BOSTON –Four decades after John F. Kennedy reassured a nervous electorate that a Catholic could be president, another Massachusetts politician with presidential ambitions is hoping to break a different religious glass ceiling at the White House.
Republican Gov. Mitt Romney, who is testing the waters for a 2008 presidential run, would be the first Mormon to serve in the Oval Office.
But unlike Kennedy, who downplayed his Catholic roots to convince voters that as president he would answer to the American public and not the Vatican, Romney has been publicly supporting key social issues backed by conservative Catholics in Massachusetts.
That makes political sense, according to observers who say Romney’s support for issues close to the heart for Catholic leaders in his home state could resonate with conservative Republican voters outside Massachusetts — especially those who might otherwise be leery about supporting a Mormon.
“He’s showing and demonstrating that the social and moral values he possesses as a Mormon are identical to those of conservative Catholics and conservative Protestants,” said Rick Beltram, chairman of the Spartanburg County Republican Party in South Carolina.
Last year, Romney sided with the Catholic church’s efforts to resist a law requiring hospitals to offer emergency contraception to rape victims, although he later backed off. He recently filed a bill that would exempt the church from a state law requiring they consider same-sex couples when putting children up for adoption.
Romney’s ties the Catholic church — the dominant religion in Massachusetts — have become so close he was invited to Rome to attend Boston Archbishop Sean O’Malley’s elevation to cardinal at the Vatican.
Romney’s alliance with Catholic leaders on conservative social issues like abortion and gay marriage could reap political rewards as he seeks to cultivate support outside Massachusetts among conservative Christians, one of the Republican Party’s core constituencies.
That’s particularly important as Romney courts evangelical voters, some of whom don’t consider Mormons true Christians, according to Douglas Laycock, a church-state expert at the University of Texas law school.
“It helps with a lot with Protestants, because it speaks to the issue of whether they (Mormons) are outside the realm of Christianity,” he said. “It’s increasingly common for conservative believers of all faiths — Catholics, Protestants, Mormons, Orthodox Jews, even some Muslims — to see themselves as having things in common.”
“They have very different theologies, but they all agree religion is important,” he said.
Romney, 59, said he differs with the Catholic church in some areas — he would allow abortion in the case of rape, incest, or the life of the mother — but said that on many social issues, he sees eye to eye, not only with Catholics but with other people of faith.
“I do believe that religious institutions help provide social stability and structure which enhances our community and our nation, and I believe that the Catholic church has been an important contributor to this community as have other churches,” he said. “By and large, people of faith are going to have similar views on many issues.”
On Beacon Hill, Romney has become one of the church’s strongest supporters.
When church leaders sought an exemption from the state’s anti-discrimination law to allow its social service arm, Catholic Charities, to avoid placing adoptive children with gay parents, Romney rushed to support it, filing a bill that would create a religious exemption.
The church got far less support from Senate President Robert Travaglini and House Speaker Salvatore DiMasi, both Catholics and Boston Democrats, who oppose the exemption.
Not all conservative Catholics in Massachusetts are enamored of Romney. C.J. Doyle, executive director of the Catholic Action League, faulted Romney for not trying to push through a religious exemption administratively rather than filing a bill that will likely fail.
“He can tell evangelicals and pro-lifers around the country that he’s fighting for religious freedom, but he knows that there are simply no votes in the Legislature to procure that exemption,” he said.
Although religion was a factor in the 1960 election, John F. Kennedy faced an entirely different set of issues, Laycock said.
“The issue with Catholics and Kennedy was this long-standing fear of Protestants of the Pope and that all Catholics take orders from the Pope,” he said. “People don’t see Mormons as subordinate to a foreign authority.”
Sen. Edward Kennedy, said he hoped his brother’s campaign for president was the last time a candidate’s religion comes up as an issue.
“President Kennedy in the 1960 election put, hopefully, to bed the issue of an individual’s religion as a qualification for presidency of the United States,” Kennedy said.
Romney’s father, former Michigan Gov. George Romney, briefly ran for president in 1968. But religion didn’t become much of a sticking point because his campaign was derailed after he said he was brainwashed into supporting the Vietnam War.
Nancy Ammerman, professor of sociology of religion at Boston University, said the ability of people of different religions to reach across faith lines for political goals is something relatively new in American politics.
Ammerman dates the shift to the 1980s and the rise of the Rev. Jerry Falwell and the Moral Majority as a political force in national politics. The organization reached across religious lines to push a socially conservative agenda, including opposition to abortion and gay rights.
Before that shift, Ammerman said, “the thought that an evangelical would cooperate with a Catholic who would cooperate with a Mormon who would cooperate with a Jew would have been unthinkable.”
Now the idea of social conservatives of different faiths banding together for political clout is commonplace, she said. That’s one reason why the Pope can carry political clout with some non-Catholics who agree with his stand on social issues.
“Many people today are much more willing to listen to a world religious leader who is not of their faith than they were a generation ago,” she said.
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