SEN. Edward Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts has backed off, for the moment at least, from his attack on the religion of his Republican opponent Mitt Romney - none too soon.
After months of repeating that he would not make an issue of Mr. Romney's Mormonism (so often that some felt an issue was indeed being made of it), the senator wondered aloud recently about Romney's views on racial and gender justice: After all, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints began ordaining black men only in 1978, and still does not ordain women.
Romney shot back by invoking John Kennedy's stand against religious bigotry when he ran for president in 1960, addressing the ``divided loyalty'' question before the Greater Houston Ministerial Association. Romney said, ``In my view the victory that John Kennedy won was not for just 40 million Americans who were born Catholic, it was for all Americans of all faiths.''
Today, Senator Kennedy's Catholic faith has a numerical superiority over Mormons in Massachusetts far greater than Protestants had over Catholics in the country as a whole in 1960. Still, a flabbergasted-sounding Kennedy aide said, ``Invoking the dead president's name for political purposes was reprehensible.''
It wasn't. Even Kennedy supporters have blasted him on this one, calling on him to retreat to the high ground of his considerable public-service record. But Romney is a stronger opponent than Kennedy has ever faced in his Senate career - a political newcomer himself, but a son of former Gov. George Romney (R) of Michigan, part of the parties moderate, pro-civil rights wing. Kennedy launched his religion offensive as polls showed him and Romney tied.
Mark Roosevelt, the Democratic candidate in this year's gubernatorial race in Massachusetts, was quoted as saying, ``I believe there are fit questions to be asked about anyone's religious beliefs if they have an intersection with public policy.''
But Mr. Roosevelt (a great-grandson of Theodore) took the right principle and applied it wrong. Arguments for an all-white or all-male priesthood cut no ice with this writer, but if a church can't decide who holds its sacred offices, what are constitutional guarantees of religious freedom for?
The fair questions are those about how religious convictions frame a candidate's public policy positions. We want to be confident that our public servants have no hidden agenda, but no one should have to submit his theological views to popular approval. In a pluralistic society, it may be appropriate, and not hypocritical, for individuals to distinguish between private convictions and public-policy positions. Neither Mormonism nor Catholicism is a democracy; political candidates should not be required to take on their church power structures.
Is there a double standard here? No one seems to mind that Roosevelt's running mate is an Episcopal priest.
We want to know our political candidates as whole men and women. We want to know where and how they grew up, where they went to school, what traditions and experiences formed them. Religion, or the lack of it, is part of that formation.
To deny religious values a place in politics would leave the leaven out of the lump. To use religion as a shorthand to distinguish Like Us from Not Like Us is reprehensible.