Is This Romney's Kennedy Moment?

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Paul Schutzer / Time Life Pictures / Getty; Brian Snyder / Reuters

John F. Kennedy speaks to Protestant Ministers in 1960; Mitt Romney in December.

Whenever a presidential candidate decides to give a speech about religious faith, he is taking his political career into his own hands.

That's chiefly because while the vast majority of Americans undoubtedly want their President to be a person of genuine faith, the consensus ends about right there. The kind of faith voters are looking for is harder to pinpoint. Americans want their President to be tolerant, reflective and well-versed in some religious tradition more than they want a strict adherence to any particular religious doctrine.

Mitt Romney's vow to deliver a speech on Thursday about faith and politics will probably end up being general in nature, as much about our faith as his. Romney, a Mormon, decided to give the address around the time he fell behind Mike Huckabee in Iowa, where an outsize proportion of the state's Republicans are evangelical Christians and in some cases take a dim view of Mormonism.

Romney's remarks have been compared to John F. Kennedy's famous 1960 speech in Houston about the role his Catholicism would play if he were elected. In that speech, Kennedy told a group of (mostly Baptist) Texas preachers that if he ever faced a choice between violating his conscience or the national interest, he would resign the office.

But there are a host of differences between the predicament facing Kennedy 47 years ago and the one facing Romney today.

The first is context. Kennedy was in the last weeks of a general election campaign. Romney has yet to be tested in a single primary. Kennedy gave his speech after an assembly of 150 anti-Catholic clergy issued a 2,000-word manifesto stating that no Catholic President could really be free of Vatican control. Though some Evangelical leaders have been publicly critical of Mormonism, no such charge has been laid at Romney's door. And though both men chose Texas as the place to give their remarks, the venues are very different. Kennedy spoke in the lion's den, addressing the greater Houston Ministerial Association, an alliance of Baptist preachers who found the whole idea of a Catholic in the White House almost beyond comprehension. By making his stand at the Bush Library in College Station, Romney is on the far safer ground of a college campus — and deep inside the Bush dynasty's official shrine to boot. If Romney were really following Kennedy's footsteps, he'd be addressing a small group of evangelical preachers — and then letting them ask questions, the way Kennedy did. That speech, which was greeted with a standing ovation, effectively settled the religious issue in the campaign.

The second crucial difference is demographic. By 1960 there were 35 to 40 million Catholics in the U.S., strategically settled in a dozen swing states from the Northeast across the Midwest. Those voters had in many cases gone for Eisenhower. Kennedy wanted to bring them home to the Democrats. Playing the religion card might have helped Richard Nixon in southern and border states, where he was already strong, but would have cost him in swing industrial states that he badly needed to win, so Nixon made a point of telling his people not to raise the religious issue (a plea that was not heeded by everyone in Nixon's coalition).

Like Kennedy and his Catholics, Romney presumably has a lock on the Mormon vote. But that bloc is much smaller, perhaps five or six million strong. And instead of being concentrated in swing states, Mormons reside largely in intermountain states that for the most part are already solidly Republican. In the key states where Romney faces an early test, he isn't likely to find many Mormons, no matter what he says on Thursday.

Then there are the differing thresholds. For one thing, Kennedy needed to lower the fears of Vatican control of American policy, so he could flatly state that he would not be taking orders from Rome and that his faith was a private matter. Romney at a minimum needs to do that — to say that even though Mormons believe that the head of their church is a prophet who receives God's living word, he would not be taking orders from Salt Lake City — but must do more. Kennedy could wall off his private beliefs from his public policy and be fine, since Democrats especially were happy to keep the two apart. But Romney is in — let's not forget — a Republican primary fight, where base voters want to know that your faith informs your policy. It's almost a disqualifier to say it has no real influence on you.

Kennedy and his team thought the problem they faced was ignorance, which could be addressed by educating voters. But Evangelicals believe Mormonism is a faith that views the Bible as requiring revision, and that when Romney says Christ is his Saviour, he doesn't mean it the same way evangelicals do. Those aren't misunderstandings, they are real differences of faith. As a Romney-backing Evangelical told me in October, "Some of my people — a lot of them — are just never going to go there."

And that brings up another crucial difference between Romney's predicament and Kennedy's. You could call it the fervor gap. Like the Southern Baptists, Mormons are a professing religion: they want to spread the word, win converts, save souls. This isn't a problem for a lot of Americans. But it is a problem for many conservative Christians. Many of them believe that if the G.O.P. nominates Romney — much less if the country elects him as President — Mormons will gain a stronger hand in the all-important business of saving souls. To them, the stakes of that struggle are as great or greater than any fight about a political office.