here for no other reason than that it is part and parcel of the rhetoric of the Christian right.
All in all, this was an uninspired performance, leaving as many questions as answers in my own mind. For his intended audience, however, I am quite sure it served the purpose of reassuring them that he could hit all the right notes of the song they've been singing for years. One does wonder, however, if this song should be sung.