Anybody see this past Tuesday in Iowa where Rudy Giuliani bridled when asked about his Catholic religion at a forum of Republican presidential hopefuls? He told the questioner: ‘My religious affiliation…and the degree to which I am a good or not so good Catholic, I prefer to leave to the priests.” (Speaking strictly as an ex-Catholic and not in my Dirty Tricks Detective mode, I might advise Rudy not to leave that particular determination up to the priests or he’ll be reciting “Hail Mary’s” at the altar rail for the next decade)
Rudy in particular has been bedeviled by religious questions, because he has been three-times married and because he’s pro-choice (well, kinda, sorta). But questions have hit Republican candidate Mitt Romney, as well. On Wednesday, on his way to his predicted victory in the Iowa Straw Poll, Mitt lost it when a talk radio host questioner kept probing his Mormonism, in light of Mitt’s admission that he was “effectively pro-choice” in 1992. Mitt replied testily: “My religion is for me and how I live my life. So don’t confuse what I do as a member of my faith and what I think should be done by government.”
Mitt will, it is rumored, make a speech this fall directly addressing his religion. This is a page taken from the playbook of John F. Kennedy, who managed to successfully defuse the issue of his Catholicism during the 1960 campaign by making a passionate address to a prominent group of Protestant ministers in Houston.
The issue of religion was not nearly as tough for Kennedy as it was for Democrat Al Smith in 1928. Smith was the first Catholic candidate to run for president. During the campaign, Republican operatives distributed literature claiming that the Holland Tunnel, dug while Smith was Governor of New York, really ran straight under the Atlantic Ocean to the Vatican, where Smith held secret chats with the Pope.
And Kennedy—like Romney, when he excoriates talk show hosts—wasn’t above playing the victim to garner sympathy. Long after the issue of Catholicism was defused, Kennedy operatives would ask voters: “Do you think they’re going to keep Kennedy from being president just because he is Catholic?”
What about religious issues for the current crop of godless Democrats? None so far, but a page from Anything for a Vote (you can preorder here) should stand as a warning to them. In 1908, as William Howard Taft, then Teddy Roosevelt’s vice-president, was running for president, he was attacked savagely because he was, of all things, a Unitarian. One religious newspaper thundered: “Think of the United States with a President who doesn’t believe that Jesus Christ was the Son of God, but looks upon our immaculate savior as common bastard and low cunning imposter!”
Things got so bad that Teddy Roosevelt was forced to publicly attend Unitarian services with Taft, in the hopes, he said, sweetly, “that it would attract the attention of the sincere but rather ignorant Protestants who support me.”