Mitt Romney and Al Smith

With all the attention given to the similarities and dissimilarities between Romney's speech on religion and politics and the famous JFK address, it's interesting to note the parallels between what Romney had to say and how the first Catholic nominee for the Presidency, Al Smith, rebutted a critic as part of a back-and-forth published in (where else?) the Atlantic in 1927. Like Romney, Smith first sounded a strict-separationist note, writing that:

I should be a poor American and a poor Catholic alike if I injected religious discussion into a political campaign. Therefore I would ask you to accept this answer from me not as a candidate for any public office but as an American citizen, honored with high elective office, meeting a challenge to his patriotism and his intellectual integrity.

But speaking "as an American citizen," he went on to say this:

... I am unable to understand how anything that I was taught to believe as a Catholic could possibly be in conflict with what is good citizenship. The essence of my faith is built upon the Commandments of God. The law of the land is built upon the Commandments of God. There can be no conflict between them. Instead of quarreling among ourselves over dogmatic principles, it would be infinitely better if we joined together in inculcating obedience to these Commandments in the hearts and minds of the youth of the country as the surest and best road to happiness on this earth and to peace in the world to come. This is the common ideal of all religions. What we need is more religion for our young people, not less; and the way to get more religion is to stop the bickering among our sects which can only have for its effect the creation of doubt in the minds of our youth as to whether or not it is necessary to pay attention to religion at all.

This sentiment goes a bit further even than Evangelicals and Catholics Together, I'd say. But it's certainly consonant with the theme of an ecumenical religious politics that Romney gestured at in his address.

These sorts of general arguments about religion and politics, interestingly, take up only the first third of Smith's essay; the rest is an attempt, dense with quotations from theologians and archbishops, to challenge head-on the notion that Roman Catholicism might be incongruous with American democracy. Obviously, the Republican electorate's doubts about Mormonism are much more nebulous than the fears Protestants had about Catholics and the separation of church and state, and thus less amenable to a frontal assault of this sort. But it's still interesting to see how comfortable Smith (or his ghostwriter) was delving into the finer points of Catholic teaching. (Today's candidates, by contrast, seem to be the heirs of his suggestion that we stop fretting so much about "dogmatic principles" and other details of religious faith.)