In politics religious factor can be constructive

The question no longer is: Do religion and politics in America mix? Despite constitutional and judicial admonitions to separate church and state, the fact is that religion does impact on politics at all levels. And even the staunchest defenders of the wall between these two forces are beginning to see some good in this.

Does that mean we are heading toward denominational candidates - Protestant pitted against Jew at the ballot box? A Roman Catholic seeking office because of his religious stands? State aid to parochial schools and prescribed prayer in the classroom?

By no means!

What it does mean is that moral and spiritual dimensions are taking their rightful place and will be weighed with other considerations by the electorate.

So the pertinent question now is: How do religion and politics mix? Or more appropriately, how should they mix?

There appear to be some common answers, even among such diverse interests as the religious right, the religious left, and the ecumenical and academic communities. At a recent conference on religion and the campaign for public office, hosted by Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, general agreement surfaced among these groups that religious considerations are an important, if not healthy, element in electoral quests. However, the definitions of ''religion ,'' as applied to politics, vary greatly.

Many theologians and political figures tend to talk of religion, not along denominational lines, but in terms of ethical values. Divinity Prof. Harvey Cox says, ''Politics without morality is reduced to the art of brokerage.'' He explains that, historically, Jews and Christians alike have been concerned with human justice: ''The purpose of public policy is to seek justice . . . and to remind (political) leaders of who God is and the role of God.''

But doesn't this lead to linking Deity with particular issues - and adopting an absolute stance of pro-God and anti-God positions? Some Christian fundamentalists insist that those who favor abortion and oppose prayer in the schools, for example, affront Christianity. Others say, however, that religious and spiritual values should permeate one's thinking about political decisions - but should not dictate denominational stands on political issues.

Mayor William H. Hudnut III of Indianapolis, a former Presbyterian minister who still mounts the pulpit at times, points out the dangers of religious ''absolutism'' in politics. He warns of the tendency to equate a specific candidate or a political point of view with ''the will of God'': ''We must not claim that those who do not have the 'truth' are not entitled to full citizenship,'' he says.

Various groups perceive a whole host of campaign issues as religious. For instance, some liberals - including US Roman Catholic bishops and many representatives of the National Council of Churches and the American Jewish Committee - advocate a nuclear freeze on religious and moral grounds. The Moral Majority and fundamentalist Christian groups, on the other hand, feel rearmament of the United States is necessary in order to defend the nation against what they see as heathen communist and socialist influences. Some others see equal rights for women and equality for blacks and racial minorities as a spiritual goal. Still others lobby for school prayer and tax credits, and against abortion and pornography, on religious grounds.

Controversy arises over which presidential aspirant best represents the religious community. Ronald Reagan talks frequently about restoring ''religious values in public life.'' Walter Mondale, the son of a minister, professes commitment to moral and spiritual ideals. Jesse Jackson, himself a Baptist minister, has enlisted black preachers and their congregations to support his campaign financially. And Gary Hart, a former theology student, says he embraces nonmaterialistic values.

In the past, the so-called religious factor has been a mixed blessing to presidential candidates. Some believe Al Smith's Catholicism defeated him in 1928. President Kennedy's Catholicism in 1960, however, may have helped elect him. Jimmy Carter ran successfully as a ''born again'' Christian in 1976. However, this label did little for him in his race against Ronald Reagan in 1980 .

Polls show that religion is a variable factor in determining voter behavior. For instance, last year a survey by the Center for Religious Research at Emory University in Atlanta found that the public - including fundamentalists - ranked television evangelists last in a list of seven factors influencing their ballot decisions. The candidates themselves and the voter's family and friends were seen as most important. This same poll indicated that voters opposed churches' endorsing candidates or contributing financially to political campaigns. And very few of those interviewed wanted clergy to take stands on such issues as the Equal Rights Amendment, abortion, poverty, and racial discrimination.

What then are the religious issues that increasingly permeate campaigns? Mayor Hudnut says they tend to stem from ethical and moral questions. For example: To what extent is a politician indebted to those who give him money? Should a candidate allow negative influences, such as mud-slinging, out-and-out lies, and vendettas, to sway his campaign? Is it necessary for a seeker of public office to do almost anything to get elected? Does the end justify the means?

Those at the Harvard conference tended to agree that the public today is very sensitive to these considerations. And in a system devoted to religious pluralism and justice for all, this sensitivity suggests that religion and politics ought to mix - on the least intrusive and most productive plane.

Rabbi Arthur Lelyfeld of Cleveland says that ''religion should be an agent of reconciliation and understanding - rather than of divisiveness.'' And the Rev. Charles Stith, pastor of the Union United Methodist Church in Boston, reminds us that ''winning or losing is not the bottom line. . . . We must be convinced that God is the ultimate arbiter of history,'' he says.

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