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The Mormon Question

A Commentary By Susan Estrich

Back in 1980, when I was working for Sen. Ted Kennedy, the Cardinal of Boston instructed priests to take to their pulpits to denounce the candidacy of Democratic Congressman Barney Frank because of his support for abortion rights. "Get me my brother's speech," the senator said to me.

Anyone who is a student of politics knows what speech that was. On Sept. 12, 1960, facing the question of whether he would take his orders from Rome as the first Catholic president, presidential candidate John Kennedy went to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association "to state once again -- not what kind of church I believe in, for that should be important only to me -- but what kind of America I believe in."

It is a speech that at least 20 percent of all Americans -- those who responded to a Gallup poll this week saying that if their party nominated a generally well-qualified person for president who happened to be Mormon, they would not vote for him -- apparently disagree with.

John F. Kennedy: "I believe in an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant nor Jewish; where no public official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the Pope, the National Council of Churches or any other ecclesiastical source; where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials, and where religious liberty is so indivisible that an act against one church is treated as an act against all."

John Kennedy recognized the lesson so perfectly expressed by German Pastor Martin Niemoller: "First they came for the communists, and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a communist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a Jew. Then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak out."

And so, the future president explained in 1960: "For 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."  

Or a Mormon. 

As a Democrat, I might be pleased that two of the strongest and most qualified candidates for the Republican nomination for president, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, start out so far behind because both are Mormons. But who could be pleased just because the victim is someone else? If I am pleased because they are the victims, who will stand up for me when I am? 

Of course religion matters in politics. My Jewish values shape my political beliefs. Black ministers were among the architects of the civil rights movement. The list goes on.  

But it is one thing to bring our religious values to politics, to find in those values our commitments to equality and decency and charity. It is quite another to believe, as one in five of us seems to, that a person's private religious beliefs and values should count more than his public positions; that our willingness to vote for a candidate properly turns on whether he worships God as we do.  

Two Mormons are running for president. There will be much talk over the coming year about the Mormon question -- that is, whether a Mormon can be elected. That is not, in the end, a question about Romney and Huntsman, but about the rest of us and what kind of country we really are. Or as President Kennedy recognized: "Today, I may be the victim, but tomorrow it may be you -- until the whole fabric of our harmonious society is ripped apart at a time of great national peril." 


See Other Political Commentaries.

See Other Commentaries by Susan Estrich.

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