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The Finger of Suspicion

PRIDE, a legacy, an established machine - all add to the reelection drive of long-time politicians. This is particularly true of Sen. Edward Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts, who is locked in a horse race with newcomer Mitt Romney, a businessman and former Mormon bishop.

Were this race the usual walk for Senator Kennedy, his campaign would likely not have raised the issue of Mr. Romney's religious background last month. But in an era of anti-incumbency and ``change,'' the Kennedy people decided not to take a chance. They made mention of Romney's Mormon faith in what appeared to be an effort to taint him for Massachussetts' urban voters, to whom, as one local writer noted, ``even Methodists seem exotic.''

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This is not the kind of campaign strategy one stays with for long in the East Coast media, where for all their secular slant, civil liberties are taken seriously. The national media picked up the story even as Kennedy backed off the strategy, with which he never seemed quite comfortable. Still, it was effective. Many voters hadn't known Romney was a Mormon. The press felt obliged to raise questions of public and private issues of faith, and to what extent the two come together, for potential high officeholders. Romney rightly fought back, pointing out that the senator's brother, President John F. Kennedy, had set the standard for nonprejudicial campaigning in 1960 when his own Roman Catholic faith came up. In a powerful speech before a group of ministers, candidate Kennedy had argued: ``I believe in an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant, or Jewish.... For while this year it may be a Catholic against whom the finger of suspicion is pointed, it has been and may someday be again a Jew or a Quaker or a Unitarian or a Baptist. Today I may be the victim, but tomorrow it may be you.''

Senator Kennedy's campaign ``questioned'' Romney's position on women and blacks in the Mormon church in the 1970s. Kennedy's own recent criticism of the lack of women in the Catholic hierarchy was rebuked by the local cardinal. But since Kennedy's remarks came only two months ago, they seem part of a preemptive strategy to raise Romney's faith in a negative way.

This seems the main issue. America is tribal enough. Questions about a candidate's character are fair. Specific religious beliefs may play a role; they may not. In most cases they don't - as the service given to this country by countless men and women of every faith attests. But the issue, if raised, must be treated seriously, and those who raise the issue must make the case for bringing it up at all. The senator did not do this. The strategy seems purely for vote-getting and further weakens public understanding of religion and faith; it harms the civil discourse on church and state. We know the quality of Senator Kennedy's staff, some of whom are the brightest on Capitol Hill. Perhaps it was they who convinced the campaign to drop the tactic. It should remain dropped.

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