Hopeful GOP nominee Mitt Romney (REUTERS/Rick Wilking)
How is it possible that all these years later, revelations about JFK and women still make headlines?

This week, there were more sordid tales coming out of Camelot, this one about 19-year-old Mimi Alford, who supposedly had an affair with Kennedy while she was serving as a White House intern. (You can insert your own Clinton joke here.)

Naturally, Alford has a book to sell. The bizarre thing is not that she has a book to sell but that there are people willing to buy it.

Nevertheless, these days, there are some things about JFK worth discussing.

Ironically enough, this has nothing to do with JFK’s sexual dalliances, but instead with his religion.

Kennedy, of course, was the first Roman Catholic to become president. He didn’t face the fire and brimstone Al Smith did in 1928, but the 1960 campaign had its fair share of anti-Irish, anti-Catholic sentiment.
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So, Kennedy famously delivered a speech before the Greater Houston Ministerial Association in 1960, attempting to confront whispers that he would be the Pope’s president.

“Because I am a Catholic, and no Catholic has ever been elected president, the real issues in this campaign have been obscured -- perhaps deliberately, in some quarters less responsible than this. So it is apparently necessary for me to state once again not what kind of church I believe in -- for that should be important only to me -- but what kind of America I believe in,” he said.

The speech was considered a bold move on Kennedy’s part. But it was also kind of sad that a member of any religious minority had to make such a speech in the first place.

The implied message was that Kennedy had to prove that he had just as much a right to run for the presidency as any Protestant.

Now, we have a Mormon running for president, Mitt Romney. And while much has been made of the rift between evangelical Protestants and Mormons, less has been noted about the way normally tolerant liberals have also raised questions about Mitt’s faith.

Romney’s “conspicuous cone of silence about this major pillar of his biography also leaves you wondering what he is trying to hide,” writes former New York Times columnist Frank Rich in the current issue of New York Magazine.

Rich goes on, “That his faith can be as secretive as he is…only whets the curiosity among the 82% of Americans who tells pollsters they know little or nothing about Mormonism.”

Secretive? Trying to hide something?

Given what folks have said about the all-powerful Vatican in the past, these very things could well have been said about JFK in 1960. And that’s a shame.

There’s a fine line between wanting to know more about a candidate’s background and equating silence with suspicious secrecy.

The late best-selling author Christopher Hitchens, before he died, declared, “we are fully entitled” to ask tough questions about how Romney’s faith shaped his political philosophy. There is, of course, a defensiveness to that declaration.

Because Hitchens and those like him know that you run the risk of seeming anti-Mormon, if not anti-religious, by pushing such questions. Hitchens, for one, was a proud atheist.

But one suspects that if the leading Republican candidate was a devout Buddhist or Jew -- or heaven forbid, Muslim -- people like Rich would be the first to view such questions as bigoted.

There is so much material to slam Romney on -- his flip-flopping, his cutthroat private sector policies, his thin political experience. Why go after his religion?

Yes, he himself speaks of God oh so much on the campaign trail. He is not the only one.

The problem, then, seems not to be Mormonism but religion in the political sphere in general. Liberals don’t like to be labeled as anti-Christian, but there are times when they make it awful easy for the right wing to do just that.

Sure, Romney could make another JFK-style speech about his religion. But would that really satisfy the critics who view him with suspicion?

As JFK said back in 1960, “For while this year it may be a Catholic against whom the finger of suspicion is pointed, in other years it has been, and may someday be again, a Jew -- or a Quaker or a
Unitarian or a Baptist.”

Or a Mormon.

(Contact Sidewalks at [email protected] or facebook.com/tomdeignan)